Albert Einstein: A Complicated Life

‘Albert Einstein, 1879–1955’ [1947] Orren Jack Turner

Albert Einstein was a genius who spent much of his adult life serving as a teacher. Initially he couldn’t get into the engineering school he aspired to attend, but later taught even there. He fell in love with an older woman with whom he had a mentally challenged child, another who developed mental illness and a third who also served as an educator. Einstein’s greatest theories sprang from him in a short amount of time when he was also advancing in his career as an academic and family man. His three primary papers have become the foundation for much of the scientific world’s platform for the study of space, time and atomic energy. Einstein’s success was followed by a torturous divorce and estrangement from his children. He remarried, to a first cousin who nursed him through a debilitating illness. He immigrated to the United States to teach at Princeton. He gave the money that accompanied his Nobel Prize to his ex-wife because he’d promised her his purse if she would give him a divorce. His son, a teacher also, was at his side when he died.

Modest beginnings
Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany. Around 1886, he began his school career in Munich. He studied violin and piano and continued to play into adulthood. In 1894 his family moved to Milan, Italy, but he remained in Munich. In 1895 he failed an exam that would have allowed him to study for a diploma as an electrical engineer at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich. Instead, he attended secondary school at Aarau, planning to enter the ETH through scholastic accomplishment. Ultimately he graduated in 1900 as a teacher of mathematics and physics. By 1901, he had a temporary job as a math teacher at the Technical High School in Winterthur. After that, he was employed in another temporary position teaching in a private school in Schaffhausen. While teaching, Einstein was dually employed as a technical expert in the patent office in Bern from 1902 to 1909.

Nucleus of discovery
In 1905, at the age of 26, Einstein published fundamental contributions to three different areas of physics, a unique event in the history of science. Einstein earned a doctorate from the University of Zurich in 1905 for a thesis on a new determination of molecular dimensions. After 1905, he made important contributions to quantum theory, but he sought to extend the special theory of relativity to phenomena involving acceleration. The key appeared in 1907 with the principle of equivalence, in which gravitational acceleration was held to be indistinguishable from acceleration caused by mechanical forces. Gravitational mass was therefore identical with inertial mass. Today, the practical applications of Einstein’s theories include the development of the television, remote control devices, automatic door openers, lasers, and DVD-players.

Einstein’s theories are reviewed here in a text published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.

Raising the bar
In 1908 Einstein became a lecturer at the University of Bern after submitting his thesis for the constitution of radiation following from the energy distribution law of black bodies. The following year he became professor of physics at the University of Zurich, having resigned his lectureship at Bern and his job in the patent office. By 1909, Einstein was recognized as a leading scientific thinker and was appointed a full professor at the Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1911. He was the youngest to attend the invitation-only Solvay Conference in Brussels, the first world physics conference. Then he began a new phase of his gravitational research with the help of his mathematician friend Marcel Grossmann. There was competition between the two men but Grossmann eventually let Einstein have the credit. Einstein called his latest work the general theory of relativity. He moved from Prague to Zurich in 1912 to take up a chair at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich. He returned to Germany in 1914. He accepted a research position in the Prussian Academy of Sciences together with a chair (but no teaching duties) at the University of Berlin. Einstein published late in 1915 the definitive version of the general theory of relativity. In 1921, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize for those contributions. He received the Prize in 1922. Einstein immigrated to the United States in 1933 and took up residence in Princeton, New Jersey, to serve as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Personal complications
In 1903 Einstein married Mileva Maric, a Serbian mathematician who, at the age of 21, in 1896 enrolled in the Swiss Federal Polytechnic — the same year as Einstein who was nearly four years younger than she. At the time, Mileva was the only woman studying in the mathematical section of the School for Mathematics and Science teachers. By some reports, she gave birth to a mentally challenged daughter with Einstein before they married. The child, Lieserl, died. After their wedding, Mileva’s career ended and she gave birth to two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard. Nine years after Eduard’s birth, in 1919, the couple divorced and Einstein remarried his second wife and cousin, Elsa.

Einstein’s relationship with his family would continue to be painfully embittered. He offered Mileva the money from the Nobel Prize he fully expected to win someday if she would give him a divorce. She considered the offer for a week, then took the bet. When he won a few years later she was able to buy three apartment buildings in Zurich with the money. Mileva died in 1948.

Eduard was mentally ill and confined to an asylum near Zurich. Hans Albert went to the Zurich Polytechnic, where his parents had met, studied engineering, and later became a hydraulic engineering professor at the University of California in Berkeley. He would be at the bedside when his father died at the age of 76 in 1955, in Princeton — 40 years after the tumultuous year when he conquered his theory of gravity while wrestling with the emotional and confounding drama of his family life.

Psychiatrist & Writer — Writing and meditating at the intersection of psychiatry, philosophy, Buddhism and the arts. More information at www.lidaprypchan.com