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Author Biography: Dennis Overbye is deputy science editor of The New York Times and a critically acclaimed science writer. His first book, Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction and a Los Angeles Times Book Award1
On the Road
Zurich, 1897. Albert Einstein, Eighteen, sits depressed and sorry for for himself in his room. His short, compact body is wrapped in a threadbare bathrobe. Dark curls frame a sensitive face punctuated by large brown eyes, a fleshy nose, and a small soft mouth. A wispy moustache haunts his upper lip; stubble inhabits his teenage cheeks because he can't find the energy to venture out, even for a shave. June light blows through the windows looking out on Unionstrasse in the heart of Zurich's sprawling fabled student quarter. Downhill in the heart of the old city, students throng the alleys of Niederdorfstrasse. Clatter and tobacco smoke fill the cafes along the banks of the Limmat River. The sun is laughing down on everyone in the world except him.
The spring holiday known as Whitsuntide celebrating Pentecostal Sunday is approaching, and Albert will go to Selina Caprotti's house by the Zurichsee and play Mozart, flirt, smoke, and talk physics and philosophy with his new friend, the brilliant but indecisive Michele Besso. But the prospect seems hollow. The memory of Whitsuntide Past weighs on him; he carries a debt of bad behavior, and now it gives him a certain bittersweet satisfaction to pay the price.
He takes pen in hand. "Dear Mommy," he writes to Pauline Winteler, endearingly if inaccurately, firmly declining her invitation to spend Whitsuntide with her family in the country town of Aarau. "It would be more than unworthy of me to buy a few days of bliss at the cost of new pain, of which I have already caused too much to the dear child through my fault." The dear child, the one he must avoidat all costs, is Pauline's youngest and most beautiful daughter, Marie, whose delicate soul he has crushed with his manly thoughtlessness. From now on, he swears, he will mind his own business and avoid romantic adventures. "Strenuous intellectual work and looking at God's nature are the reconciling, fortifying, yet relentlessly strict angels that shall lead me through all of life's troubles. If only I were able to give some of this to the good child! and yet, what a peculiar way this is to weather the storms of life-in many a lucid moment I appear to myself as an ostrich who buries his head in the desert sand so as not to perceive the danger."1 All his life, Albert Einstein has been trouble for women.
Pauline Koch Einstein was only three weeks past her twenty-first birthday when Albert's huge misshapen head squeezed out of her womb, scaring her half to death. He was her first child. She had been only eighteen when she married Hermann Einstein and traded the cushioned life of a grain merchant's daughter for the arms of a failed mathematician and peripatetic entrepreneur. Life hadn't been easy since then, and it wasn't ever going to get any better.
Hard times, of course, had long been the legacy of Jews in what had recently become southern Germany. In the town of Heilbronn, for example, for three hundred years Jews had not been allowed inside the city gates after dark. But in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the Prussian genius Otto von Bismarck was brandishing Francophobia like a welding torch to unite the states of the German Confederation into a new nation, the Jews of southern Germany began to climb from centuries of persecution and pogroms into the middle class, casting their traditions aside as they tried to assimilate with their Roman Catholic neighbors.
Julius Koch, Pauline's father, was a choleric and cunning man who had worked hard and risen from modest circumstances as a baker to amass a small fortune with his brother in the grain trade.2 Success and comfort didn't bring graciousness, however, or diminish his appetite for a good deal. When he decided that a man of his means should become an art collector, Koch sought out the cheapest paintings and painters he could find, often winding up with copies instead of originals. He bargained a mediocre artist into painting family portraits in exchange for room and board. Pauline and her siblings grew up with the family of Julius's brother in a communal household in which the wives traded off cooking and other chores. In an unpublished memoir, Albert's younger sister, Maja, credited the success of this arrangement to the good humor and maternal disposition of Julius's wife, Jette Bernheim, calling her the soul of the household.
Hermann Einstein, the second man in Pauline's life, was everything Julius was not-or perhaps was not everything that Julius was. With his walrus moustache and pince-nez, Hermann looked formidably Prussian, but he was in fact a cheerful if indecisive man, prone to endlessly mulling over every possibility and point of view.3 Inclined toward mathematics, he was one of seven children, and his family's limited means precluded higher education for all of them. At the time of his marriage he was an aspiring featherbed merchant, but as events were to prove over and over again, he had no head for business.
Albert was born in 1879 in Ulm, a small city famous today for its high cathedral and its ancient fishermen's quarter-a Venice on the Danube. Ulm lies in a region of rolling hills in the southwestern corner of Germany called Swabia where the Rhine and the Danube, lying only a few miles apart, flow in opposite directions. In the German scheme of things, Swabia was a kind of Middle Earth, an easygoing place inhabited by friendly peasants and minor burghers speaking a colorful dialect. Albert's arrival did not augur any distinction for the Swabian race. When he was born his grandmother Jette exclaimed that he was too fat. The back of his skull was so large that Pauline feared he was deformed, a fear that was reinforced when he was slow in learning to speak. He was well past two before he made any attempt at language. His most memorable utterance was at two and a half, when his sister, Maja, was born. Apparently expecting some kind of a toy, he demanded to know why she didn't have any wheels. Until the age of seven he had the curious habit of repeating softly to himself every sentence he said.
He was a pretty, dark-haired youngster. In the earliest surviving photograph he looks like a miniature adult dressed in a black frock, bow tie, and black shoes, leaning against a chair with a half-lidded bemused look on his plump face. But beneath this calm demeanor lurked a demon with his grandfather Koch's temper. When he was angry his whole face turned yellow, and the tip of his nose turned white. Once he threw a bowling ball at Maja. Another time he clobbered her in the head with a hoe.
A year after Albert's birth the family moved to Munich, to join the nascent electrical industry with Hermann's younger brother, Jakob, who had been fortunate enough to study electrical engineering at the Stuttgart Polytechnic Institute. The electrical industry had been revolutionized in 1867 when Werner von Siemens invented the dynamo, which used the energy of burning coal or water-driven turbines to generate powerful currents and high voltages. By the 1880s electricity was the wave of the future, and Jakob, who was running a gas-fitting and plumbing company in Munich, was eager to get into the game.4 The Einstein brothers' company would marry Jakob's technical expertise to Hermann's in-laws' money. Hermann, despite his lack of a commanding disposition, took care of the administrative side of the business. In a curious reflection of the Kochs' living arrangement in Ulm, Uncle Jakob and his wife, Ida, lived with Hermann's family in a large suburban villa, sheltered from the street by a shaded yard.
Pauline Einstein was a streetwise, stern-backed, gray-eyed exemplar of tough love, and she raised her children to take care of themselves. After one tour of Munich's busy streets Albert was set loose to navigate his way home on his own while Pauline secretly monitored his progress. In a newspaper interview later in her life, she would ascribe the success of her household to discipline. Patient, persevering, warm but practical, she was given to elaborate needlework. One of her products was a tablecloth emblazoned with the slogan Sich regen bringt Segen, meaning roughly, "Keeping busy brings blessings," a more positive version of the old adage that the devil finds work for idle hands.5 Music was Pauline's other indulgence. She played the piano and she endeavored to bequeath a love of it to her children. With typical brio, Albert began violin lessons when he was five. He threw a chair at his teacher and chased her from the house.
The Einstein villa became a frequent gathering place for the sprawling tribe of Einstein and Koch relatives scattered across Germany and northern Italy, including, significantly, Albert's cousins Elsa, Paula, and Hermine, the daughters of his aunt and Pauline's sister Fanny. (As an example of how complex and interrelated Jewish family structures were in that part of the world, Fanny was in turn married to another Einstein, Rudolf, a textile manufacturer in Hechingen and son of Hermann's uncle Rafael.)
Albert tended to keep to himself during these gatherings. The temperamental child was growing into a solemn and persistent youth, given to pursuits like building houses of cards to a height of fourteen stories. His more typical playmates were the chickens and pigeons, or the small boat he sailed in a pail of water.6
In accordance with the tenor of the times, the Einsteins kept a secular household, observing none of the traditional Jewish holidays or rites. The city of Munich, however, required that all public school students receive religious instruction. Albert was going to a Catholic Volksschule at the time, but the Einsteins' secularism didn't extend as far as bringing up their children Catholic. A distant relative was imported to tutor Albert on the Jewish faith.
Albert responded more enthusiastically than anyone could have dreamed. To the bemusement of his family, he began following on his own the traditional religious practices his clan had spurned in the quest for modernity. For several years he refused to eat pork, and composed little hymns in praise of God that he sang to himself on the way to school in the morning.
This "religious paradise of youth," as Albert later recalled it, came to a crashing end in a collision with science when he was about twelve.7 The collision was inevitable, given that his parents were secular people striving to make a living on the most revolutionary development of the age. Albert was a child of technological optimism, swaddled since birth in the mysterious hum of the electric revolution. He had been nudged along a scientific path by Uncle Jakob, by Uncle Caesar, who visited often from Brussels, and by Max Talmey, a Polish student of medicine at the university in Munich who was introduced to the Einsteins by his older brother and subsequently became a weekly dinner guest.8 Talmey was drawn to Albert, who was only ten when they met but was already intellectually sophisticated enough to hold his own in conversation with a university student. Talmey plied him with books, in particular popular works by Aaron Bernstein, the Carl Sagan of his time, whose writings emphasized the unity presumed to underlie natural phenomena. In one of them the author imagined traveling through a telegraph line with an electrical signal.9
All this reading culminated, when Albert was around twelve, in what he later described as an orgy of "fanatic freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the State through lies; it was a crushing impression."10
In place of God came mathematics. Talmey gave Albert a geometry book that he referred to for the rest of his life as the "holy" book. It ignited a mathematical fire in his brain. Albert was already an adept at the subject and bragged to his sister that he had found an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem.11 During the following summer vacation he worked his way through the entire gymnasium mathematics curriculum, including calculus, sitting by himself for days on end proving theorems and solving problems in textbooks that Hermann brought home for him.
That was enough for Talmey. Left in the dust mathematically, he switched to philosophy. Together they picked their way through Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, among other things. As difficult then as now, Kant was nonetheless hot stuff among college kids. And as it turned out, his philosophy had tremendous implications for science. Kant's theories could be read to imply a kind of outer-space-inner-space connection between the external world of the senses and the internal mental world, that is, mathematics.
Was it possible that the key to understanding the universe was in the structure of our own minds?
Another of Albert's early favorites was Arthur Schopenhauer, whose exaltation of the individual's standing and going his own way against the unthinking herd might have been a comfort to a solitary youth.
Albert, as it turned out, had plenty of opportunities to practice Schopenhauerian virtue. His precocity displayed itself only fitfully to those charged with his formal education. He got good grades in math, but his Greek professor at Munich's Luitpold Gymnasium, where he was enrolled at the age of nine, is said to have informed him in front of the whole class that he would never amount to anything at all. At the Volksschule, according to Maja, he had been considered slow; at the Luitpold Gymnasium he was thought impudent. His classmates called him "Biedermeier," which roughly translated meant "wonk" or "nerd." The antipathy was mutual.
Although the Luitpold was one of the most modern schools in Germany, with up-to-date lab equipment donated by an electrical company, and its pedagogy organized along lines recommended by the great physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, a devotee of the empirical tabula rasa school of learning, Albert still complained that it was a factory of rote learning.
Honest Biedermeier soldiered on, bringing home the grades. He came back to the villa, read books and solved mathematical puzzles in the garden, played Mozart and Beethoven sonatas with his mother or his sister, even sat down at the piano himself and picked out arpeggios in a meditative way, and arm-wrestled intellectually with Uncle Jakob.
Later, when he was an old man and fame and the atomic bomb and quantum carelessness hung around his neck, Einstein would claim that the mystery of the universe first presented itself to him when he was six and his father showed him a compass, its quivering needle unfailingly pointing to magnetic north. It's an iconic story, the young boy tumbling to the invisible order behind chaotic reality, a story told and retold, most recently in the movie IQ, in which Walter Matthau, as Einstein, wears the compass around his neck and gives it to Timothy Robbins, who is courting his (fictional) niece.
Whether literally true or not, the compass story is metaphorically apt. Magnetism, after all, was the force that pumped electricity through the coils of dynamos and out along wires to fire lights and jolt streetcars into motion. It was here on this invisible order of the aether, this secret mover, that the Einstein brothers had staked their claim to the future.
At first they flourished. Soon after moving to Munich the Einsteins were exhibiting lamps, dynamos, and a telephone system at the city's International Electrical Exhibition in 1882. Many of the devices were designed by Jakob himself, who along with various employees was issued six patents for dynamos and electric meters. Albert knew enough about his father's work to help out on occasion and to explain the workings of a telephone to his classmates.12 The firm, rechristened the Elektro-Technische Fabrik J. Einstein & Co. in 1885, grew to two hundred employees and went from building devices to installing power and lighting networks. In 1885 it was awarded a contract to provide the first electric lighting for the famed Bavarian celebration, Oktoberfest. Three years later the Einsteins wired the entire town of Schwabing, then a Munich village of 10,000 souls and now the student quarter.
Eight of Jakob's dynamos were prominently displayed at the 1891 International Electrical Exhibition in Frankfurt. Humming and thundering away in the main machine hall, three of them were in service, pouring out as much as 100 horsepower-75,000 watts-to the other buildings, including the tavern. More than a million people, including the kaiser himself, attended the fair, an island of the future, glittering with artificial lights. The technological tourists marveled at waterfalls and trams galvanized into life by the mysterious flow of electricity, and watched a special electrical ballet with dancers representing Prometheus, Alessandro Volta, and Luigi Galvani.
At the time of the Frankfurt exposition the Munich factory made arc lamps, electrical meters, and dynamos to be sold and installed throughout Bavaria and northern Italy. Hermann and Jakob were posed to become an industrial and technological force in southern Germany. Between them and their wives and families they reasoned that they had the brains and resources to make it in the gold rush of the 1890s, but capitalism was about to quash their dreams.
Around 1890 they had received contracts to install power in the northern Italian towns of Varese and Susa. Increasingly, however, as the Einstein brothers sought to expand their business to the installation of complete power systems, they began to run up against burdensome capital requirements. It took upwards of a million marks in operating capital to be able to compete in the market for large-scale power plants run by water or gas and capable of generating alternating current that could be transmitted long distances. (The per capita income in Germany then was about 600 marks.) In bidding for a contract to light Munich itself, the Einsteins found themselves up against giant firms like the German Edison Company, Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft, and Siemens, the giant company formed by the inventor of the dynamo himself, with thousands of employees. The Einsteins had to mortgage their house to raise the necessary funds, but it was to no avail. In 1893 Schuckert, another big firm, beat them out of the Munich contract. By the next year Einstein & Co. was kaput.
An Italian engineer with whom they had been working, Lorenzo Garrone, convinced the Einsteins, however, that there might be opportunities for a small firm like theirs in northern Italy, where they had already done some business. The brothers sold the villa (which was promptly razed, garden and all, for an apartment house) and, lured by the lucrative prospect of building a hydroelectric power system for the town of Pavia, outside Milan, left for Italy. The Einstein ensemble settled into a sumptuous house in Pavia that had belonged to a well-known poet, Ugo Foscolo.
All, that is, except for Albert, who was progressing satisfactorily, if grumpily, through the best education system in the world. Since he had three years to go to finish the gymnasium-which would ensure entrance to a good university-Hermann and Pauline decided to park him with a relative in Munich. The move had been Jakob's idea, and one can hardly imagine the rending of heart that must have accompanied Pauline's decision to leave not only the region in which she had been born but her son as well.
By Maja's account, Albert at first put up a brave front, sending laconic letters to Milan disguising the fact that he was in fact lonely and depressed. Without his family around him everything that was oppressive about the gymnasium and German society in general was only magnified. And one aspect of that culture suddenly stood out more dreadfully than all the rest, as the machinery of state descended to metal-stamp his delicate, unprotected soul. As a child, Albert had once been frightened by the sight of troops marching past his window, for to him, as he later recalled it, they looked like spooky automatons being jerked along with no will of their own.13 He had made his parents promise him that he would never have to be a soldier.
Unfortunately, the German state had different ideas. By law, every male was required to perform military duty. The only way for a young man to avoid it was to leave the country before his seventeenth birthday and renounce his citizenship. Anyone who left later and then didn't report was declared a deserter.
What happened next has been told in several ways. One day that winter, Albert's Greek professor, one Herr Degenhart, summoned the boy and invited him to leave the gymnasium. When Albert protested that he hadn't done anything wrong, Degenhart replied that Albert's mere presence in the classroom was disruptive.14 Some biographers, notably Philipp Frank, have maintained that Albert had already made a plan to escape the gymnasium before this incident. As Maja tells it, however, Herr Degenhart's sarcastic suggestion was the last straw. Albert was dying to leave. A good idea was a good idea.
In a way this was the payoff, the ultimate extension of those exercises of being left alone and finding his way home when he was young. Albert went to the old Einstein family doctor, whom he talked into writing a note saying he had nervous disorders requiring extended home rest. Luitpold's principal released Albert from his bondage on December 29, 1894. He packed his math books, his Kant, his compass, and his violin, and headed for the train station, a Biedermeier in flight, his beak cocked south toward Switzerland, where the Alps loomed like a cracked jail door, aglow from beyond with the light of Italy and of freedom.
Albert arrived on his startled parents' doorstep in Pavia vowing never to return to Munich or Germany. He announced that he would renounce his German citizenship. Presented with a fait accompli, the Einsteins had no choice but to go along. Their son had shown that he could navigate the byways of Europe as safely as he could the streets of Munich.
It was springtime for Albert, both literally and metaphorically. As he later recalled it, there was hardly anything that he didn't like about Italy, a blast of light and color after the gray heavy baroqueness of Munich. Legend and anecdote paint a picture of a footloose sixteen-year-old wandering about the musical landscape, seeking out Michelangelo, drunk on the light, the air, the music, the food, the operatic people, and the company of his own family. About the worst that could be said was that Pavia and the other towns were a little dirtier than Munich.
Albert spent the next few months working for his father and uncle-allegedly helping them solve a tricky design problem at one point-as well as reading and visiting friends and family around the Italian countryside. He hiked south over the Ligurian Alps to Genoa to stay with his uncle Jacob Koch-and spent the summer of 1895 in the alpine village of Airolo being befriended by a future prime minister, Luigi Lazzatti.15 He was also penning science essays and little philosophical notes inspired by his reading of Leibniz: "It is wrong to infer from the imperfection of our thinking that objects are imperfect," read one tantalizing sample of his wisdom.16
Hermann, worried about where this lighter-than-air existence was going to lead, sat his son down and urged him to learn a sensible trade like electrical engineering so that he could earn a living and perhaps take over the family business someday.17 Albert responded with a plan of his own: In the fall he would take the entrance exams for the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School in Zurich, which did not require a gymnasium degree. To show the world that he wasn't completely crazy, Albert had obtained a certificate from his gymnasium math teacher attesting to his brilliance and intellectual maturity.18
The Swiss Federal Polytechnical School, commonly called the Polytechnic, was a new kind of college, a so-called technische Hochschule, primarily devoted to producing teachers. As such, it stood a notch below the great universities such as Heidelberg, Berlin, or Göttingen that Albert would have been entitled to attend had he finished the Luitpold. (In fact, under German law, a degree from a Hochschule would not even qualify him to be an officer in the unlikely event he ever fulfilled his military duty. Hermann, as Albert's guardian, had filed a request asking that his son be relieved of his citizenship in the state of Württemberg, of which, by birth, Albert was a citizen, and it was granted on January 28, 1896, thereby eliminating the German army from Albert's future.)
Its secondary status notwithstanding, the Polytechnic was not eager to take in young Einstein. In general, entrants to the school were at least eighteen and had achieved the Matura, or high school diploma; Albert was two years younger and had few credentials other than his own cockiness and the math teacher's certificate. The polytechnic director, Albin Herzog, wrote to Gustav Maier,19 an Einstein family friend in Zurich: "According to my experience it is not advisable to withdraw a student from the institution in which he had begun his studies even if he is a so-called child prodigy." Herzog's advice was that Albert complete his general studies, but if the Einsteins insisted, he would waive the age rule and let Albert take the entrance exam.
Which Albert did in September of 1896, doing well enough on the math and physics part of the exam that Heinrich Weber, the head of the physics department, invited him to attend lectures if he stayed in Zurich. But Albert did so poorly in languages and history that Herzog sent him back for another year in secondary school.
The place Herzog sent him was just thirty minutes outside of Zurich in the pretty town of Aarau, in the canton of Aargau. The Aargau Canton School there was one of the best-regarded in Switzerland and had a liberal reputation. It was just down the road from the site of an experimental school founded by the famous educational reformer Heinrich Pestalozzi.20
The fall semester was already starting, so Albert was shuffled quickly out to Aarau, nestled alongside the Aare River, which streamed from the Bernese Alps to the Rhine. Maier arranged for him to stay with the family of Jost Winteler, who taught history and philology at the school. This was not an unusual arrangement; that same year Albert's cousin Robert Koch-son of Julie and Caesar-also attended Aargau and boarded with the Wintelers.
Albert quickly grew to feel more at home in the Winteler house than he ever had in his own. Papa Winteler, as Albert called him, was a handsome, distinguished-looking man with a curly beard. A former journalist, ornithologist, and outdoorsman, Winteler was a liberal democrat and shared Albert's disapproval of German militarism. He and Mama Winteler-coincidentally also named Pauline-had seven children. Their boisterous household across the street from the school was a place of books, music, parties, and spirited discussion. Winteler was always organizing kite-flying expeditions or treks into the surrounding countryside or to nearby peaks. He was also in the habit of holding conversations with his birds.
Mama Winteler likewise indulged Albert as if he were one of her own. Albert, turning gregarious, found himself spending idyllic hours sitting around in his bathrobe pontificating and philosophizing in the company of women while the steam of coffee rose over his face and sunlight slanted over the pastoral landscape and in through the windows.
The Albert that held court in his bathrobe was no longer a Biedermeier, but a rude and self-possessed teenager, handsome, with a shock of curly hair, dark luminous eyes imbued with attitude, and a genius for insolence, a boy whose favorite story was about the teacher (in his Munich gymnasium) who complained that Albert's mere presence in his classroom was subversive. A man of the world, a flirt and a seducer, the "impudent Swabian" Albert was something of a terror to his less-traveled, less-experienced schoolmates, with only a violin to reign him in socially.
Hans Byland, one of Albert's classmates, remembered him thus to the biographer Carl Seelig:21 "Sure of himself, his gray felt hat pushed back on his thick, black hair, he strode energetically up and down in a rapid, I might almost say, crazy, tempo of a restless spirit which carries a whole world in itself. Nothing escaped the sharp gaze of his bright brown eyes. Whoever approached him immediately came under the spell of his superior personality. A sarcastic curl of his rather full mouth with the protruding lower lip did not encourage philistines to fraternize with him. Unhampered by convention, his attitude towards the world was that of the laughing philosopher, and his witty mockery pitilessly lashed any conceit or pose."
Byland went on to recall that he heard Albert play a Mozart sonata on the violin one day at school and was shocked by the power and grace of his performance. He felt that he was hearing Mozart for the first time in all the composer's clear beauty. There was so much fire in Einstein's playing that Byland barely recognized him. "So this was the genius and the unregenerate mocker. He could not help himself! He was one of those split personalities who know how to protect, with a prickly exterior, the delicate realm of their intense emotional life." The mask never slipped for long, however. Often the last notes would barely have rung out before Albert would wreck the mood with some wisecrack, bringing the whole party back down to earth. "He loathed any display of sentimentality," Byland concluded, "and kept a cool head even in a slightly hysterical atmosphere." Even his choice of music betrayed his unease with sentimentality and emotion: Bach and Mozart he loved, but not Beethoven and certainly not Wagner.
In all Aarau nobody was more taken by Albert's charms than Marie Winteler, Jost and Pauline's eighteen-year-old daughter, who was attending the Aargau teachers' school. Marie was quite beautiful (the prettiest of the daughters, according to Robert Schulmann of the Einstein Papers Project, who once saw a photograph of her, but was unable to obtain it for publication) and played the piano, which made her a natural to accompany Einstein musically and evidently in other ways as well.
By Christmas Marie and Albert (who spent the holiday in Aarau) were an item. Marie was by now writing to Albert's mother, Pauline, who was pleased with the match and passed back greetings and approval. A steady stream of notes from the Einsteins to the Wintelers expressed how thrilled they were that Albert was in such a fine home, so happy, and so well cared for.
When Albert returned to Pavia on a spring vacation, his mother teased him about the fact that he was no longer attracted to the girls who had enchanted him in the past (including, apparently, his little cousin Paula, about whom he later said, "Whoever she has not lied to, he does not know the meaning of happiness").22 Albert reported back to Marie that his mother was quite taken by her, even though they had never met. As for him, Marie's letters, he wrote, had made him understand the meaning of homesickness, and how much his "dear little sunshine" counted for his happiness.23
"You mean more to my soul than the whole world did before," he went on, the "insignificant little sweetheart that knows nothing and understands nothing."
Despite being older than Albert at an age when even two years could represent a chasm of experience, Marie knew that she wasn't on his level intellectually. In fact, she worried that she was too fluffy for him and fretted that he would lose interest in her. Faced with such trepidation, Albert was more than willing to shower her with epistolary scolds and kisses. "If you were here at the moment, I would defy all reason and would give you a kiss for punishment and would have a good laugh at you as you deserve, sweet little angel! And as to whether I will be patient? What other choice do I have with my beloved, naughty little angel?"
"We loved each other dearly, but it was a pure love," said Marie much later.24
Albert's year in Aarau marked the beginning of what would be a lifelong entanglement with the sprawling and boisterous Winteler family. His sister, Maja, following in her brother's footsteps through the Aarau scene, would marry Marie's brother Paul. Anna, their sister, would marry Albert's best friend, Michele Besso. (Anna, who had a brassy personality, reportedly claimed that she had spied on Albert and Marie while they were kissing.)25 Both the Wintelers and the Einsteins were eager for a betrothal between Albert and Marie, but at the moment Albert had other priorities, namely a date in the fall with the Matura exam and the Polytechnic.
Albert was flourishing at the cantonal school, which was smaller and less authoritarian than the Luitpold. The professors seemed less perturbed when Albert was being Albert. Science teacher Friedrich Mühlberg on a geology field trip: "Now Einstein, how do the strata run here? From below upwards or vice versa?"
"It is pretty much the same to me whichever way they run, Professor."
By the end of his year in Aarau, despite his father's earlier career advice, Albert had decided to study theoretical physics. In fact, Albert was fascinated by electricity, but invariably, as he pointed out in an essay during his graduation exam at Aarau, his interests ran to the mathematical and the abstract-not the practical.26 Allowed to roam during his Italian interlude, his imagination had focused not on how to further manipulate electromagnetic forces into doing society's bidding, but on the nature of electromagnetism itself. In a paper he sent to his uncle Caesar he had tried to explain how magnetism could be caused by a deformation of the aether that was alleged to pervade all space. And perhaps in imitation of the author Aaron Bernstein, who had imagined himself squeezing through a telegraph wire, Albert had tried to imagine what he could see if he were traveling along on a light wave, like some futuristic surfer. What he could see was that there was some kind of paradox there, but also that thought experiments like this were great fun.
"Besides," he added in his remarks on his future, "I am also attracted by a certain independence offered by the scientific profession."
The advantages of that vaunted independence were perhaps underscored when Albert's Aarau idyll was interrupted by yet another business crisis for his father. In 1896 the deal to build a hydroelectric system in Pavia fell through when the Einsteins bungled the negotiations for water rights. Believing that they had been deceived, the city fathers booted the brothers off the project and their company collapsed once again. At this point Jakob had had enough, and with Hermann's blessing he went off to work for another firm. Hermann moved to Milan and started yet another business to manufacture dynamos and motors. By now he had not only lost all his wife's money but also was in debt to the rest of the family, particularly Rudolf Einstein, the husband of Fanny Koch, Pauline's sister.
Convinced that this new venture was doomed to failure as well, Albert hopped on a train and went to Heilbronn, where Rudolf and Fanny lived, to dissuade Rudolf from loaning any more money to his father.27 His arguments were to no avail, and so Hermann lifted off on uncertain wings into the electrical business on his own. As usual, things went well for about a year-Hermann won concessions for the lighting systems in the towns of Canneto sull'Oglio and Isola della Scala-until Rudolf began pressuring him to pay back his loans. For a young man with no professed practical ability, Albert was to prove only too good a business prophet.
In June, Albert and some classmates went for a three-day hike, the Swiss version of a commencement party, on the Säntis, a toothlike ridge soaring 2,500 meters above the rolling landscape of the Appenzell region in eastern Switzerland, home of Heidi, cows, cheese, and ancient agrarian ritual. One day it began to rain, and Albert was wearing poor shoes. Clambering along the top of this razor edge less suited to people than to the small black birds that ride the drafts up and down the cliffs and perch on crags, Albert slipped and began sliding down the slope toward a sheer dropoff. His career as mountain man, physicist, and musician was about to go sailing into space over the rocks when a classmate, Adolf Fisch, stretched out his alpenstock.28 Albert grabbed it and was hauled from the abyss.
Three months later he passed the Matura and returned to Zurich to attend the Polytechnic at last. The parting with Marie was sad but hopeful. She had accepted a temporary teaching job in Olsberg, a small mountain town an hour and a half from the nearest train station. But she could spend weekends in Aarau, which was only twenty minutes from Zurich. Albert assured her that they could still write. Marie offered to do his laundry.
Standing, newly arrived, on the platform of Zurich's Hauptbahnhof, a violin case and a suitcase in his hands, peering down busy Bahnhofstrasse, Albert had only to lift his eyes slightly upwards and to the left, across the narrow Limmat, to see the pale-mustard neoclassical buildings of the Polytechnic and the University of Zurich looming on a hillside.
Cradled by steep green mountains whose slopes are dotted with villas, Old Zurich with its Roman ruins, cathedrals, banks, hotels, and restaurants runs south from the train station to the lake, the Zürichsee, straddling the Limmat for about a mile. To the east and the west of the old town, trolleys climb the steep hillsides of the Zürichberg and the Ütliberg, respectively, to the stars, or at least to the clouds. Thus bounded and protected, Zurich has been a strategic and favored location throughout history. By the time the city and its surrounding canton joined the Swiss Confederation in the fourteenth century, it was already a grand center of commerce. Its character was further forged by the fire and brimstone offered weekly from the pulpit of the Grossmünster-a twin-towered cathedral whose earliest construction dates from 1100-by the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli in the early sixteenth century. Zurich grew up proud of its Calvinist heritage and stern discipline, ruthlessly spare, pure, democratic, independent.
In 1888 the city had quadrupled its population from 28,000 to 120,000 by expanding its boundaries outward from the central core to encompass eleven outer districts. Within its total area of twenty-five square miles, it was said, were over nine hundred inns and five hundred clubs.29
The technological revolution ruffling the rest of the world proceeded apace in Zurich. Electric lights had first graced the town in 1855 during the "Sechselaeuten" festival when, as a demonstration of the new invention, the entire Grossmünster and both sides of the Limmat were illuminated. The following year the town fathers began installing public gas lighting, replacing old oil lamps. In 1880 electric arc lamps lit the Federal Choral Festival. The first telephones were installed the same year. In 1884 electric trams began to replace the horse-drawn kind.
In 1896 fin de siècle Europe trembled on the brink of a dozen revolutions. In Vienna Sigmund Freud had begun to ruminate on dreams and sexual hysteria. France was convulsed by the Dreyfus affair. In Paris, where a young Pablo Picasso had begun to paint, Impressionism was still in its glory, and the poet Stéphane Mallarmé was experimenting with randomness and silence. X rays and radioactivity were discovered, and the science of physics, pronounced "finished" only a few years before, was exploding into wreaths of complexity and mystery. The Olympic Games were reborn in Athens. Karl Benz began building automobiles. The first automated telephone exchange and the first movie camera were constructed. Electric light bulbs, running on direct current, were slowly replacing gas lamps, making everybody but the Einsteins rich.
The Eiffel Tower, finished in 1889, dominated the Paris skyline, outraging traditionalists with its stark engineering aesthetic. Technological optimism was the rampant theme of the fading century. Everywhere the old forms were being discarded like so much clutter, dropping like faded blossoms. The Austrian physicist Ernst Mach argued for a new aesthetic in science, devoid of old ideas and abstractions, freed of metaphysical baggage and shorn of all content save what could be built logically from the evidence of the senses. "Physics," he had written in 1882, "is experience arranged in economical order."30
Zurich was one of those metaphysically clean towns, sheltered by political stability and freedom, fresh air, prosperity, and hallowed historical neutrality. It was rubbed clean of preconception by adherence to Zwingli's ethic, democracy (at least for white men), and ruthless commerce. Carl Jung, the psychoanalyst, who moved to Zurich from the old university town of Basel in 1900, found it to be a breath of fresh air.31 "Zurich relates to the world not by the intellect," he wrote, "but by commerce. Yet here the air was free and I had always valued that. Here you were not weighed down by the brown fog of the centuries, even though one missed the rich background of culture." Rosa Luxemburg, the founder of the German Communist Party, and her cohorts were already living in the city when Albert arrived. In time, Lenin, Joyce, and the Dadaists would all seek shelter in Zurich's bracing air.
Along the east bank of the Limmat on the lower slopes of the Zurichberg, a community of outcasts, freethinkers, and students filled a warren of boardinghouses and cafes. The Federal Polytechnical School sat beside the university smack in the middle of this enclave, on Ramistrasse, a busy boulevard that crossed the hillside. Its main entrance, set back from the street by a small courtyard, is today a colonnaded dome reminiscent of the Roman Pantheon that towers over the other university buildings. Passing through the arched oak doors, a visitor or young student enters a vaulted echo chamber of arches, balconies, gleaming floors, and magisterial staircases lit only vaguely by skylights and tall distant windows.
The doors on the other side of the building open out onto a vast stone terrace at eye level with a forest of spired clock towers and weathered green domes. From the double-barreled Grossmünster nearly underfoot to the delicate Fraumünster to the blocky thirteenth-century St. Peter's with the largest clock face in Europe to the distant slender Predigerkirche in the west, right on downtown to the ancient domed observatory tower on Uraniastrasse, the view contains more history than the eye can bear. On the hour, if you listen carefully, you can hear the bells in all those towers begin to chime, adding their voices one after another to the wind according to the corroded rhythms and haphazard schedules of their designers, at first nearby and then from afar in succeeding waves of ever more distant and fainter notes-bong bong, ding ding dong-like an asynchronous chorus, until the entire spire-pricked sky seems engaged in a subliminal argument of tintinnabulation.