Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, just a century ago. He is one of the small group of people in any epoch who remake the world through a special gift, a talent for perceiving old things in new ways, for posing deep challenges to conventional wisdom. For many decades he was a saintly and honored figure, the only scientist the average person could readily name. In part because of his scientific accomplishments, at least dimly grasped by the public; in part because of his courageous positions on social issues; and in part because of his saintly personality, Einstein was admired and revered throughout the world. For scientifically inclined children of immigrant parents, or those growing up in the depression, like me, the reverence accorded Einstein demonstrated that there were such people as scientists, that a scientific career might not be totally beyond hope. One major function which he involuntarily served was as a scientific role model. Without Einstein, many of the young people who became scientists after 1920 might never have heard of the existence of the scientific enterprise. The logic behind Einstein’s special theory of relativity could have been developed a century earlier; but, although there were some premonitory insights by others, relativity had to wait for Einstein. Yet fundamentally the physics of special relativity is very simple; and many of the essential results can be derived from high school algebra and consideration of a boat paddling upstream and downstream. Einstein’s life was rich in genius and irony, passion for the issues of his time, insights into education, the connection between science and politics and a demonstration that individuals can after all change the world.
As a child Einstein showed little indication of what was to come. “My parents,” he recalled later, “were worried because I started to talk comparatively late, and they consulted the doctor because of it. ...I was at that time ... certainly not younger than three.” He was an indifferent student in elementary school. He said the teachers reminded him of drill sergeants. In Einstein’s youth a bombastic nationalism and intellectual rigidity were the hallmarks of European education. He rebelled against the dull, mechanized methods of teaching. “I preferred to endure all sorts of punishment rather than learn to gabble by rote.” Einstein always detested rigid disciplinarians, in education, in science and in politics. At age five he was stirred by the mystery of a compass. And, he later wrote, “at the age of 12 I experienced a second wonder of a totally different nature in a little book dealing with Euclidean plane geometry. …Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, which—though by no means evident—could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity and certainty made an indescribable impression upon me.” Formal schooling provided only a vexing interruption to such contemplations. Einstein wrote of his self-education, “At the age of 12 to 16 I familiarized myself with the elements of mathematics together with the principles of differential and integral calculus. In doing so I had the good fortune of finding books which were not too particular in their logical rigor, but which made up for this by permitting the main thoughts to stand out clearly and synoptically... I also had the good fortune of getting to know the essential results and methods of the entire field of the natural sciences in an excellent popular exposition, which limited itself almost throughout to qualitative aspects. …a work which I read with breathless attention.” Modern popularizers of science may take some comfort. Not one of his teachers seems to have recognized his talents. At the Munich Gymnasium, the city’s leading secondary school, one of the teachers told him, “You’ll never amount to anything, Einstein.” When Einstein was 15 a teacher strongly suggested that he leave school. The teacher remarked, “Your very presence spoils the respect of the class for me.” Einstein accepted this suggestion with gusto and spent many months wandering through northern Italy.