We all have a mental image of Albert Einstein - more a caricature than a man. We regard him as a genius with wild white hair and mathematical formulas floating around his headspace, a pacifist who helped inspire nuclear weaponry, an eccentric who didn't like to wear socks. But who was the real man behind the brainy persona?
The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.
Einstein was, at different points in his life, a citizen of Germany, Switzerland, and the United States. "Nationalism is an infantile sickness," he once said. "It is the measles of the human race."
In 1952 he was invited to serve as the second president of Israel. A Jew by heritage but never a citizen of Israel, Einstein graciously declined. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Einstein was born in 1879, in Ulm, Wurttemberg, Germany, to non-observant Ashkenazi Jews. The young boy was slow to speak, perhaps because his brain developed concepts before words. As an adult, he explained, "I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards."
When his parents moved to Italy for business reasons, they enrolled Einstein in a German boarding school. At some point Einstein realized he did not want to perform mandatory military service for his country. Claiming nervous exhaustion, he fled Germany and joined his parents in Italy, then applied to a prestigious school in Switzerland.
Incredibly, young Einstein failed the entrance exam for Zurich Polytechnic, in Switzerland, but he was admitted anyway because of his exceptional scores in math and physics. He once remarked, "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."
After graduation, Einstein was passed over for promotion at the patent office where he worked, because he supposedly lacked an understanding of machine technology.
Despite these setbacks, Einstein continued with his studies. He is, in this regard, a role model for the potential genius in all of us.
Einstein's genius was recognized, at last, during his so-called "miracle year." In 1905 he published not only his thesis, but also important papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy.
In the years that followed, he refined his most famous work, the Theory of Relativity. Einstein commented, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."
So was Einstein's brain special, or did he simply use it to its fullest potential?
Nurturing Young Einstein's Brain
When Einstein was four or five years old, his father showed him a magnetic compass. The young boy was fascinated because the needle always pointed in the same direction, no matter how he turned the compass. In later years, Einstein reminisced that this early experience with the compass had ignited his curiosity about how things work.
His parents encouraged Einstein to take violin lessons when he was young, even though he had no interest. He wanted to build things instead. Only later, after he discovered the works of Mozart, did Einstein grow to love both performing and listening to music. "Mozart's music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe," he said.
Einstein believed that music helped him to think. "If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician," he said. "I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.
Without nurturing parents and exposure to inspirational stimuli, might Einstein's brain have developed differently? Does Einstein's anecdotal experience point to a need to embrace independent study and the arts in our schools?
Love and Marriage and Divorce
Einstein found love, as well as education, at Zurich Polytechnic. Einstein's parents did not approve of Mileva Maric, a fellow student, because she was a Serb and she was not Jewish. In 1902 Einstein and Maric had a daughter, Lieserl, whose fate is uncertain - she either died of scarlet fever or was given up for adoption. The couple married in 1903 and eventually had two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard.
Some say that Mileva Maric played an important role in the development of Einstein's theories. Whether that is true or not, in 1919 their marriage ended in divorce. As part of their divorce settlement, Einstein promised to give Maric any money he might receive in the future for winning a Nobel Prize.
Two years after his divorce from Maric, Einstein won the Nobel Prize. As stipulated, he gave the prize money to his ex-wife. By this time, Einstein had a new wife - but more on that later.
Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, not for his Theory of Relativity, as is commonly assumed, but for his Law of Photoelectric Effect - perhaps because the Theory of Relativity was too controversial.
But What is the Theory of Relativity?
Einstein once said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." Understanding Einstein's Theory of Relativity, however, is not a simple matter.
Everyone knows the famous equation - E=mc2 - but what does that really mean? Translating the equation into English - energy equals mass multiplied by the constant speed of light squared - only makes the average person's eyes glaze over. Let's leave those equations to the rocket scientists.
Simply put, the Theory of Relativity explains why the movement of objects seems different, depending on your viewpoint. For example, imagine you are a passenger in a car driving on the Interstate, and you are blowing soap bubbles. From your viewpoint, those soap bubbles are floating lazily inside the car. From the viewpoint of a hitchhiker standing on the shoulder of the highway, however, those soap bubbles are zipping along at 60 miles per hour, the same speed as the car! You and the hitchhiker have very different impressions, regarding the velocity of those soap bubbles, but you are both correct.
Voila - this is part of the Theory of Relativity, which describes the motion of an object in terms of its position relative to another object.
There is more, of course, including the Theory of Special Relativity, which states that the speed of light is constant. This theory shocked the scientific community because it contradicted Newton's Law.
Science fiction enthusiasts owe a debt to Einstein. His theories have inspired writers to explore the wonders of black holes and space-time. Some say the eyes of Yoda, a character in the "Star Wars" films, were modeled after the eyes of Einstein.
Einstein's Personal Theory of Relativity
In 1919, the same year as his divorce from Mileva Maric, Einstein married a very close relative! His second wife, Elsa Lowenthal, was not only a first cousin on his mother's side, but also a second cousin on his father's.
Lowenthal emigrated with Einstein to the United States in 1933. She managed everyday tasks for her famous husband, freeing his mind from such distractions. She encouraged him to appear dapper in public, choosing silk vests and and even a kimono for him to wear. Lowenthal died in Princeton in 1936.
Following the death of his second wife, Einstein relaxed in more casual attire, including soft sweatshirts and sandals without socks. Contrary to popular belief, however, he never had a closet full of identical suits.
Einstein was a man of many passions, including politics. He believed in democracy and socialism; he disliked capitalism. He renounced Germany, the country of his birth, because he was a pacifist. Germany, in turn, denounced him and his work because he was a Jew. The Nazis raided a cottage he owned and turned it into an Aryan youth camp.
Before the Second World War, Einstein, along with other scientists, warned U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt about Germany's weapons buildup. This warning led to the development of the Manhattan Project.
Einstein later partnered with a British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to publicize the dangers of nuclear weapons.
The peace-loving Einstein said, "I do not believe that civilization will be wiped out in a war fought with the atomic bomb. Perhaps two-thirds of the people of the earth will be killed." He also stated, "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."
In 1952 Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, a mostly ceremonial position. He declined with regrets, citing his advanced age.
Einstein was not a practicing Jew. He referred to himself as an agnostic, explaining, "I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation and is but a reflection of human frailty."
Regarding his personal faith, he said, "My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind."
Einstein embraced a universe that his brain could perceive.
To the end, Einstein maintained his independence and courage. Refusing surgery for an aneurysm, he said, "I want to go when I want. It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly."
Einstein died in 1955 as he had lived - with dignity - but sadly, his brain was not laid to rest.
Where is Einstein's Brain?
Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Einstein, absconded with the physicist's remarkable brain. This impulsive action destroyed his career. Over time, Harvey shared pieces of the brain with scientists who were eager to unlock clues to Einstein's genius.
When Harvey grew older, he decided that whatever remained of Einstein's brain should be returned to the family - in particular, to a granddaughter living in California. Harvey traveled cross-country from Princeton, New Jersey, with a companion, Michael Paternitti. Einstein's granddaughter, understandably, did not want any part of his brain, so it was sent to its current resting place at the pathology department of Princeton University. Paternitti chronicled the strange journey in a book, "Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain."
Einstein probably would have described his own brain as nothing special. "Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist," he once said. "They are wrong: it is character."