very young einstein -- 11/19/15

Today's encore selection -- from Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality by Manjit Kumar. Albert Einstein (1879-1955), the physicist who developed the theory of relativity, was born and spent his earliest years in Germany:

" 'The people of Ulm are mathematicians' was the unusual medieval motto of the city on the banks of the Danube in the south-western corner of Germany where Albert Einstein was born. It was an apt birthplace on 14 March 1879 for the man who would become the epitome of scientific genius. The back of his head was so large and distorted, his mother feared her newborn son was deformed. Later he took so long to speak that his parents worried he never would. Not long after the birth of his sister and only sibling, Maja, in November 1881, Einstein adopted the rather strange ritual of softly repeating every sentence he wanted to say until satisfied it was word-perfect before uttering it aloud. At seven, to the relief of his parents, Hermann and Pauline, he began to speak normally. By then the family had lived in Munich for six years, having moved so Hermann could open an electrical business in partnership with his younger brother Jakob.

"In October 1885, with the last of the private Jewish schools in Munich closed for more than a decade, the six-year-old Einstein was sent to the nearest school. Not surprisingly in the heartland of German Catholicism, religious education formed an integral part of the curriculum, but the teachers, he recalled many years later, 'were liberal and did not make any denominational distinctions.' However liberal and accommodating his teachers may have been, the anti-Semitism that permeated German society was never buried too far beneath the surface, even in the schoolroom. Einstein never forgot the lesson in which his religious studies teacher told the class how the Jews had nailed Christ to the cross. 'Among the children,' Einstein recalled years later, 'anti-Semitism was alive especially in elementary school.' Not surprisingly, he had few, if any, school friends. 'I am truly a lone traveller and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart', he wrote in 1930. He called himself an Einspänner, a one-horse cart.

Albert Einstein as a child

"As a schoolboy he preferred solitary pursuits and enjoyed nothing more than constructing ever-taller houses of cards. He had the patience and tenacity, even as a ten-year-old, to build them as high as fourteen stories. These traits, already such a fundamental part of his make-up, would allow him to pursue his own scientific ideas when others might have given up. 'God gave me the stubbornness of a mule,' he said later, 'and a fairly keen scent.' Though others disagreed, Einstein maintained he possessed no special talents, only a passionate curiosity. This quality that others had, however, coupled with his stubbornness, meant that he continued to seek the answer to almost childlike questions long after his peers were taught to stop even asking them. What would it be like to ride on a beam of light? It was trying to answer this question that set him on his decade-long path to the theory of relativity."


Manjit Kumar


Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2008 by Manjit Kumar


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