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Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids
His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities and Thought Experiments
By Jerome Pohlen
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Jerome Pohlen
All rights reserved.
A Curious and Independent Child
"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
"Much too fati" said Grandma Jette, seeing her grandson Albert for the first time. "Much too fat!" she repeated. But Pauline Einstein wasn't worried about her baby's body. She did, however, think his head looked odd. It was too large, and had a funny shape — it stuck out at the back. Was that normal?
This was her first child, and it was natural that she would feel concerned. But her doctor told her Albert was perfectly fine. Little did she know what brilliant ideas would one day come out of her son's strange-looking head.
Hermann and Pauline
Albert Einstein was born on Friday, March 14, 1879. His parents, Hermann and Pauline Einstein, lived in a small apartment at 20 Bahnhofstrasse (Railway Station Street) in Ulm, Germany. Like most children at the time, Albert was born at home.
The Einsteins had been married for two and a half years before Albert arrived. Pauline Koch was the daughter of a wealthy grain merchant and was the youngest of four children. She was just 18 years old when she wed Hermann Einstein, who was 11 years older. They were married on August 8, 1876, in the town of Cannstatt, where Pauline had grown up. After the wedding they made their first home in the village of Buchau.
Though Jews had lived in Germany for about 1,500 years, it wasn't until the 1860s that they were allowed to become full German citizens. Before then, Jews could not hold certain jobs or own property in Germany. Many lived in rural villages as the Einsteins did. But as Germany changed, Jews migrated to the cities for new opportunities. A year after they were married, Hermann and Pauline moved to Ulm, an old medieval city with winding streets on the banks of the Danube River. Here Hermann sold featherbeds for a company he owned with his cousins.
The Einsteins were considered nonobservant Jews. They did not keep a kosher house-hold, nor did they regularly attend synagogue. Hermann and Pauline dismissed many Jewish traditions, but they shared the value the Jewish people placed on knowledge and education. Albert would also hold these values for most of his life.
Everyone agreed that Hermann and Pauline had a happy, middle-class marriage. People who knew them described Pauline as affectionate yet stubborn. Hermann was hopelessly optimistic, despite the financial ups and downs of his businesses.
Munich and Maja
A year after Albert was born, Hermann was invited by his brother Jakob to open an electrical supply company in Munich. What luck! The featherbed business was failing, and electricity was the industry of the future. The lightbulb had just been invented, and everyone wanted the new technology. Besides, Hermann had always loved math and science.
When the Einsteins first moved to Munich they rented a third-floor apartment in the city. It was here that Albert's sister Maria was born on November 18, 1881. When Albert saw her for the first time he asked, "But where are its wheels?" He had been told that his new sister would be someone he could play with, so he assumed she was a toy. She turned out to be something even better — Maja, as Maria became known, became Albert's closest friend.
The Einsteins probably hoped that a little sister would draw Albert out of his shell. Though he was two and a half years old, he barely spoke. The family's maid even called him der Depperte — "the dopey one" — when nobody was around. Years later, Einstein explained, "When I was between two and three, I formed the ambition to speak in full sentences." To do this, he would practice what he wanted to say. "Every sentence he uttered, no matter how routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips," Maja recalled. Even when he did speak, he talked softly and slowly. He continued this habit until he was seven years old.
Pauline Einstein encouraged her two young children to be independent. After showing Albert around the neighborhood, she allowed him to walk alone on the streets of Munich ... starting when he was four years old. But, just to be safe, she had one of her friends secretly follow her son until she was confident he could make it on his own.
Albert's mother also wanted her son to learn to play an instrument, so he was given a violin at age six. Pauline Einstein was an accomplished pianist, but her love of music did not immediately rub off on her child. His first violin tutor fled the house after Albert threw a tantrum, and a chair, during a lesson. It wasn't until he heard one of Mozart's sonatas at age 13 that he began to share his mother's passion. Years later he said, "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music."
Life at the Einstein home must have been stimulating for young Albert. His father and Uncle Jakob would bring home inventions, tools, and instruments from their factory. Once when Albert was sick in bed at the age of five, his father gave him a compass to play with. Albert shook the compass and turned it around, but its needle always pointed north. "I can still remember ... that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things," he recalled.
Off to School
Albert Einstein was tutored at home until he was six years old. By the time he was ready for school, his family had moved to a new home in Sendling, a suburb of Munich. Uncle Jakob's family bought the house next door and the two families shared a back garden where Albert enjoyed playing with chickens and pigeons. The Einstein brothers' company, J. Einstein & Cie, opened a nearby factory in 1885 and had 200 employees. They had just been awarded the first contract to light Munich's Bavarian Oktoberfest. Business was good.
On October 1, 1885, Albert started classes at Petersschule — Peter's School — a nearby Catholic elementary school. He started in second grade and was a good student. The only subject he didn't much like was gym.
Though classrooms at Petersschule had as many as 70 students, Albert didn't make friends unless he had to. As one of the only Jewish children in the school, he faced teasing from classmates, and worse. "Physical attacks and insults on the way home from school were frequent," Einstein remembered.
Albert wasn't like other students who enjoyed sports and playing soldier. In fact, from a very early age he rejected anything military. One afternoon his class was taken out of the building to line up along a parade route to wave flags as the German Royal Guards passed by. "When I grow up, I don't want to be one of those poor people," he later told his parents.
It wasn't just militarism that Albert didn't care for; he wasn't fond of any authority figure. His dislike of strict discipline only grew stronger when he was enrolled in the Luitpold Gymnasium in 1888. (In Germany a gymnasium is a secondary school.) "The teachers at the elementary school seemed to me like drill sergeants, and the teachers at the gymnasium like lieutenants," he remembered.
Albert's new classmates weren't much nicer. Students called him Biedermeier, which translates as "Honest John." Or, in another word, nerd. If it bothered him, he didn't show it.
Einstein didn't find most of the classes at the gymnasium very challenging. He liked math, physics, and Latin but wasn't interested in history, geography, French, or Greek. He preferred instead to have intellectual discussions at home with Uncle Jakob (who introduced him to algebra) and a family friend, Max Talmud.
There is a tradition in Jewish culture that a family should invite a religious scholar for dinner on the Friday night Sabbath. The Einsteins made their own tradition by inviting Talmud, a medical student at Munich University, for their Thursday night meal. Talmud became 10-year-old Albert's unofficial tutor. Each week he would bring books on science, math, and philosophy for Albert to read, and they would discuss them the following week. Albert's favorite was a series of 21 books by Aaron Bernstein: The People's Books on Natural Science. Among other topics, Bernstein wrote about the speed of light, and what it might be like to ride alongside a signal in a telegraph wire. In one book he asked readers to do a thought experiment on the motion of a bullet shot into a moving train — how would the bullet's path look different to somebody on the train compared to the person who fired it?
When Albert was 12, Talmud gave him a geometry book, Euclid's Elements, which he devoured with "breathless suspense." Albert would work on problems all week and show them to Talmud each Thursday night. Albert then moved on to calculus. "Soon the flight of his mathematical genius was so high that I could no longer follow," Talmud admitted.
Almost as quickly as the Einstein brothers' electrical business had grown, it began to fail. Other companies were getting into the industry and competition became fierce. In 1894 they lost a bid to install electric lighting in the central district of Munich and the company went bankrupt.
The Einsteins then made a tough decision. At the time Italy was not as "electrified" as Germany, so Jakob and Hermann decided to move both families to Milan and start over. Albert, who was then 15, was left behind with distant relatives to finish his studies at the gymnasium.
Before long, Albert was miserable. He missed Maja and the rest of his family. And school was even worse. His homeroom teacher, Joseph Degenhart, told him in front of the class that he wouldn't amount to anything. Degenhart didn't like Albert's attitude. "You sit there in the back row smiling. And that undermines the respect a teacher needs from his class," he said.
So Albert came up with a plan. First, he got Max Talmud's older brother Bernard, who was a doctor, to write him a note saying he suffered from "neurasthenic exhaustion" and needed a break from school. Immediately. He also got his math teacher to write him a letter of recommendation, saying he had mastered the gymnasium's math curriculum. And then on December 29, 1894, Albert boarded a train headed for Italy. When he arrived unannounced at his parents' home in Milan, a confident and independent young man, Pauline Einstein might have had second thoughts about teaching her son to walk alone on the streets of Munich.
Albert told his parents he did not want to return to Munich. What's more, he wanted to renounce his German citizenship. Every German male who was not in school at the age of 16 was required to enlist in the army, and he was 15. (Those who were still in school had to enlist after graduation.) His parents listened, but at first they did not support his wish.
Without classes to attend, Albert spent some days helping out in his father's factory, but more often he would wander the Italian countryside or hang out in libraries and museums. It wasn't long before Hermann demanded that his son start thinking about a profession. Albert decided he wanted to attend the Zurich Polytechnic Institute (known today as the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, or ETH). Most people just called it the Poly. Luckily, the Poly did not require its students to have a high school diploma, only that they pass the entrance exams. And be at least 18 years old.
But with the help of a family friend and the letter from Albert's math teacher, the Poly decided to overlook Albert's young age. He took the exams in the fall of 1885, and though he passed the physics and mathematics portions, he failed on the French, botany, zoology, literature, and chemistry portions. Nevertheless, he was offered admittance ... if he received his secondary school diploma.
There was no way Albert would agree to return to the gymnasium in Germany. Where would he go?
Albert's failure to get into the Poly turned out to be a stroke of good luck. That fall he enrolled in the Swiss Cantonal School of Aargau in the town of Aarau, west of Zurich. Unlike at the gymnasium, at Aarau he was encouraged to think independently. Years later he said,
That institution left an unforgettable impression on me; the comparison with the six years I spent in a German high school run with an iron fist made me truly understand just how superior is an education based on freedom of choice and self-accountability over an education that relies on regimentation, external authority, and ambition.
It was here that Einstein first asked himself what it would be like to travel on a beam of light. Would the light wave stand still? And if it did, what would that look like? If he held a mirror out in front of himself at that speed, would he see his reflection? The teachers in Aarau even had a word for what he was doing: Gedankenexperiment — a thought experiment.
Einstein attended this high school in Aarau.
Because his family was still in Italy, Albert stayed with the family of his Greek and history professor, Jost Winteler; his wife, Pauline; and their seven children. The Wintelers welcomed him into their home, and Albert even began calling them Papa and Mamerl (Little Mother). On weekends they all took long hikes in the mountains where they would fly kites and learn to identify local plants and animals.
When Albert went home during the school's Christmas break in 1895, he again asked his father to help him renounce his German citizenship, and this time Hermann agreed. Albert Einstein's German citizenship was officially revoked on January 28, 1896. But he was still too young to apply for Swiss citizenship. Albert would have to wait until 1899 to start that process. For the time being, he was a boy without a country.
Albert graduated from high school second in his class in June 1896. In his final essay for French class he wrote:
If I am lucky and pass my exams, I will enroll in the Zurich Polytechnic. I will stay there for four years to study mathematics and physics. I suppose I will become a teacher in these fields of science, opting for the theoretical part of these sciences. ... I am attracted by the independence offered by the profession of science.
He retook the entrance exams for the Poly, and this time he passed.
Back when Einstein attended the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, it was very different from most colleges of today. In four years of study, students were required to take only two rounds of tests — their intermediate exams halfway through, and their finals. Students were expected, but not required, to attend lectures and labs. There was no homework. There were no pop quizzes or papers to write, except for a final thesis. For a daydreamer, it was perfect — and dangerous.
Albert Einstein moved into a rooming house at 4 Unionstrasse — Union Street — in the fall and started classes on October 29, 1896. He was 17, six months younger than he would have needed to be had the Poly not bent the rules for him. Wealthy Aunt Julie from his mother's side of the family sent him an allowance of 100 Swiss francs a month for expenses. (He saved some of that money each month for the application fee to become a Swiss citizen.)
Though there were about a thousand students attending the Poly with Einstein, he was one of only five in his class who were studying physics. Most of the school's students studied to be engineers or teachers. Technically, Einstein was studying to be a physics teacher, not a physicist, even though he did not take classes on education.
Unlike his days at the gymnasium, at the Poly Einstein made many friends. During one Saturday music recital he met Marcel Grossmann, a mathematics student, who became a lifelong friend. And had he not met Grossmann, Einstein may never have finished college.
Grossmann was a serious student who attended every lecture and took detailed notes. Einstein, on the other hand, preferred his own course of study. He spent a lot of time reading up on subjects he found more interesting than those being taught in the classroom. As his intermediate exams approached, Einstein realized he would have to catch up to his classmates, so he borrowed Grossmann's notes to cram for the tests.
The plan worked. Einstein scored first in his class on his intermediate examinations. Still, he was smart enough to know that Grossmann had saved his hide. "I would rather not speculate on what would have become of me without these notes," he later admitted.
Grossmann, who placed second, credited Einstein's intellect. Not long after meeting Einstein he told his father, "Einstein will be a great man someday."
Excerpted from Albert Einstein and Relativity for Kids by Jerome Pohlen. Copyright © 2012 Jerome Pohlen. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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