Early influences

Print edition : May 20, 2005

ALBERT EINSTEIN, the first child of Hermann Einstein and Pauline Koch, was born at Ulm, in Germany, on March 14, 1879. According to most biographers, Einstein was a quiet child who stayed apart from his classmates, and was not much inclined to sports or gymnastics, which made him "dizzy and tired". He was given to occasional fits of temper, though. On one occasion, as a five-year old, he threw a chair at a teacher who taught him at home.

Einstein did not have a particularly remarkable school or university record, though he always performed well in mathematics and the sciences. Einstein was distinctly unhappy with the school he attended from age 9 to 15, the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich, and disliked the authoritarian teachers, servile students and rote learning that he had to endure there. When his father moved the family to Italy, leaving Einstein behind to finish school in Munich, the young Albert, pleading illness, managed to leave his school and rejoin his family in Italy.

Outside the regular curriculum, though, Einstein was always deeply interested in science. In "Autobiographical Notes", which he wrote for the volume Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, he notes the deep sense of wonder he experienced as a child of five when his father showed him a compass. He was struck by the idea that "something deeply hidden had to be behind things". The next major influence he records in the notes is his reading a book on Euclidean plane geometry at the age of 12, whose "lucidity and certainty made an indescribable impression upon me". His father's brother Jakob introduced him to algebra. When he was 12, a family friend, Max Talmud, introduced Einstein to several works on science and philosophy. Among the many books he gave the young Albert was The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. It was a book that Einstein took to easily and thus began a life-long interest in philosophy. Talmud was to recall later in an introductory book on the Theory of Relativity that the young Einstein's mathematical talents were enormous and that he soon outran Talmud's own knowledge.

After leaving Munich, Einstein's first attempt to enter the Federal Institute of Technology (or ETH in its German acronym) at Zurich in Switzerland ended in failure owing to his poor performance in subjects other than mathematics and the sciences. He subsequently entered the ETH in October 1896, after he passed the Swiss high school diploma examination, the Matura. Einstein detested the university examination system, which, as he described it in "Autobiographical Notes" almost 50 years later, forced him to "cram all this stuff, whether one liked it or not".

He regarded himself fortunate that he had to appear for only two examinations during his entire stay in the University, which enabled him to study what he pleased except for a few months before the examination. Einstein thought his teachers of mathematics were good, but it was physics that attracted him, even though he had a poor opinion of the physics faculty. Einstein paid particular attention to the study of electromagnetism, which was not part of the regular curriculum. He also studied the work of Ernst Mach and was to be heavily influenced by his critique of Newtonian mechanics, though not by his philosophy. Towards the end of his university days he was studying closely the current state of "ether physics", a subject that reflected the confusion in the classical physics of that time.

In contrast to his school years, Einstein forged lasting friendships while studying in Zurich, including the one with his fellow student Marcel Grossman. Einstein graduated in August 1900. Three other students who graduated with him received assistantships at the ETH, but Einstein was denied one. One of the professors of physics, Weber, who was always critical of Einstein's independence and whom Einstein had grown to dislike intensely, refused to give him a seat after having promised it.

There was one last disappointment in his academic career that awaited Einstein. He took up appointments as a temporary teacher in schools, the first in May 1901 and the second in September 1901. Einstein enjoyed the freedom to work on whatever physics problems struck his fancy after his teaching hours were over. But the University of Zurich rejected his doctoral thesis on the kinetic theory of gases, which he submitted in late 1901. The thesis work itself though was published later.

Einstein obtained his appointment at the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Berne in July 1902, after responding to an advertisement for a position there. Earlier, Marcel Grossman's father had recommended Einstein's name to the head of the patent office for a job. He began his patent office career as a technical expert, third class, and was promoted to technical expert, second class, in April, 1906. In 1909, he left the patent office to begin his academic career.

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