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The life of Albert Einstein has a dramatic quality that does not rest exclusively on his theory of relativity. For the extravagant timing of history linked him with three shattering developments of the twentieth century: the rise of modern Germany, the birth of nuclear weapons, and the growth of Zionism. Their impact on his simple genius combined to drive him into a contact with the affairs of the world for which he had little taste. The result would have made him a unique historical figure even had he not radically altered man's ideas of the physical world. Yet Einstein was also something more, something very different from the Delphic, hair-haloed oracle of his later years. To the end he retained a touch of clowning humor as well as a resigned and understanding amusement at the follies of the human race. Behind the great man there lurked a perpetual glint in the eye, a fundamental irreverence for authority, and an unexpected sense of the ridiculous that could unlatch a deep -belly laugh that shook the windows; together with decent moral purpose, it combined to make him a character rich in his own nonscientific right.
German by nationality, Jewish by origin, dissenting in spirit,Einstein reacted ambivalently against these three birthday gifts. He threw his German nationality overboard at the age of fifteen but twenty years later, after becoming Swiss, settled in Berlin where he remained throughout the First World War; after Germany's defeat in 1918 he took up German civic rights again, "one of the follies of my life," as he later wrote of it, only to renounce his country a second time when Hitler came to power. His position as a Jew was buttressed by his support of Zionism, yet he offended more than once by insistence that Jews were, more importantly, members of the human species. Moreover his Zionism conflicted at times with his pacifism, and to his old friend, Lord Samuel, he commented that he was, despite anti-Semitic attacks, "pas trés Juif." The free thinking ideals of his youth continued into old age; yet these included a belief in the ordered and orderly nature of the universe which was by no means in conflict with the idea of a God -- even though what Einstein meant by the word was peculiar to himself and a small number of others. In these and other ways, in his private and his professional life, Einstein became the great contradiction: the German who detested the Germans; the pacifist who encouraged men to arms and played a significant part in the birth of nuclear weapons; the Zionist who wished to placate the Arabs; the physicist who with his "heuristic viewpoint" of 1905 suggested that light could be both wave and particle, and who was ultimately to agree that even matter presented the same enigma. Yet Einstein himself supplied part of the answer to his own riddle. In ordinary life, as well as in the splendid mysteries of physics, absolutes were to be distrusted; events were often relative to circumstance.
He was born in Ulm, an old city on the Danube with narrow winding streets and the great cathedral on which workmen were then building the tallest spire in Europe. Lying in the foothills of the Swabian Alps, where the Blau and the flier join the Danube, the city had in 1805 been the scene of the Austrian's defeat by Napoleon. Four years later it was ceded to Württemberg under the Treaty of Vienna. In 1842 the old fortifications were restored by German engineers, and with the creation of the new German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in 1870, Prussian discipline began to reach down from the north German plains towards the free-and-easy Swabians of whom the Einsteins were commonplace examples.
They came from Buchau, a small town between Lake Constance and Ulm, comfortable and complacent on the Federnsee, a minor marsh of prehistoric interest whose story is admirably told in the fine new Federnsee Museum and whose shores are today thronged with weekend tourists. Since 1577 the Jews had formed a distinguished and respectable community in the area. They prospered down the centuries; they hung on, despite the burning of the synagogue in 1938 and all that followed it, until 1968. Only then could the local papers report: "Death of the Last Jew in Buchau." His name was Siegbert Einstein, a relative, many times removed, of the most famous Jew in modern history.
Industrious and mildy prosperous, the Einsteins had lived in Buchau at least since the 1750s according to the six family registers kept by the Jewish authorities. By the middle of the nineteenth century they were numerous, and eleven of that name are shown on the roll of those who subscribed to the new synagogue in 1839. Albert Einstein's great-grandfather had been born in the town in 1759, and the Jewish registers record his marriage to Rebekka Obernauer, the birth of their son Abraham in 1808, and Abraham's marriage- to Helene Moos. Their son Hermann, the father of Einstein, was born in Buchau on August 30, 1847. Nineteen years later Abraham and his family moved to Ulm, thirty miles to the north, and in 1876 Hermann married Pauline Koch, born in Cannstadt, only a few miles away, and eleven years his junior.
Like the Einsteins, the Kochs had been part of the Württemberg Jewish community for more than a century, a family with roots rather more to the north -- in Goppingen, Jebenhausen, and Cannstadt. Like her husband, Pauline Koch spoke the soft Swabian dialect, hallmark of an ancient duchy that had once spread from Franconia to Switzerland, from Burgundy to Bavaria, and whose inhabitants lacked both the discipline of Prussia and the coarseness of Bavaria.
Although Einstein was not of peasant stock, he came from people almost as close to the earth, and his reactions were often those of the man tied to the hard facts of life by the seasons. His second wife's scathing . . .
Excerpted from Einstein by Ronald W. Clark Copyright © 1999 by Ronald W. Clark. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted December 6, 2004
Unless you are conversant with physics, you will find a great of this book difficult to wade through. Though the parts highlighting Einstein's human side are enlightening and engaging, the writing, for the most part is dry and pedantic. In spite of the mediocre writing, Einstein himself never fails to be thoroughly intriguing.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 25, 2010
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