The Human Side of Science: Edison and Tesla, Watson and Crick, and Other Personal Stories behind Science's Big Ideas (2016)

Chapter 9: Part 1: Albert Einstein, Marcel Grossmann, Mileva Marić, and Michele Besso Struggle with Relativity

Albert Einstein (1879–1955), Time magazine's Person of the Century, certainly set the tone for twentieth-century physics. This honor was bestowed on the grounds that he was preeminent among the many scientists in a century dominated by science. Time's editors believed that the twentieth century “will be remembered foremost for its science and technology,”1 and that their awardee, Albert Einstein, “serves as a symbol of all the scientists—such as Heisenberg, Bohr, Richard Feynman…who built upon his work.”2 Interestingly, the vast majority of Einstein's work was accomplished early in the century—from 1905 to 1918—so his scientific colleagues had plenty of time to surpass him—but none did.


Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Image courtesy of the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Certainly his scientific prowess was amazing, but Einstein's influence goes way beyond science. He has been described as Charlie Chaplinesque, a cartoonist's dream with a recognizable face, mustache and hair, a quote machine, an internationalist, a pacifist, and a womanizer…in short, his humanity shines brightly.

In this chapter and the next, we will explore Albert Einstein's human activities and interactions, many of which informed and influenced his revolutionary scientific ideas, and others that are just, well, eccentric. He's definitely someone who would rank high on any “What historical person would you like to go to dinner with?” competition.


Hermann Einstein (1847–1902). From Wikimedia Commons, user Materialscientist.


Although Albert Einstein's father, Hermann (1847–1902), looks severe in his pictures, he was anything but. As a youth in Stuttgart, he enjoyed mathematics, but family finances were such that he needed a more practical education, and so he apprenticed as a merchant. He was a mild fellow who tended to consider all options very carefully before making any decisions. For a while, he sold feather beds in Ulm, making many friends but little money. Then, he married up.


Pauline Koch Einstein (1858–1920). From Wikimedia Commons, user Materialscientist.

Pauline Koch (1858–1920) came from a well-to-do family of corn merchants from Cannstatt, Württemberg. She was quiet, well educated, and had an inclination toward the arts, especially music. Pauline married Hermann Einstein when she was eighteen years old. The couple lived in Ulm, in a region called Swabia, where the Rhine and Danube Rivers are only a few miles apart and flow in opposite directions.

Before she turned twenty-one, Pauline bore their first child, Albert, on March 14, 1879. Albert's head was overly large and misshapen at birth, causing concern for his parents, but it soon assumed a normal shape. Albert didn't please his Grandmother Koch, though. She proclaimed him “fat, much too fat.”3


Albert Einstein at age three. From Wikimedia Commons, user Craigboy.

The earliest known picture of Albert Einstein shows a nonchalant fellow of age three. He had been very quiet, not even attempting to speak words until he was well past two. However, one of his early exclamations was quite memorable. When his sister, Maja, was born before Albert was three, he had evidently been promised a new toy. When his parents brought his sister home, Albert asked, “Yes, but where does it have its small wheels?”4


Maja and Albert Einstein, 1886. From Wikimedia Commons, user Materialscientist.

Maja Einstein (1881–1951) was born in Munich, where the family had moved when Hermann left the featherbed business for something more modern. Hermann and his brother Jakob had started an electrical business. The Einstein Brothers (their company name) manufactured direct-current dynamos and meters, and their major success was to supply lighting for the 1885 Munich Oktoberfest. Their chief competitor, Siemens's alternating-current system, soon created business problems for the Einsteins as Tesla/Westinghouse's efforts had done for Edison in the United States (recall chapter 7).


While they lived in Munich, the Einsteins shared a big house with Uncle Jakob and his family. They had a garden, flowers, trees and a lake nearby. Their house was an active place, with many relatives coming and going, one of whom was Elsa Einstein, three years Albert's senior. Elsa's mother and Albert's mother were sisters, and her father and Albert's father were first cousins, making her a cousin on both sides. Albert's first years of school were at a Catholic school. He called the teachers “sergeants” who rapped the knuckles of anyone who didn't answer immediately. Violin lessons started at age five, and young Albert showed a bit of temper by throwing a chair at one of his teachers. Maja Einstein said Albert's anger got so bad that his face went past red to yellow.5 Also, he threw a bowling ball at her and hit her with a hoe. Nevertheless, Maja and Albert used to play duets together on piano and violin, with Mama joining in occasionally.


Albert Einstein in Munich, 1893. From Wikimedia Commons, user Quibik.

After elementary school, Einstein graduated to the gymnasium (public school), where he referred to the teachers one rank higher as lieutenants. Fortunately, something was always going on at home, including many cousin visits. And Albert enjoyed building houses of cards, some many stories tall.

As Einstein became a teenager, one of Germany's requirements needed to be fulfilled: every family was required to provide some form of religious instruction. Since the Einsteins were culturally Jewish but nonpracticing, they asked one of the more religious Koch cousins to help Albert learn enough about Judaism to fulfill the requirements. After studying the Bible and the Talmud (a central text of Rabbinic Judaism), Albert thought the ideas were beautiful and made up little songs of praise to God. He even stopped eating pork, although the family made fun of him. He began to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

And then an ironic thing happened. The Einsteins had been entertaining a struggling Polish medical student with Thursday night dinners. Although this fellow was ten years older than Albert, he brought interesting books for Albert to read. Albert devoured the books, and the two of them became friends. The books included works by Euclid, philosophers Immanuel Kant and Benedict Spinoza and even the book Popular Books on Natural Science by Aaron Bernstein, who was a kind of nineteenth-century Carl Sagan. The religion/science collision in Albert's mind was monumental. In his words, “Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression.”6 The irony was that the medical student's name was Max Talmud. Later, after he completed his medical education, Talmud became a general practitioner in New York and changed his name to Max Talmey.


Max Talmud (1869–1941). Photographed by E. Mulhern, c.1890.


In 1894, the Einstein brothers moved their electrical business to Pavia, Italy. Their families followed shortly—all except Albert. He was left in Munich to finish his schooling at the gymnasium with the “lieutenants.” It must have pained his mother sorely, as it must have disappointed Albert also. But he put up a good front in his letters. Albert stuck it out for six months, then got a family doctor friend to diagnose him with “neurasthenic exhaustion,”7 a condition that might be provoked by a few sleepless nights.8 Albert hopped a third-class train for Italy and surprised his family. He arrived with a two-pronged plan: He would study and take the entrance exam for the Federal Swiss Polytechnic School (ETH), which prepares its graduates for a career in teaching, and he would renounce his German citizenship, which would free him from the compulsory military duty at age seventeen.

The family bought it. What else could they do? Sure enough Albert studied, took the entrance exam for ETH, sure enough Albert passed the physics and mathematics parts of the exam with flying colors, and sure enough he failed the history and language parts of the exam. Although the physics professor, Heinrich Weber, graciously told Albert he was welcome to sit in any of his classes whenever he was in Zurich, the Polytechnic director, Albin Herzog, suggested that Albert complete secondary school before entering the ETH.

The place Herzog sent him was only thirty minutes away from Zurich, in the pleasant little town of Aarau on the Aare River. Albert was to board with the school's director, Jost Winteler. This whole experience turned out to be a boon for Albert on several fronts. The Wintelers had seven children, and they were a boisterous lot. The situation was similar to Albert's home in Munich but better. There were parties, kite-flying sessions, hikes in the hills, and endless discussions about everything. Albert, the foreigner, had slightly different ideas and loved to pontificate about big issues, often dressed only in his bathrobe.

He became a gregarious teenager. Classes at the school were far more free-wheeling than the rigid Germanic ones Albert was used to, and he became a freethinker. His thoughts were often about deep concepts in physics. Conducting thought experiments was well known from ancient Greek times. The German term for is Gedankenexperiments. For example, Albert tried to visualize what it would be like if someone moved at the speed of light and observed another light wave traveling alongside. Would it be a frozen light beam? That didn't seem right to him. In later life, he considered such thoughts as the beginnings of his ideas about relativity.


The youngest Winteler child, Marie, was two years older than Albert, and very attractive. The two of them became quite an item, with Marie even exchanging letters with Albert's mother. Classes went well, and Albert completed high school in 1896 at the top of his class.

The idyllic time in Aarau ended with Marie taking a teaching job at Olsberg and Albert going off to Zurich to attend (finally) the ETH, or Poly, as it was called. Marie offered to still do his laundry. Albert accepted.

In Zurich, along the banks of the Limmat River, the ETH was colocated with the prestigious University of Zurich. Six new students were added to the ETH's Section VI A, physics and mathematics, for the class of 1900. One was Albert Einstein. Two of the others exerted a profound influence on Albert's life. Besides Albert's classmates, two others with ETH connections also impacted his life enormously. One was a helper all the way, and the other became disillusioned and set out to torpedo Albert's career but instead accomplished the exact opposite. Let's start with the positive one, classmate Marcel Grossmann.


Einstein's high school graduating class in Aarau, 1896. Used with permission from HIP/Art Resource, NY.


Marcel Grossmann's father owned an agricultural machinery factory in Budapest. After Marcel completed gymnasium there, the family moved to Basel, where he finished high school, then prepared to be a mathematics teacher by enrolling at the ETH. Marcel was a keen judge of character and quickly made a friend of Albert Einstein. Taking him home for dinner, Marcel announced to his parents, “This Einstein will one day be a very great man.”9 At the ETH, Marcel and Albert took many of the same classes. Marcel always attended and took careful, detailed notes. Albert, on the other hand, skipped many classes, especially mathematics. He was busy exploring physics topics that interested him. Although these extracurricular topics were most interesting to Albert, many discussions with Marcel over iced coffees in the cafes of Bahnhofstrasse served to keep these ideas in perspective. Marcel turned out to be far more helpful than just a coffee-drinking buddy.


Marcel Grossmann (1878–1936). From Wikimedia Commons, user Melirius.

Albert Einstein made another lifelong friend in 1896: Michelangelo Besso.

Michelangelo, or Michele, as Einstein called him, was six years older and an engineer who had gotten his degree from the ETH. Both being violin players, they met at one of the evening musical gatherings that Albert frequented. Besso was short, with dark curly hair. He was gregarious and full of curiosity, especially about the philosophy of physics. Albert and Michele became good friends almost immediately.


Anna Winteler Besso (1872–1944) and Michelangelo Besso (1873–1955). Besso Family, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.

Because of Besso's short stature, he had trouble meeting eligible women. Albert provided a good solution. He introduced Michele to Anna Winteler, Marie's oldest sister, who was even shorter. They fell in love and married within two years. In a letter, Albert described Besso fondly: “He has an extraordinarily keen mind, the disorderly workings of which I observe with great enjoyment.”10



Mileva Marić (1875–1948). From Wikimedia Commons, user Kelson.

The other addition to the class of 1900 was an unusual one: a woman named Mileva Marić. Mileva was Serbian, the daughter of a wealthy family from Titel in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. She was born with a dislocated left hip and walked with a limp. Her mind was quick, and she excelled at mathematics and physics to the point that her father had her admitted to all-male schools so she could progress. Mileva and Albert circled each other warily and connected only superficially during the 1896–97 school year, except for a pleasant hike in July 1897. In the fall of 1897, instead of returning to the ETH, Mileva went to study at the University of Heidelberg. Albert and Mileva did not correspond often, but when they did, it was usually about physics or gossip. His letters were addressed to “Fraulein Marić,” and hers to “Herr Einstein.” While at Heidelberg, Mileva studied under Professor Phillip Lenard, a noted experimentalist. She dutifully reported to “Herr Einstein” about Lenard's recent investigations with cathode rays, which were later realized to be electrons. Shining light on metals causes cathode rays to be emitted, with a strange connection to the wavelength of the light. Shorter wavelengths of light caused the electrons to have more energy, and above a particular wavelength, no electrons were given off at all. This was called the photoelectric effect. Lenard also lectured about another topic of great interest to Einstein: Brownian motion—the little dance executed by tiny particles viewed through a microscope. Lenard's results, and Lenard himself, eventually played a larger role in Einstein's life—but we'll get to that later.

Albert told Mileva about enjoying Professor Weber's physics lectures, which were delivered “with great mastery.”11 He said he had taken copious notes that he was willing to share with Mileva when—and if—she returned. Return she did, in April 1898. Yes, Albert and Mileva did share a lot of notes, including some of Marcel Grossmann's, but a watershed had been reached. At the midway point of Professor Weber's year-long extensive course titled “Physics,” Albert realized that James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetism and Ludwig Boltzmann's statistical mechanics were not going to be discussed. This omission of recent works angered Albert greatly. Weber seemed to be rooted in the past, so Albert and his study buddy Mileva began reading the modern works of Boltzmann, Paul Drude, Ernst Mach, Hermann Helmholtz, Heinrich Hertz, and Henri Poincaré. Albert began skipping Weber's lecture classes, and even when he did attend, he caused great annoyance by disrespectfully addressing Herr Professor Weber as Herr Weber.

In the fall of 1898, intermediate exams were given to ensure students were making satisfactory progress toward the second half of the program, when the final exams would determine a student's eligibility for a diploma. Thanks to all his class skipping, Albert had few notes to study to prepare for the exam. Marcel Grossmann rescued him by offering his notes for Albert to study. As distasteful as Albert found cramming, he had little choice, so he buckled down and studied hard. The exams were oral, and the results quite remarkable—Albert scored 5.7 out of 6, higher than Marcel, who scored 5.6. This was save number one for Grossmann. Mileva postponed the exam for a year.


Following the summer break, the school year progressed, and the friendship between Albert and Mileva progressed even faster. She began to call him Johnnie, he called her Dollie, and they studied Hertz and Helmholtz, feeding Albert's obsession about the æther—that medium postulated for carrying electromagnetic waves. Although Albert dutifully attended Herr Professor Weber's lab classes and enjoyed them, he skipped most lectures and the once-hopeful relationship between Albert and Weber continued to deteriorate. At one point, Weber told him: “You're a clever boy, Einstein, extremely clever, but you have one great fault. You'll never let yourself be told anything.”12

Einstein also had a lab class with the other physics professor at Poly, Jean Pernet. Einstein disliked Pernet and the class. He would often toss the experiment instructions into the wastebasket and perform the lab according to the way he thought it should be done. Once, Einstein had an accident in lab that required stitches in his right hand, preventing him from playing his violin for several weeks. Pernet failed him and reported him to the dean, who reprimanded Einstein for “nondiligence.”

Einstein spent most of the summer vacation with his mother and sister at the Hotel Pension Paradise in Mettmenstetten, only a short train ride from Zurich. His ever-present physics books took up much of the mornings, and in the afternoons he hiked and played the violin. The hotel owner's sister-in-law was a very attractive seventeen-year-old, Anna Schmid. Einstein enjoyed flirting and making music with her. His mother, who disapproved of his growing attachment to Mileva, probably welcomed his attentions to another woman. Einstein wrote a pleasant verse in Anna's autograph book at summer's end:

You girl small and fine

What should I inscribe for you here?

I could think of many a thing

Including also a kiss

On the tiny little mouth.

If you're angry about it

Do not start to cry

The best punishment is—

To give me one too.13


In the fall of 1900, Mileva finally sat for her postponed intermediate exam and passed. During the remainder of this last year of their program, the established pattern continued: Einstein studied independently and skipped classes (except for Weber's lab, which he enjoyed). Mileva tried to catch up but was distracted by her Johnnie; and Marcel Grossmann attended all the classes, took great notes, and drank coffee with Einstein. This was their comfortable routine—with one exception—Dollie and Johnnie began to talk about marriage. Marie soon faded from Albert's life, replaced by his studies and a stronger female interest. At this point, it was just talk, because parental wishes were not likely to be favorable. But as spring drew to a close, the July final exam time loomed large. The established pattern from the intermediate exam was repeated: Einstein borrowed Grossmann's notes, crammed, then sat for the exam, which included both written and oral parts. This time, the results were a bit different. Einstein was fourth out of five and just barely passed. This got him his diploma, but just by the skin of his teeth.

Mileva wasn't so fortunate. She failed the exam, mostly because of her difficulties with math. After listening to Einstein's encouragement to study hard and take the exam again next year, she beat a hasty retreat to Novi Sad and her family. Einstein met his mother and sister for a small holiday in Melchtal, a small resort valley in Switzerland. Although he was warned by his sister that their mother would question him about what would become of Mileva, Einstein blurted out the exact answer she didn't want to hear: “My wife.” His mother hurled herself on the bed and sobbed like a baby. Then she told Einstein what she thought of Mileva, omitting nothing. Einstein's temper flared, and he denied they had “been living in sin,” but made no promises. Both sides retreated, erroneously believing they had made progress in changing the other's mind. After the holiday ended, Einstein returned home, helped his father in the electrical business for a while, and then returned to Zurich.


Much to his astonishment, Einstein found that the other three class of 1900 graduates had all been tendered assistantships at the ETH, but he had no such offers. In fact, Professor Weber took on two electrical engineering graduates as assistants. Einstein applied to several other professors and nearby schools to no avail. He had no job and was running low on funds. Then, it dawned on him. Perhaps his relationship with Professor Weber had sunk to the point that Weber was trying to push him out of physics. Was Einstein's criticism of Weber's “old-school” attitude about theoretical physics so disturbing to Weber that he would give negative recommendations for Einstein's job applications? Did Weber agree with Professor Jean Pernet, who once asked Einstein, “Why don't you study medicine, law, or philology instead?”14

Heinrich Friedrich Weber (1843–1912) earned his doctorate in physics in 1865 and worked in several laboratories, with an emphasis on precise instrumentation as opposed to more theoretical pursuits. At the ETH, Weber focused primarily on building the physics laboratory program. He had few publications, and these were experimental determinations. Jean Pernet had been hired as Weber's assistant, but he became so dissatisfied with the position that the two barely spoke. Physics was not one of the top subjects at the ETH, but Weber was nonetheless determined to build a first-class lab. Perhaps a too-independent, disrespectful, even arrogant student such as Einstein annoyed him beyond his breaking point. In any event, he and Einstein disagreed about Einstein's proposed PhD thesis: Einstein wanted a theoretical topic, while Weber wanted him to pursue an experimental investigation.

Even though Einstein's lack of a job and disagreements with Weber made him wonder if Weber wasn't trying to dissuade him from physics, he was in fact driven to explore the subject more deeply. Einstein persuaded Professor Alfred Kleiner at the University of Zurich to accept him as a doctoral student. He did his best to minimize depressive thoughts about missing Mileva, his parents’ negative attitude about her, his father's failing business, and his own job troubles. Like the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand, Einstein buried himself in physics (and music). His mind was abuzz with ideas about unsettled areas of physics: æther, atoms, the quantum, thermodynamics, and even capillarity, the rising of liquids in thin tubes due to attractive forces between molecules.


Finally, in 1901, the logjam broke. After a rare complaining letter to Marcel Grossmann, the return letter contained a ray of hope. Marcel said that his father was good friends with Friedrich Haller, the head of the Swiss Patent Office in Bern and said there might be a job there for Einstein as a patent examiner. It was not the academic job Einstein desired, but this was no time to be fussy. With the slow pace of grinding bureaucratic wheels, his hiring might take a while, but it seemed like a good possibility.

This job is save number two for Grossmann, considering the loan of his college notes save number one, and there is still more to come. The following day, another piece of good news arrived: A high school geometry teacher in neighboring Winterthur needed someone to teach for him while he fulfilled a military obligation, and he asked Einstein to help out.

Convinced that a corner had been turned, Einstein wrote to Mileva, inviting her to meet him at Italy's Lake Como. Einstein was confident that Mileva would pass her exams, he would have a job, and things would be much better. After some vacillation, she agreed, and they met on May 1, 1901. They had a lovely time. Afterward, she went to Zurich to complete her exam preparations, and he went to his temporary job in Winterthur. Einstein visited her in Zurich on Sundays, and indeed they were both in much better moods than before. On one of those Sunday visits, Mileva had some news to share: “I'm pregnant.”


As if one disaster wasn't enough, Mileva failed her exams (again) and had to return to face her parents. Einstein wrote a letter to Mileva's father promising marriage, but that hardly mitigated her parents’ reaction. Her second exam failure added to the problem, and a letter from Einstein's mother served as the icing on this inedible cake. Einstein's mother's exact words were not preserved, but her tone was clear, even though she was unaware of the impending baby. Both sets of parents were unwilling to see the lovebirds united, but the pregnancy had its own logic. Mileva stayed home and suffered through her parents’ wrath while Einstein returned to his tutoring job near Winterthur to try to earn some money.

Later in the fall, Mileva stayed at Stein am Rhein so that Einstein could visit her on his days off. Einstein tutored and worked on his dissertation, which related to the kinetic theory of gases and intermolecular forces. In November 1901, a seven-month pregnant Mileva returned home to Novi Sad, and Einstein submitted his dissertation to Kleiner. Soon, an ad appeared in the Federal Gazette for a patent examiner at Bern. The qualifications appeared tailored to Einstein. Late in December, Einstein visited Kleiner at Zurich and was dismayed to find that he hadn't yet read Einstein's dissertation. Kleiner promised to do so over the Christmas break. They had a very productive discussion about the electrodynamics of moving bodies and Einstein's idea for an experiment to check the æther. Kleiner was very encouraging and offered to write letters of recommendation for Einstein. Early 1902 saw Einstein about to move to Bern in anticipation of the Patent Office job. On the way, he visited Professor Kleiner again, and Kleiner told him he needed to rewrite the thesis, so Einstein withdrew it.

The next big happening was a birth in Novi Sad. Mileva's father wrote a letter to Einstein. At first, Einstein feared the worst when he saw the letter from Mileva's father, but when he summoned the courage to open it, he was relieved to hear Mileva was frail but alive. Mileva had an extremely hard labor, which left her weak and exhausted. The child was a girl, named Lieserl, a diminutive for Elizabeth. Einstein's return letters were full of support and love, but his impoverished state made any offer of help or even a visit impossible. He needed money.


Upon arrival in Bern, Einstein advertised tutorial services in the newspaper but got only one taker, Maurice Solovine, a philosophy and physics major at the University of Bern who felt his scientific education was lacking. After a long conversation, Einstein abandoned his tutorial ideas and suggested they continue to meet and talk. Soon, he invited Conrad Habicht, a friend from high school days in Aarau to join their discussions. Although they gave themselves the name the “Olympia Academy,” in a playful sense, they did read and discuss a wide variety of books, including ones by David Hume, Ernst Mach, Karl Pearson, John Stuart Mill, and Henri Poincaré. One of the hallmarks of this bohemian group was that its members sought wide-ranging general principles. They were after “the big picture,” and as anyone who has taught knows well, the act of explanation clarifies the idea not only to the listener but also to the speaker.

Einstein's primary fascination was the statistical mechanics theories of Ludwig Boltzmann, which attempted to bridge the gap between the realm of the very small—atoms—and the large world of classical physics. He carried on a correspondence with Paul Drude, the editor of Annalen der Physik (Annals of Physics) about what he saw as flaws in Drude's and Boltzmann's theories. He was also extremely interested in recent papers by Max Planck, who was the associate editor of the journal. Planck had proposed a mathematical solution to the problem of blackbody (ideal bodies that reflect nothing, only radiate) radiation that involved energy being arranged in packets or quanta (singular quantum). Einstein suspected a connection to the æther problem he had wrestled with for many years, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it.


Finally, in late May 1902, he had his interview at the Patent Office. He got the job and started in June at the lowest rung on the ladder, that of technical expert third class. The pay, however, was twice what he would have made as an assistant at Poly. Patent Office director Friedrich Haller recognized Einstein's lack of education in blueprint reading and taught him that skill. Haller was gruff but straightforward, and Einstein appreciated his help.


Albert Einstein in the Patent Office, about 1904. © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis.

Einstein was a fast learner, so he settled into the Patent Office routine in a matter of weeks. While the job required more thought than he anticipated, it appealed to his critical nature, and he considered it an interesting challenge. Soon, he was able to spend an occasional moment on the small sheets of material in his center desk drawer—his Department of Theoretical Physics, he called it. Footsteps in the hallway outside his office caused the small sheets to disappear into the drawer in short order. Einstein's Patent Office job only reinforced his “outsider” status in the academic world. Accordingly, in his spare time, Einstein continued to search for a suitable thesis topic and wrote papers for publication in the Annalen der Physik. Papers were not peer reviewed but were published if accepted by the editor, Drude, or assistant editor, Planck. Einstein's first papers, published in 1902, 1903, and 1904, all dealt with generalizing the foundations of statistical mechanics, as originally set forth by Boltzmann. They were quite insightful but were substantially the same ideas as J. Willard Gibbs had published in America, prior to Einstein. Einstein didn't read English, so he had no knowledge of Gibbs's work.


Einstein's routine of patent examinations, theoretical physics work, Olympia Academy meetings, and sleep suffered a substantial interruption in early October in the form of a letter from Milan. His father was seriously ill. Einstein rushed home only to find his father on his deathbed. Just before he passed away, he gave Einstein permission to marry Mileva. Whatever second thoughts Einstein may have had about marriage dissipated, and they were married in a civil ceremony at Bern City Hall on January 6, 1903. The Olympia Academy was represented by Solovine and Habicht, who were the only witnesses. After the wedding and celebration at a local restaurant, the newlyweds returned home to a familiar scene. Einstein had forgotten his keys and had to wake the landlady to let them in—again, as it had happened many times before.

In the summer of 1903, Mileva returned to Novi Sad, probably to arrange for Lieserl's adoption. Whatever happened to Lieserl hasn't been discovered, but speculation is rampant. The fact is that all traces of her vanished, and Einstein never saw her. While there, Mileva learned that she was pregnant again and wrote of this development to Einstein, possibly fearing a negative reaction. “I'm not the least bit angry that Dollie is hatching a new chick. In fact, I'm happy about it” was his response.15

The Olympia Academy now had a new member, but Mileva added little to the discussions and didn't join the frequent hikes. She got along well with Solovine and Habicht, but perhaps she preferred quieter discussions with her husband. Additionally, Einstein submitted papers and book reviews to Annalen der Physik, which helped keep his physics up to date. In the fall of 1903, Habicht was offered a job, so it appeared the Olympia Academy would no longer be at full strength. Before long, there was an opening at the Patent Office, and Einstein encouraged his old friend Michele Besso to apply. He did, and he got the job. Another deep thinker was thus added, along with Besso's wife Anna (formerly Winteler), who became good friends with the quite-pregnant Mileva.


In May 1904, the newest Einstein was added: Hans Albert. He was a lovely baby with a marvelous disposition, and he brought great joy to his parents. Einstein was an attentive father and often sat with Hans Albert on one knee and a pad of physics equations on the other. Imagine the small Einstein apartment, filled with drying diapers, cooking smells, puffs of smoke, and happy baby sounds. Then think of Einstein himself, walking (with Besso) to his Patent Office job six days a week, examining patent applications (plus some work on his center drawer material). The busyness seems hardly conducive to serious scientific work, yet this was Einstein's peak period of productivity. Here's a view of Einstein's youthful routine from his sister: “His work habits were rather odd: even in a large, quite noisy group, he could withdraw to the sofa, take pen and paper in hand, set the inkstand precariously on the armrest, and lose himself so completely in a problem that the conversation of many voices stimulated rather than disturbed him; an indication of remarkable power of concentration.”16 So, the giant leap Einstein made in 1905 may have its roots in his ability to concentrate in the midst of chaos.


Several fundamental topics had been on Einstein's agenda for a while: atoms and molecules, electrodynamics and relative motion, and radiation and the quantum. Professor Kleiner had found the work on electrodynamics interesting, so Einstein wrote up what he had (although he considered it incomplete) and submitted it to Kleiner at the University of Zurich. Within weeks, Kleiner's rejection came in the mail. He had found the mathematics incomprehensible.

Although annoyed, Einstein pressed on with his other research. He took Planck's idea that blackbody radiation came in bundles called quanta and extended this notion to light in general. To support the idea of light having both particle and wave nature, Einstein explained the curious experimental result of Philip Lenard (who will show up later) from several years earlier. Called the photoelectric effect, this experiment shows that light incident on a metal causes the ejection of electrons, but the electrons’ energy depends not on the light intensity but on its frequency. Einstein's explanation was that the light acted like a particle and gave its energy to the electron in a collision on an all-or-nothing basis. Since the light's energy is proportional to its frequency, the energy of the ejected electron also increases with the light's frequency. Einstein wrote these thoughts in the form of a paper and submitted it to Annalen der Physik on March 17. The paper was accepted without comment and published in June, even though the editor, Max Planck, didn't really like Einstein's extension of his original idea, or even take it seriously.

Soon after the photoelectric effect paper was in the mail, Einstein had a conversation with Besso about his thesis troubles. As Einstein poured sugar into his tea, he thought about how the tea's viscosity (think gumminess) changed when sugar molecules were introduced. If he could just relate the viscosity and the diffusion coefficient (think how fast the sweetness spreads) to the size of the sugar molecule, he could make an estimate of the molecule's size. Besso thought this sounded like a good idea, so Einstein wrote it up and submitted it to Kleiner. At first, Kleiner rejected it as being too short (seventeen pages), so Einstein added one sentence and resubmitted it. Kleiner looked at it more carefully and then had the mathematics department head check it. When it passed inspection, Kleiner informed Einstein that his thesis was accepted. Finally, he became Doctor Einstein. He submitted this work for publication in Annalen der Physik; wherein it was published about six months later.

Expanding his idea of molecules in constant random motion, Einstein reasoned that even large particles would undergo collisions with molecules, and the jittery motion of large particles would be detectable if the size of these particles was sufficient to appear in a microscope. Besso assured him that this phenomenon does indeed happen, and is called Brownian motion, after Scottish biologist Robert Brown, who had observed it some seventy-five years earlier. Einstein's analysis showed that a tiny sphere would move a distance of about one diameter in one second. Thus, although one couldn't see molecules directly, the observable motion of visible spheres reinforced the idea of molecules in constant random motion causing observable phenomena. He wrote this up and sent it to Annalen der Physik for publication.

Three papers down and one to go. Einstein's long wrestling match with the æther, that medium in which electromagnetic waves were thought to move, was next on his agenda. After a thorough day-long discussion with Besso about every aspect of the inconsistency of Maxwell's electrodynamics and Newton's mechanics, the two of them boiled this inconsistency down to a single question: How could there be an absolute reference frame for space and time and yet a constant speed for electromagnetic waves? Something had to give, and eventually they became tired. Einstein announced he was giving up on the quest, but, somehow, that evening it all came together in his mind. The following day, he announced to Besso, “Thank you. I've completely solved the problem.”17

The solution was nothing short of revolutionary and took him six weeks to get it written up for publication. “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” is possibly the most famous paper in physics. It's usually called by its short name: special relativity. The æther was notoriously absent, as it was totally unnecessary. The only acknowledgment in the paper was: “In conclusion, let me note that my friend and colleague M. Besso steadfastly stood by me in my work on the problem here discussed, and that I am indebted to him for many a valuable suggestion.”18

Some giant principle had to give, either absolute space and time or the constancy of the speed of light. Einstein chose to overturn Newton's absolute space and time, making them relative, depending on the motion of the observer, while keeping the speed of light constant. The paper was submitted in June and published in September. An exhausted Einstein took some time to rest and then produced another short paper, which led to the famous E = mc2 result. Finally, he went on a short vacation to Mileva's home in Novi Sad so she could show off her handsome husband and new son, Hans Albert. Back home in Bern, Einstein waited for reaction to his monumental efforts. His 1905 papers established atoms, took light quanta seriously as a feature of nature, overturned absolute time and space, and demolished the concept of an æther. Who could ask for anything more? Still, as we know, theories are interesting, but experimental evidence was needed. There were a few requests for reprints of the papers, but these were dribbles rather than a torrent. A request for a reprint of the Brownian motion paper came from Heinrich Zangger, a professor at the University of Zurich's veterinary school. Einstein must have wondered about that one, but Zangger would eventually become a lifelong friend. Still no substantial recognition from the physics community. Einstein continued his day job at the Patent Office.

According to Einstein's theory of special relativity, not only do space and time measurements depend on the relative motion of the observer, so, too, does the mass of an object. Specifically, the apparent mass of a body increases as it moves faster, with a more noticeable effect as a body nears the speed of light. Several measurements of the apparent mass of electrons traveling at speeds near the speed of light yielded increased mass values, with the most accurate experiments conducted by Alfred Bucherer in 1907. Bucherer's results matched Einstein's prediction closely. Einstein's theory of special relativity was thus supported by experimental evidence, but he still toiled away at the Patent Office, far from his academic dreams. That was all about to change, and fairly soon.