A revealing new portrait of Albert Einstein, the world’s first scientific “superstar”
About the Author
Steven Gimbel was previously the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities as well as chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College. He lives in Mount Airy, MD.
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His Space and Times
By Steven Gimbel
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Steven Gimbel
All rights reserved.
Everything Was in Order
Albert Einstein grew up in an adolescent Germany. Otto von Bismarck united the country into a coherent nation-state only eight years before Einstein's birth. As a result of major military victories, the formerly loose-knit regions joined together into a coherent political structure with the Prussian king, Wilhelm I, as Kaiser.
The war furor and postvictory euphoria were harnessed and turned into nationalistic sentiment. The stereotypical Prussian personality—disciplined, strict, and prizing strength and bravery over intellect and cleverness—was transformed into the cultural archetype for the young country. To reinforce this, Bismarck (the power behind the Kaiser) made the Kulturkampf, or cultural struggle, to reclaim true German identity official policy. This movement to cleanse German society of its unhealthy elements had a religious component. Its focus was not the antisemitism that would dominate later political discourse; rather, it was Catholicism that was portrayed as an enemy of German progress and growth in the modern world. The political power and cultural influence of the Catholic Church, Bismarck contended, had to be strictly contained. Catholics were a minority who largely populated the working and underclass. They were not the engine that would drive Germany to its modernized, industrialized future.
The area of Einstein's birth, Swabia, lay south of Prussia and was predominantly Catholic. To northerners, Swabians were country bumpkins, cheap to a fault, and not terribly bright—traits apparent in their peculiar dialect, which among other things often added the diminutive "le" to nouns, making it seem childlike to the more sophisticated and jaded Prussians.
This general sense of alienation from Prussia made life a little easier on Swabian Jews, who, similar to Jews elsewhere, still located themselves in dense pockets, especially in smaller towns. The situation was calm enough that Swabian Jews progressively assimilated into the local culture, seeing themselves as more a part of the mainstream with each generation.
Germany was ascendant. Science and technology flourished, driving rapid industrialization that created great wealth and major changes in population distribution and lifestyle. Throughout the nineteenth century there was a tremendous flight toward the urban centers and away from the traditional rural ways of life. Einstein's family was part of this movement. His paternal grandparents, Abraham and Helene Einstein, and his father, Hermann (then age nineteen), moved from the bucolic town of Buchau to the more industrial Ulm in 1866. Hermann Einstein was a gentle soul, soft-spoken and kind and with a light and playful spirit. Optimistic and mild, he was well liked but not well suited for the cutthroat world of business. Yet that is where he ended up, joining his cousin's featherbed enterprise.
In 1876 he married Pauline Koch. Strong-willed, strong-minded, and sharp-tongued, Pauline provided an almost stereotypical counterpoint to her docile husband. Although eleven years younger than Hermann, she was the dominant personality in the marriage. According to their younger child, Maja, "There was such complete harmony in character between Hermann and his wife that the marriage would not only remain untroubled throughout their lives, but would also prove to be, at each turn of fate, the one thing that was firm and reliable." Coming from a family of means, Pauline was well read and had a deep love of music, thereby bringing the sort of refinement and culture that were expected to accompany a middle-class lifestyle. Hermann would regularly read aloud in the evenings from the writings of the German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller and Heinrich Heine, the well-known intellectual, cultural critic, and converted Jew.
According to the birth certificate, at 11:30 a.m. on March 14, 1879, Hermann and Pauline Einstein of apartment 135 B on Banhofstrasse had a child, a son they named Albert. Although the Jewish custom had long been to name a first child, especially a son, after the child's grandfather, the grandfather's name "Abraham" was not selected, but in his honor the initial "A" was kept.
This is indicative of the sort of household Albert was born into: the family did not keep the Sabbath, did not observe the dietary code, and did not belong to a synagogue, yet they did not completely surrender their Jewish identity. They were part of the Jewish community, but like many modernist Jews of the time they were not only nonobservant, but antiobservant. Hermann scoffed at the ancient beliefs and rituals as leftover superstitions that had no place in a contemporary context. In his biography of Albert Einstein, Anton Reiser notes that "[Einstein's] father prided himself on the fact that he was a free-thinker. His belief harmonized with the thought of his time, which was controlled by the philosophy of materialism. Albert's father was proud that Jewish rites were not practiced in his house."
Indeed, they were so secular that Hermann and Pauline felt comfortable sending young Albert to a Catholic school. The family moved to Munich when Albert was a year old, and he was sent to Petersschule, or St. Peter's Academy, where he was the only Jewish boy in his class.
The featherbed business having failed a couple of years before Albert's birth, the unemployed Hermann was convinced by his younger brother Jakob to join him in an electronics venture. While Hermann had some natural mathematical abilities, he had only a high school education. Jakob, on the other hand, was a trained engineer with a college degree who saw that widespread electrification was creating a rapidly expanding market to be exploited. Jakob would run the technical side of the operation, and it seemed quite natural to bring in Hermann with his commercial experience to oversee the business end. But it was not just his knowledge that Jakob needed to get the business up and running. Pauline's family was wealthy, her father having been a grain dealer with connections to the well-off gentry in Württemberg. Hermann was able to secure funding from his family, the largest portion from his in-laws, and so the family relocated in 1877 so they could live alongside Jakob.
The Einstein brothers, while both upbeat with sunny outlooks, were different in temperament. Hermann, no matter where he was, was generally content with the world around him, while Jakob was a would-be visionary, always with a new big idea, a new plan, a new foolproof concept that he was excited about. Hermann was so good-hearted that he would get swept along with his brother's enthusiasm, often without fully deliberating on the matter—behavior that was generally quite contrary to Hermann's nature, which was usually contemplative to the point of being indecisive.
Having Uncle Jakob as part of the household was wonderful for young Albert. It was with his uncle that Einstein first began to think about mathematics, as Jakob exposed him to basic notions in algebra and number theory. Mathematics was a game—solving algebraic problems was "a merry science ... when the animal that we are hunting cannot be caught, we call it x temporarily and continue to hunt it until it is bagged." His uncle exposed him to the Pythagorean theorem, which Einstein set off to justify to himself, deriving a novel proof of the classical result.
It is not surprising that Albert's intellectual passion would arise outside of the classroom. Einstein hated the pedagogical approach of the German schools. His sister recalled that "he had a rather strict teacher whose methods included teaching children arithmetic, and especially the multiplication tables, with the help of whacks on the hands, so-called 'Tatzen' (knuckle raps); a style of teaching that was not unusual at the time, and that prepared the children early for their future role as citizens." The dislike of formal schooling would last his entire life, as he believed that such methods crushed the human mind and spirit instead of elevating and liberating them as education ought to do.
But this stance did not sour Einstein on learning. From a very young age he loved teaching himself, exploring and discovering intellectual areas on his own. This led to a lifelong conviction that this was how he learned best. It was, however, a belief that would repeatedly get him in trouble.
One subject that Einstein did enjoy studying in school was religion. There was compulsory religious education in Germany at the time, and Einstein's Catholic schooling meant required classes in the catechism, where Einstein was exposed to the stories of the New Testament and the basics of Catholic theology. He was taken with them and acquired a lifelong admiration for the Jesus of the Gospels and the social justice elements of Christian belief. The teachings of Jesus, with their emphasis on love and care for those who are vulnerable, stood in stark contrast to the larger cultural messages he received from not only the school but the regular military parades that he loathed even as a child.
While his fully secular parents did not mind sending young Albert to a school of another faith, they still felt that he should know he was different from the other boys in terms of his religious heritage, and so they brought in a religious relative to give Albert an education in his own traditions. They were lessons he took to heart, especially given his experiences at school. Children can be cruel to quiet kids, especially those who do well academically, and if there is a difference to be pointed out in one of their peers, it usually serves as the basis for taunting. Thus, Einstein was bullied for being Jewish, suffering both verbal and some physical abuse. This was reinforced in one lesson Einstein would later recall, when the priest teaching the religion course brought in large metal nails and explained that it was with such implements that Jesus was crucified on the cross. Einstein recalled this story differently for different audiences—in some tellings of this story, Einstein stated that the priest's intention was to instill antisemitic sentiment in the students, whereas in other cases he contended that an antisemitic lesson was not the priest's purpose, but that upon completion of the story, all eyes in the class turned to focus uncomfortably on him.
Either way, Einstein's Jewish heritage made him an outsider, and when possible he intrinsically would embrace the role as the Einspänner—the lone horse—especially when it meant distinguishing himself from those with power. So, when Einstein was considered to be "the Jewish kid" in a particular setting, he would then become "the Jewish kid." He would simultaneously rebel against the authorities and bullies at school and his parents by becoming, at age eight, a deeply committed, practicing Jew—keeping kosher, observing Shabbat, even making up his own psalms to God which he would sing to himself on the way to school.
The idea of worship through song was quite natural for Einstein, who attributed special powers to music. He began violin lessons when he was six, and the listening and playing of music would be a constant through all of his life. It appealed to him because it was a direct experience unmediated by language.
Many of us believe that we think in words, and that beliefs are sentences that we take to be true of reality. Language is the means we use to make sense of the world. Every object has a label, and, to paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein, the grammar of our language is meant to model the structure of the universe. We think in words, and our words mirror the world. But for Einstein, thinking was never a linguistic endeavor. Language may be necessary for communication of our thoughts to others, but he thought it stood in the way of connecting ourselves to the world itself and to the world of our own mind. "For me it is not dubious that our thinking goes on for the most part without use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how otherwise should it happen that sometimes we 'wonder' quite spontaneously about experience? This 'wondering' seems to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts which is already sufficiently fixed within us." Words and concepts were not to be trusted, as they took us away from the real world and our real experiences within it.
We needed to return to our world of wonder, which puts us in touch with our inner images and not the abstract artificial concepts we use to categorize them. Images were one avenue to a direct link, and Einstein's science would always have a very visual, pictorial sense to it full of thought experiments, models, and metaphors. But another nonlinguistic way of connecting to the real elements of the universe is music. For Einstein, whether through performance or listening, music brought an experience of unification, connection, and order that did not make use of words or linguistic notions. We experience music directly, viscerally. It would not be exaggeration to say that Einstein thought music to be spiritual in the deepest sense.
But the elevation of music and mental pictures above the linguistic was a result not only of his love of them, but of his lifelong distrust of language, which probably stemmed in part from Einstein's difficulties as a child. These developmental problems have given rise to a number of well-known myths: Einstein was a late talker. Einstein was a poor student. Einstein's teachers thought he was stupid. Einstein failed mathematics. Einstein was autistic. The perpetuation of these stories derives no doubt from the icon of Einstein as a rebel, as someone who achieved greatness while not conforming to the received image of "the perfect child." When coupled with insecurities about our own perceived lacks, this mythological Einstein becomes useful. "It is okay if I fail at this task or do not achieve that goal," we tell ourselves. "After all, Einstein became the world's greatest scientist after failing math." Einstein the myth gives us hope in the face of failure. Unfortunately, Einstein the man is not identical to Einstein the myth, and while there is some truth to some of these stories, others are simply false.
Einstein did have issues with speech as a young child. He started speaking later than most children, but the degree to which this occurred is surely exaggerated. The story attributed to the great historian of ancient mathematics Otto Neugebauer, for example, is no doubt wrong. "It seems that when Einstein was a young boy he was a late talker and naturally his parents were worried. Finally, one day at supper, he broke into speech with the words, 'Die Suppe ist zu heiss.' (The soup is too hot.) His parents were greatly relieved, but asked him why he had not spoken up to that time. The answer came back: 'Bisher war Alles in Ordnung.' (Until now everything was in order.)" It is a cute story, but there is good reason to think that Einstein was talking well before then. We have, for example, a letter from his grandparents praising the two-year-old Einstein for his "droll ideas," and while we cannot be certain that his conveying of these ideas was linguistic, it would seem unlikely if it were otherwise without note.
Similarly, there is no reason to suspect that Einstein had autism. While some, such as Temple Grandin and Simon Baron-Cohen, have argued that certain biographical facts about Einstein point to traits that are consistent with a diagnosis of autism, there are a number of other facts that support the opposite conclusion. Although it is certainly true that Einstein's delayed speech, social awkwardness, lack of concern for socially prescribed dress, and intelligence provide reason to suspect that he may have been somewhere on the spectrum, he also was capable of deep and recurring emotional bonds with others, had a lively sense of humor, and placed empathy for human suffering at the core of living a meaningful human life. Is it possible that Einstein had Asperger's? Of course, but there is not convincing evidence to support the postmortem diagnosis.
Excerpted from Einstein by Steven Gimbel. Copyright © 2015 Steven Gimbel. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Everything Was in Order, 6,
2. The Miracle Year, 33,
3. The Happiest Thought, 60,
4. Two Wars, 90,
5. The Worldwide Jewish Celebrity, 108,
6. In Exile, 145,