This year is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the occasion for revisiting that momentous discovery by paying tribute to one of the most famous scientists of modern times. Steven Gimbel’s brief book is a welcome contribution to that event, placing Einstein in his “space and times,” as his subtitle has it. “It was relativity,” he declares, “that made Einstein Einstein”—that gave the scientist the authority (the standing, a jurist might say) to pronounce on public affairs. Sixty years after his death, Einstein still enjoys that authority. The current issue of an English journal, in a discussion of the war against ISIS, quotes at length (and critically) a 1947 article by Einstein on the Cold War. And as I write, a Washington Post article on the Middle East peace process cites Einstein on the futility of repeated experiments, concluding, “This applies to Gaza.”
The biographer of Einstein has to cope with this Einstein—the post-history, so to speak, of his hero, who ventured out of his natural terrain and acquired a new persona—as well as the prehistory of his hero—the genesis of the ideas that went into the theory that “made Einstein Einstein.” The latter is the more challenging because there was little in his background and early years to foresee a theory so novel and abstruse.
Born in 1879 to an assimilated German-Jewish family—Albert was a secularized version of Abraham, the grandfather after whom he was named—he was sent to a Catholic school in Munich, where he was the only Jewish child in his class. Bullied by his classmates and harshly treated by the teachers, he hated everything about school and learned, he later insisted, nothing. The high school, the gymnasium, was no better. What education he received was from reading on his own and from his uncle, an engineer, who introduced him to the mysteries of mathematics. His unruliness and inattentiveness in class and his difficulties with the other students and teachers have given rise to the “myth,” as Gimbel puts it, that Einstein was autistic. The myth was not entirely unwarranted. As a child, he had “developmental problems” and “issues” with speech, and as a youth, was inept in conversation, socially awkward, inappropriately dressed, and had the affinity for music and visual images rather than language that is characteristic of autism.
When his family moved to Milan, Einstein, at the age of 16, joined them, and to continue his studies in German, he attended the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich. (He was admitted after failing the first entrance exam.) Neglecting classes, misbehaving, and flouting the social conventions, after four years, he barely passed the final exam (he scored next-to-last). Physics was his favorite and best subject, but, lacking a recommendation from his teachers, he failed to get an assistantship to a physics professor or even a private tutoring job. The situation became more difficult when his girlfriend, Mileva, a fellow student, got pregnant. She returned to her home in Serbia to give birth to the child, and came back to Zurich leaving the child behind. (This episode was entirely unknown until well after Einstein’s death.) In 1901, the offer of a job as a patent clerk in Bern permitted them to marry—an unhappy marriage, as it turned out, although it produced two sons to whom Einstein was devoted. They were eventually divorced, leaving Einstein free to marry (happily, this time) another schoolmate, his cousin Elsa.
In this unlikely atmosphere, Einstein somehow persisted in his study of physics. In a memoir, he explained that his interest in that subject had been inspired by two childhood events. He was 4 or 5 when he was shown a compass and realized that the needle always pointed north because it was governed not by any visible or empirical force but by a simple, rational, irrefutable rule. The other epiphany occurred at the age of 12, when he came upon a book on Euclidean geometry, which demonstrated that the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, although not on the face of it evident, could be proved without doubt.
“This lucidity and certainty,” he recalled, “made an indescribable impression upon me.” It was in this spirit, without a professional position or credentials, that he took on the “very revolutionary” project, as he described it, of transforming physics. The theory of relativity in 1905 did just that, overturning the structure of Newtonian physics with a radically new concept of matter and light based purely on reason.