Sunday, December 13, 2015

 

Albert Einstein the Man

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning."--Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein the physicist is world-renowned for developing ideas that forever changed how we view space, time and the nature of reality. Albert Einstein the man is much less well known but he was a father, a job-seeker and a person whose understanding/awareness of his cultural identity evolved. It is interesting to explore these lesser known aspects of Einstein that informed and shaped a mind that had such a transformative effect on society.

Einstein the Father

Einstein's first child, a daughter named Lieserl, was born out of wedlock in January 1902 to Mileva Maric, a volatile and emotionally unstable woman who began a relationship with Einstein in 1897. Maric put Lieserl up for adoption shortly after Lieserl's birth--perhaps to avoid the shame of having an out of wedlock child--and Einstein never met his daughter. Lieserl's ultimate fate is unknown, though some reports suggest that she died in infancy of scarlet fever. Einstein and Maric married in January 1903, shortly after the death of Einstein's father (who disapproved of Maric and preferred that Einstein rekindle his previous relationship with Maria Winteler, who was much more emotionally stable than Maric). In 1904, Maric gave birth to a son named Hans Albert. "My husband often spends his free time at home just playing with the boy," Maric wrote in a letter to a friend.

The couple later had a second son, Eduard, but the marriage was ultimately doomed because of Maric's deep-seated psychological issues (one visitor to the Einstein home later remarked that he thought Maric was schizophrenic). In July 1914, Maric moved to Switzerland with their two children; Einstein reportedly cried "all afternoon and evening" after Maric's departure. Einstein wrote, "I have carried these children around innumerable times day and night, taken them out in their pram, played with them, romped around and joked with them. They used to shout with joy when I came..." He later accused Maric of "poisoning" the boys against him.

Albert Einstein put the money from his Nobel Prize into a trust fund that supported Maric and their two children. Hans Albert became a prominent hydraulic engineer who had a good relationship with his father but Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 20 and spent much of his adult life in various asylums. Albert stayed in regular contact with Eduard and later noted, "The more refined of my sons, the one I considered really of my own nature, was seized by an incurable mental illness."

Einstein the Job-Seeker

The man who transformed physics had trouble obtaining the most basic employment when he was in his 20s. Long after Einstein wrote four seminal papers during his "miracle year" of 1905, he was still supporting himself as a patent clerk. A physicist who had read Einstein's work was aghast when he visited Einstein at the patent office, declaring, "History is full of bad jokes." Einstein applied for an entry level teaching position at the University of Bern but was not hired because he failed to submit a new thesis with his application--despite the fact that he included 17 papers with his application, including the theory of relativity for which he ultimately became world famous! Einstein also applied for a job as a high-school math teacher and out of the 21 applicants he did not even make the list of three finalists. Even when Einstein finally landed a job in academia his troubles were not over; the position paid so poorly that Einstein could not afford to quit his job at the patent office.

Imagine how Einstein must have felt about his life at that time: his emotionally unbalanced wife complained constantly, he could barely support his family and he was being shunned by the academic world even though he knew that he had unparalleled insights about the structure of the universe.

Einstein the Jew

Einstein abhorred conformity and, despite a brief flirtation with observant Judaism during his childhood, he was skeptical of organized religion. Einstein tended to consider himself a citizen of the world more than a member of a particular religious or national group but his perspective changed with the rise of Nazism. Einstein wryly noted that if his theories were proven correct then he would be considered a German but otherwise he would be considered a Jew. As the situation of European Jewry grew more and more perilous, Einstein's sense of identity with the Jewish people strengthened (though he never abandoned his skepticism regarding any form of organized religious practice): "The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice, and the desire for personal independence--these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank the stars I belong to it."

Einstein's solidarity with the Jewish people became even more intense after the Holocaust: "My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became aware of our precarious position among the nations of the world." Adolf Hitler showed the futility of a person with any Jewish blood trying to deny that connection; his Nazi party developed an elaborate and detailed set of laws about people of "mischling" (mixed) background, decreeing that in some scenarios the presence of two Jewish grandparents in a person's background is enough to label that person as a Jew worthy of extermination (a person with "only" one Jewish grandparent could marry a so-called pure Aryan and thus avoid Nazi persecution).

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What can we learn from these vignettes about Einstein the man? "This too shall pass." Dinesh Chandrasekar notes that whether you are going through a good time in your life or a bad one the situation is temporary but he declares, "This isn't a pessimistic view of life. In fact, it is the other way around. Because we know there is death, let us make the most of life. Because we know the day will end, let us make the day count. Because we know the year will end, even before the New Year arrives, let us do something significant to make 2015 memorable. Because we know our tough times too will end, let us endure it with strength and courage. Because we know the best of times too will end, let us be humble even in our success. Because we know every relationship will eventually end, let us give ourselves completely and unconditionally to our loved ones."

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