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It is well recognized that Albert Einstein probably contributed more to society than any other human being. He was born in Germany in 1879, and lived in a hostile environment because he was Jewish and his ideas were considered ridiculous. His concepts just didn't fit the laws and theories in traditional physics, and most of the classical scientists at that time wrote him off as a nut case. They were all wrong. Even in the scientific world today new ideas like using stem cells to replace damaged muscle tissue in the heart were initially rejected. Changing blood type in black children with sickle cell anemia by replacing their bone marrow was first considered over the top. It took 20 years to accept the notion that body organs could be replaced from donors with matched DNA. Only 50 years ago did we accept the fact that babies born less than two pounds could be nourished in a special environment and in fact could survive and become normal. I believe resistance to change is a result of some very conservative thinking which has had a devastating effect on new ideas. Instead of saying "why" we need to learn a new phrase, "why-not"
It is also well known that Einstein suffered with dyslexia as a child and as an adult. He was an extremely slow reader because of his dyslexia, and because he didn't start talking until he was about three years old, and because he was left-handed, his mother thought he was retarded. I saw him read using his left finger as pointer. When his mother tried to talk to him, his speech was quite slow, and she was convinced he was the dummy of the family. What a mistake this was!
Einstein told me how much he hated school because "it oppressed him". His report card from a Catholic school he attended in third grade was not very good, and he was considered a poor student. Some authors have reported he stayed in school until he was ten years old. He told me he left school going into fourth grade. His mother did some home schooling after third grade, and Max Talmay whom he befriended got him materials in physics and geometry to study on his own. His mother also got him a violin because he loved music, and she was an accomplished pianist. Even after some temporary setbacks, he kept his sense of humor. I met him in 1946 when he was 67 years old, and when I shared some humorous stories from my Rutgers University dormitory friends, he usually had a good belly laugh. In spite of losing members of his family in the war, he maintained his sense of humor the two years I knew him.
Although other writers have mentioned his other early schooling, the only formal education that he ever talked to me about was when he was 18 years old. He had applied to the Swiss Institute of Technology where he was twice rejected because of his slow reading problem. He was finally admitted, but he told me it was a terrible experience. He made me realize that all of the so called experiments I had done in my own physics, chemistry and biology labs were not real experiments because the results were already known. He compared it to baking a cake from a cook book. A real experiment would have been changing the ingredients to see what would happen. Had I done this in my science classes, I would have failed the courses. Much of the literature about Einstein's life maintained he never failed traditional mathematics. However, you can only fail something to which you are exposed. He was introduced to the differential and integral formulas in calculus by reading a book, and his behavior at the Institute for Advanced Study clearly showed his mastery of these formulas. He often referred to the calculus as arithmetic, and he also learned algebra and geometry the same way. One afternoon he showed me his analysis of the Pythagorean theory and why it was true, but he refused the traditional logic leading to the formula. When I asked him about his love life, he saw himself as a failure in two marriages and a failure as a father to his two biological sons and one daughter. He really did not like to talk about his relationship with his wife or his children. However, one Friday afternoon he explained to me that both of his wives were constantly judging him, and he resented all the "should and should-nots" after sharing strong feelings he had for them. It was bad enough having the scientific world being critical of him as a person, but it was worse having this criticism coming from his family. His feelings were very strong, and he owned them, and he just wanted people close to him to understand without prejudice. He divorced his first wife, and he promised to give her the money he might get from winning the Nobel Prize. He lived in Princeton with his second wife until he died. I was angered when I read another writer's perception that Einstein was a "ladies" man. I can assure the whole world this was not true, and I defy anyone to support that fact. I even asked him one day about the rumor, and he replied, "I wish that were true". However, that false idea may have come from his position that women should be allowed to attend Princeton University which at that time was for men only and from wealthy families at that. He wondered why women in this country were not valued as much as men and made lower salaries in positions of equal responsibilities. In the place of his birth, there were women doctors, dentists, engineers and scientists which he did not see in America. At that time, women in the United States were either guided toward teaching or nursing. In fact, the first female physician in the America graduated from Johns Hopkins in the early twenties. When she was admitted, Hopkins built her a separate bath room, and she had to study anatomy apart from the men.
I was fascinated by his concept that what was already known in science based on what could be observed represented a tiny amount of what really existed. He was certain that the realities of our universe existed even though they could not be observed. He was challenged many times concerning his objection to quantum mechanics because he believed reality should not be measured by concrete observation alone. He believed that faith in a concept was as good as actual observation. This puzzled me because his view seemed in conflict for his search for absolute certainty. Even his concept of God was based on his faith. He told me once that it did not matter if God really existed, but it was a necessary belief to explain predictable forces and patterns in the universe. He maintained that what he called soul energy was in every living thing. To him, the body was just a vehicle for that godly soul, and at the moment of death the body dies, but the soul returns to the global mass of all souls. He convinced me that if I nourished my soul with behavior that improved the lives of other people, my soul would grow and I would give back more than I got at birth. Although I never shared this with him, I had decided to become a teacher at that very moment because if I could improve the life of my students, my soul would grow even though money would be a struggle. I decided to accept his definition of soul energy because it meant something about me after death would live forever, a very comforting thought.
Einstein had some strong political beliefs. Because of his early exposure in Germany, he hated governments that dominated people. He really thought Adolph Hitler was a lunatic and prayed for his demise. He never spoke ill to me of any other people in the world. He believed that all human beings were basically born good and given a chance would be free of prejudice. He took issue with certain religious groups that were determined to convert everyone to their doctrine, and they would kill other people to achieve that goal. He was really aggravated when Senator McCarthy held his witch-hunt hearings in Washington D.C. that ended up destroying the lives of many people. I later found out that several of my best professors at Rutgers University were on McCarthy's list. They were unjustly labeled as communists and fired by the University. It took ten years for many of these people to get a job. He saw the university as the one place where all views could be examined without prejudice, and they should never become politically biased. When he was offered the job to become president of Israel, he said, "no" because he did not think he was capable of doing this. He told me that politics was more difficult than science. He said that nearly all politicians indoctrinate rather than educate the people to reach their own decisions. Indoctrination tells you what to believe. Education allows you to use your brain, think critically, and make your own judgments which may or may not agree with the political system. When I challenged him to think of ways to correct this, he said one word, "democracy". "I would not want to live in a country that did not have civil liberty, tolerance, and equality for all." He also pointed out that this country is a great model for the rest of the world. People here own the government, not the reverse. He was also concerned that young people in this country may not appreciate what it is like to live without freedom of religion and freedom of the press. He loved the fact that people charged with a crime were considered innocent until proven guilty. In this way politicians cannot just charge opponents with a crime and put them in jail or even death to eliminate competition. This is what he experienced in Germany, and he was worried after the McCarthy hearings in the United States Senate that we were losing some of our freedom. I believe his rebellion against authority started at an early age because he felt helpless. No one in his early development thought he would amount to anything and often said so. He proved them wrong over and over again. Although it affected his self worth, he never stopped thinking and expressing his wonderful ideas.
Einstein had a different kind of brain. He could formulate pictures in his mind, and he learned best by doing this. For example, I found one idea in electronics that I knew, but he did not. It was how to generate an electrical frequency using an induction coil and a variable capacitor. I drew the following picture:
I explained the induction coil is just a coil of wire with a metal rod running through the middle. The capacitor is made of two pieces of metal separated by a dielectric with a rheostat. By placing these together in parallel, we can generate any radio frequency by simply changing either component. He was fascinated with this idea, and asked me to find him a bunch of parts to play with. He did not believe it was true until he confirmed it worked. He learned this idea when he looked at my drawing and imagined a picture of himself riding one side of the condenser, hitting a brick wall and unable to get to the other side. He literally became an electric current. I don't know how to label this unique way of learning. He could picture anything in his mind. What a rare talent.
The first time I saw the inside of his house I saw some interesting things. He had many compasses in just about every room. He also had a collection of different metals that he used to make his own compass. He figured out that only metals that had some iron or steel components would be attracted to the magnetic force of the earth. I also saw an abundance of watch parts on his desk. He loved to watch the gears turn and the effect large gears could have on smaller ones. He reminded me of my own childhood when I told my mother I loved watches, and she bought me a cigar box full of watch parts from a local jewelry in Washington, D.C. I played with those watches for several years and got to the point where I could repair and clean them. I used that skill to fix a grandfather clock that was stored in his house. He was very pleased I could do that. Frankly, I would have done anything to please him. He was my hero.
I also discovered in one closed room a bundle of unopened envelopes that were as old as five years. I opened several and found fairly large amounts of money. I believe many people thought he was poor and sent him checks. I made a large deposit for him, and I paid some of his bills. I tried many times to strike up a conversation with his wife, but with no success. I wanted to tell her how important Einstein was to develop scientific knowledge. She would simply leave the room. I never heard him tell her he loved her, and my impression was he tolerated her and nothing more.
The Institute for Advanced Study was built for Einstein to have a place to work. General Electric paid for the construction of the building and for all the expenses to run the place. It is located next to Princeton University in New Jersey. They recruited 24 nuclear physicists who graduated from CCNY in New York where education was free if you were smart enough to pass their entrance exams. None of these men came from wealthy families, and they probably would never have gone to college unless it was free. I had never met a group like this. I could only describe them as brilliant. I am afraid because it cost so much to go to college today, thousands of students like these will be lost. Nothing is more important than the nurturing of young capable minds in order to save our society. I hope our politicians will listen to this and provide a way to subsidize education. Because of the GI Bill, a number of my family members returning from the war were able to go to college, and because they could achieve a college degree, they were able to support financially their own children to also get a college degree. Tax money to support education is well spent and may one day save our country.
I asked Einstein to share with me how activity at the Institute for Advanced Study produced the knowledge to make the atomic bomb. He explained at first they spent hours winding large electromagnets by hand because they were not available commercially. He explained that when an atom is bombarded by a neutron, it gives off energy and three more neutrons at specific angles. In order to get the chain reaction, the holes needed to be drilled precisely so each neutron would hit another particle. The other challenge was to get the speed of the neutrons up to the speed of light because Einstein said it was logical to do this. He was wrong about the speed and admitted that to me. The person who unlocked the mystery was Louise Meitner. She was working in a German lab where they had already cracked the atom. Albert knew her from Germany, and he then wrote the famous letter to President Roosevelt to expedite the development of the bomb before the Germans got it. Hitler made a big mistake when he found out Meitner was Jewish and ordered her killed. She escaped and was brought to the Institute for Advanced Study. She told Albert there was a very narrow window with a short frequency range to get the reaction. Einstein and his co-workers had gone well above the correct frequency in their quest to get to the speed of light. This was all they needed, so the information was sent to the people at the Manhattan Project under army supervision where two bombs were constructed that were later used to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Institute for Advanced Study was a unique place that probably never existed anywhere else in the world. They had a gigantic main-frame computer that occupied a large space. It was called the "Maniac" which stood for the "Mathematical and Numerical Integrator and Computer." Personal computers were not yet available. I believe that Freeman Dyson, a physicist at the Institute, was credited for its name. No engineering construction was done at the Institute. Every problem presented was attacked by theoretical mathematics. When no known differential calculus formula were appropriate, they wrote new ones. When these were later put to the test, they turned out to be correct. George Dyson, the son of Freeman, gave a beautiful description of the philosophy at the Institute in his book, "Turing's Cathedral." He said, "The Institute for Advanced Study had no laboratories, and was sort of the peak of the ivory tower. People were there to think great ideas, but not to build things, so mathematicians brought engineers into theoretical paradise against very strong objections. We don't want dirty engineers bringing wires and soldering guns and machine tools. Physically, they came into the building where all these great historians of classical art and so on were working, so there was great animosity." However by 1946, the year I met Albert, I did not see that kind of negative behavior especially after they saw the numerous outcomes shared by both groups. This was successful because of the great leadership of Albert Einstein. The mutual respect people had for each other, and the way they worked together was a great model for governments to behave. When someone spoke everyone listened. It was not who was sharing an idea, but the idea itself was the important thing.
Excerpted from My Time With Einstein by Stanley R. Cohen Copyright © 2012 by Stanley R. Cohen, Ed.D. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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