albert einstein lagged behind other children -- 6/19/19

Today's selection -- from Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Albert Einstein, the paragon of modern genius, lagged behind other children in his early development:

"He was slow in learning how to talk. 'My parents were so worried,' he later recalled, 'that they consulted a doctor.' Even after he had begun using words, sometime after the age of 2, he developed a quirk that prompted the family maid to dub him 'der Depperte,' the dopey one, and others in his family to label him as 'almost backwards.' Whenever he had something to say, he would try it out on himself, whispering it softly until it sounded good enough to pronounce aloud. 'Every sentence he uttered,' his worshipful younger sister recalled, 'no matter how routine, he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips.' It was all very worrying, she said. 'He had such difficulty with language that those around him feared he would never learn.'

"His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times.

Maja, age 3, an Albert Einstein, 5

"His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wis­dom in ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contem­plated. And as for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. 'When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the fol­lowing circumstance,' Einstein once explained. 'The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordi­nary child would have.'

"Einstein's developmental problems have probably been exagger­ated, perhaps even by himself, for we have some letters from his ador­ing grandparents saying that he was just as clever and endearing as every grandchild is. But throughout his life, Einstein had a mild form of echolalia, causing him to repeat phrases to himself, two or three times, especially if they amused him. And he generally preferred to think in pictures, most notably in famous thought experiments, such as imagining watching lightning strikes from a moving train or experi­encing gravity while inside a falling elevator. 'I very rarely think in words at all,' he later told a psychologist. 'A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.' "



Walter Isaacson


Einstein: His Life and Universe


Simon & Schuster Paperbacks


Copyright 2007 by Walter Isaacson


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