Albert Einstein: Neliti Face of Science 001

Neliti's first ever Face of Science is a man whose very name is synonymous with the word genius.

Neliti Faces of Science celebrates the lives and impact of the world’s greatest scientists – those whose thinking redefined the depth of human knowledge. Every month a new scientist is chosen, a 3D model is created of their face, and their lives are celebrated on the Neliti homepage, here in the Breakthrough blog, and in the Neliti Faces of Science NFT collection.

What better way to kickstart the Neliti Faces of Science project than with a man known as the father of modern physics? You know who. Einstein.

Rendition of Albert Einstein by Lukas Kutschera

“Genius is making complex ideas simple, not making simple ideas complex.” So said Albert Einstein, whose very name is synonymous with the word genius, and who is considered one of the greatest physicists ever, the father of modern physics, and one of the greatest thinkers who walked the earth.

So, was he differently made than regular people? Forty years after his death, scientists discovered Albert Einstein had 17% more neurons than regular people, which gave him supernormal brain power. Pathologist Thomas Harvey who was called in to examine Einstein’s dead body, stole his brain and preserved it for forty years, paving the way for this amazing discovery. Further study showed a missing wrinkle in his brain called the Parietal Operculum, thus extending his Parietal Lobe by 20%, which controls mathematical skills and mental images.  

Yet, Einstein insisted, “I am neither clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” Indeed, curiosity and childlike wonder were innate to him, and he noticed small things other people never did. And if he had a question, he would not give up until he had the answer. As he said, “It’s not that I’m so smart. I stay with problems longer.”

This trait in him was apparent even in childhood, when he spent countless hours building 14-storied houses of cards, when other children gave up at 4 stories.

Moreover, throughout his life, Einstein found himself thinking outside the box, refining his skills in viewing the big picture, while simultaneously zeroing in on details. His forte was the realm of logic, so, naturally, dealing with emotions did not come within his comfort zone. As he said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

Most often, he could not fathom human beings, resulting in his being a quiet, reserved person, keeping his deepest thoughts to himself, and always thinking thoroughly before he spoke. J. Robert Oppenheimer, inventor of the atomic bomb, observed that Einstein was one of the “friendliest men” he had known, but was “also, in an important sense, alone”.

The making of Albert Einstein by 3D artist Lukas Kutschera

Early life and education

Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, to a middle-class Jewish family in Ulm, Germany. His moderately successful entrepreneur father Hermann, and his musically inclined mother Pauline, allowed him to be an independent thinker and to be self-reliant. As a child, he played by himself for hours, and never got bored. He particularly enjoyed working on puzzles and mathematics, and reading books.

Nevertheless, Einstein was a late developer who was late to talk as well, probably into his third year of life, as he recounts later, leading his parents to worry he was abnormal. And, when he was finally able to speak, he adopted a strange linguistic habit of repeating sentences several times to himself, leading to the nickname “der Depperte,” meaning “dopey one.” As Einstein noted in a 1954 letter, “Also, I never exactly became an orator later.” In fact, it required many years for him to even become a good lecturer.

As it happened, Einstein’s parents allowed him to make his own decisions about his education, career, religion and his citizenship as well, although his father did encourage him to become an engineer. Meanwhile, his uncle Jakob Einstein, himself an engineer, advised him to study math and science.

Albert Einstein’s parents: Pauline Einstein (left) and Hermann Einstein (right)

Awakening of the scientist

When he was four or five years old, Einstein experienced his first scientific wonder with the compass his father showed him. He was puzzled how the needle moved through invisible force. He wrote later, “This experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me.” It was, in fact, the beginning of a lifelong fascination with unseen forces. Young as he was, he came to an amazing conclusion about the structure of the physical world. “Something deeply hidden had to be behind things.”

First scientific masterpiece

Einstein’s second childhood wonder happened when he discovered a geometry book at the age of 12. He viewed it in awe as his “holy geometry book,” although his uncle Jakob had previously introduced him to the subject. When other kids played in the sun during summer, Einstein spent the long days teaching himself algebra and geometry. This early intellectual independence enabled Einstein to gain expertise in restructuring problems, which is at the core of his later scientific achievements.

Moreover, Einstein was particularly drawn to the Pythagorean theorem. As he himself noted, “after much effort,” he wrote his own mathematical proof of the theorem. His determination to stay with a problem, his partiality to visual thinking and his instinct for symmetry helped his first step to becoming a scientist.

Perspective on education

As his younger sister Maja also observed, his childhood tendency to violent tempers disappeared when he went to school. Yet, ironically, Einstein hated school. Although he excelled in math and science, he rebelled against the rigid education system where success depended on memorising absolutes and certainties, and where uncertainties and creativity were not tolerated.

He said later, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”  His real learning took place at home, with books on math, physics, and philosophy. When he left school at 15 years, one teacher commented there was nothing left to teach him.

Max Talmud’s influence on Einstein’s first scientific essay

By 1889, 10-year-old Einstein was a budding scientist, whose imagination was stimulated by his informal tutor, Polish medical student Max Talmud who introduced him to a children’s science book. The information therein inspired Einstein to focus his imagination on light. It led to Einstein’s first scientific essay On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field.

Soon thereafter, when he was 17, he emigrated to Switzerland, gave up his German citizenship and remained stateless for five years until 1901, when he became a Swiss citizen.

In Switzerland, he continued schooling and gained entrance to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, where he performed brilliantly. But his rebellious nature coupled with his tendency to skip classes annoyed his professors who did not write him recommendations befitting his capabilities, when he graduated in 1900.

Being the only student from his graduating class not recommended for a professorship, Einstein failed to find a suitable teaching job anywhere. Finally, he settled for a clerical job at the Swiss patent office in Bern, offered by a friend’s father. In this job, which he did for seven years from 1902 to 1909, he had to review inventions, check on their originality and produce decisive patents to safeguard novel ideas from duplication.

Although the job was humdrum and trivial, it suited Einstein well, as he was able to speedily wrap up the day’s work and immerse himself in reflections of the truths of the universe. In fact, one thing he was certain about was that the universe was filled with mysteries, which constantly beckoned the thinker and researcher in him. He once wrote, “Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings, and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle.”

Unique approach to thinking

Even as curiosity sparked his thinking, his ability to reject without compunction, long-held fundamental beliefs and assumptions, led his thoughts to traverse untrodden ways, to arrive at dramatic insights and amazing truths that swiftly uprooted the old way of thinking.

He would blend together seemingly unrelated thoughts from daily life and suddenly, a new discovery was made.  He said, “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.”

For instance, one spring evening in 1905, Einstein was riding home in a tramcar, when, upon passing Zyteglogge, the medieval clock tower in Berne, his mind started to work furiously. What if the tramcar traveled at the speed of light? He realized that if the tramcar traveled at 186,000 miles per second, the clock’s hands would look completely frozen, although, in reality, the hands of the tower clock would move at their normal pace. From this, Einstein concluded that the faster one moves through space, the slower one moves through time. It was an amazing moment of revelation that showed him how space and time are basically built through different occurrences. Six weeks later, Einstein completed a paper that outlined a “special theory of relativity”.

Subsequently he showed how “space-time” influenced mass, energy and gravity.

In another instance, upon observing how stars close to the sun were displaced during the solar eclipse of May 29, 1919, astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Einstein explained, “I never came upon any of my discoveries through the process of rational thinking.”As records show, his thinking techniques centered on visualization, and not on words. As he once said, “The words of the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined…”

Nevertheless, the most revolutionary aspect of Einstein’s gift of scientific discovery, generally goes unnoticed. It is the simple fact that some changes don’t change anything. He realized that the most fundamental aspects of nature remain unchanged although they may change appearance and form in unforeseen ways.  Besides, what is seen as the most compelling aspect of Einstein’s legacy is symmetry.

In his reflective notes, Einstein referred to the patent office as his “worldly cloister” where he “hatched (his) most beautiful ideas.”

Einstein’s “miracle year” and the four revolutionary articles

True enough, the welcome seclusion at the Swiss patent office culminated in four revolutionary articles Einstein wrote in 1905, his “miracle year.” The discoveries introduced in these brilliant articles that Einstein wrote as a 26-year-old, laid the foundation of modern physics, and changed the existing understanding of the universe.

One article focused on the discovery Einstein is most famous for, expressed in the world’s most famous equation, E = mc2. The equation which links energy to mass and the speed of light, reveals the hitherto unknown fact that a tiny particle of mass can generate a huge volume of energy. This principle, which declares that matter and energy are one, is at the core of nuclear power, nuclear medicine and knowledge of the inner workings of the sun.

Einstein’s second article focuses on his quantum theory of light, in which he describes light as small particles he called “photons,” which come as small packets of wave-like energy.  This discovery led to the creation of TVs and other devices with screens, benefitting several branches of science. In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.”

In the meantime, Einstein was also interested in proving that atoms and molecules exist, although some molecules are too small to be observed directly. This discovery, known as the “Brownian movement,” was named after the Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who was the first to study such fluctuation in 1827. Brown was the first researcher to study the random movement of microscopic articles hanging in liquid or gas. Einstein’s third revolutionary paper that demonstrates the existence of atoms and molecules provided the foundation for modern atomic theory.

Einstein’s fourth paper was on the special theory of relativity, which came about after he worked on the idea for over seven years. He remembered how, as an enthusiastic 16-year-old, he imagined chasing after a beam of light. This thought experiment had a significant impact on his development of special relativity. He realized that the faster he chased the light, the more difficult it was to move faster. Then it dawned on him that resistance to change becomes infinite at the speed of light. Also, with resistance being inertia, and inertia being a measure of mass, the energy of motion transforms into mass. As Einstein wrote, “There is no essential distinction between mass and energy.” He understood that the relationship between mass and energy is constant, though they can appear in very different forms.

Even though Einstein was not an inventor in the sense Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were inventors, his theories of relativity led to novel ways of perceiving time, space, matter, energy and gravity. The knowledge imparted through the strength of his reasoning, led to important scientific advances such as managing atomic energy, exploring space, and utilization of light.

Inventions and scientific papers

Yet, while the world focused on Einstein’s amazing discoveries, it neglected to acknowledge his collaborative achievements with prolific inventors. In fact, during 1928-1936, Einstein was awarded 50 patents in his name. The most important among them was probably a design for a home refrigeration system, which he created with Hungarian-American physicist and inventor Leo Szilard, although it never transformed into a consumer product. The two other major inventions included a sound reproduction system and a light-adjusting automatic camera. Later, he designed a blouse for which he received a patent in the U.S. in 1936.

What is equally unknown is that he published over 300 scientific papers during his lifetime.

Physicist or musician?

As Einstein looked back on his life, he said, “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.”

It all happened after his mother introduced him to the violin at around age 6, leading to a lifelong passion, once he absorbed the musical mastery of Mozart. Einstein wrote to his friend and fellow physicist Philipp Frank, in 1940, “I took violin lessons from age 6 to 14, but had no luck with my teachers for whom music did not transcend mechanical practicing.” In fact, Mozart and Bach became his favorite composers, largely due to the clarity, simplicity and architectural perfection in their work, which were also the hallmark of Einstein’s own work.

Thus, music became his pet hobby, and the violin was affectionately called “Lina.” Later, in times of stress when trying to fathom complex scientific issues, he was known to play the violin in the middle of the night, then suddenly stop to exclaim, “I’ve got it,” when the answer popped in his head.

Unfulfilled personal life 

On the other hand, being a genius with unconventional thinking and habits, and an unapologetic roving eye, probably construed a recipe for disaster in his personal life.

Einstein met his first love Marie Winteler as a newbie in romance, while studying in Switzerland. Although they parted ways a year later, Einstein was preoccupied with thoughts of her and wrote passionate love letters to her while married to his first wife.

Then, Einstein fell in love with the only female fellow student at Zurich Polytechnic, Mileva Maric, a match his parents emphatically opposed. Having no funds to tie the knot, they lived together and had an illegitimate daughter Lieserl, who was born while Einstein was away seeking a job, and who is unheard of thereafter. Einstein married Mileva when he got a job at the Swiss patent office in Berne, and had two sons Hans Albert in 1904 and Eduard in 1910.  Hans had a negative perception of Einstein as a father, and once said, “probably the only project he ever gave up on was me.” The second son Eduardo was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and later died in an asylum.   

In 1912, while still married to Mileva, he started a romance with his cousin Elsa Lowenthal, abandoning Mileva and his two sons two years later, to go live with Elsa. Although himself culpable of infidelity, Einstein laid down conditions for Mileva to remain married to him, which she rejected. They divorced in 1919, and Einstein left all his Nobel prize money to Mileva and his two sons.

When the divorce was through, he married Elsa, but his first marriage was apparently not a lesson learnt. Soon after Elsa became his second wife, he started a romance with his secretary Betty Neumann, and had other illicit relationships over the years. Elsa died in 1936, and Einstein never married again.

Despite a failed personal life which rarely brought him happiness, Einstein was compensated by the victories in his professional life, as he continued to live his days absorbed in incredible discoveries he gifted to the world. The world-famous comedian, Charlie Chaplin whom Einstein once befriended, told him, ““The people applaud me because everybody understands me, and they applaud you because no one understands you.”

But that did not prevent people from admiring and respecting him. In particular, when Einstein was 73 years old, he was considered “the greatest Jew alive” by the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who invited him to be his successor as the second President of Israel. Einstein, who was not even an Israeli citizen, gently declined.

The final curtain

Just like happiness eluded his love life, Einstein was denied good health for many years. During the last 39 years of his 76 years on earth, he was plagued by chronic illnesses. He had several complicated diseases related to his digestive system, such as liver problems, stomach ulcers, inflamed gallbladder, jaundice and intestinal pain. As he reached his mid-70s, Einstein realized the end was near for him. He joked, “The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in our health, or we suffer in our soul, or we get fat.”

On April 18, 1955, he was engrossed in writing a speech for a TV appearance at Israel’s seventh anniversary celebrations, when he experienced an abdominal aortic aneurysm. Unlike in 1948, when the condition was surgically dealt with, this time, when he was rushed to the hospital, he declined surgery. He told the doctors clearly, “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.”

Thus ended an extraordinary life, which can be immortalized through the golden-lettered adage Einstein staunchly believed. “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

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