Albert Einstein was born 135 years ago today. To celebrate this anniversary Bloomsbury Reader would like to share with the readers some interesting and funny facts we learned about the genius from Ronald Clark’s comprehensive biography, Einstein – The Life and Times.
The life of Albert Einstein has a dramatic quality that does not rest exclusively on his theory of relativity. For the extravagant timing of history linked him with three shattering developments of the twentieth century: the rise of modern Germany, the birth of nuclear weapons, and the growth of Zionism. Their impact on his simple genius combined to drive him into a contact with the affairs of the world for which he had little taste. The result would have made him a unique historical figure even had he not radically altered man’s ideas of the physical world. Yet Einstein was also something more, something very different from the Delphic, hair-haloed oracle of his later years. To the end he retained a touch of clowning humor as well as a resigned and understanding amusement at the follies of the human race. Behind the great man there lurked a perpetual glint in the eye, a fundamental irreverence for authority, and an unexpected sense of the ridiculous that could unlatch a deep belly laugh that shook the windows; together with decent moral purpose, it combined to make him a character rich in his own nonscientific right.
Superficially, the picture of Einstein’s student days was conventional enough. There was the fairly frequent change of rooms; the frugal diet of restaurants and cafés, supplemented by snacks from the nearby bakery or from kind Swiss landladies. There was the weekend outing to one or more of the minor summits surrounding the Zurichsee, the Swiss version of the reading parties in the Lakes or North Wales which were a feature of the Victorian scene in Britain. And there were frequent visits back to Aarau where his sister Maja was now spending the first of three years in the Aargau teachers’ seminary. Einstein was casual of dress, unconventional of habit, with the happy-go-lucky absentmindedness of a man concentrating on other things which he was to retain all his life. “When I was a very young man,” he once confided to an old friend, “I visited overnight at the home of friends. In the morning I left, forgetting my valise. My host said to my parents: That young man will never amount to anything because he can’t remember anything.’” And he would often forget his key and have to wake up his landlady late at night, calling: “It’s Einstein—I’ve forgotten my key again.”
It is noticeable that he appears to have been particularly happy in the company of women. The feelings were often mutual. The well-set-up young man with his shock of jet-black wavy hair, his huge luminous eyes, and his casual air was distinctly attractive. More than one young Zurich girl, more than one Swiss matron, was delighted that the young Herr Einstein was such an excellent performer on the violin and was agreeable to accompany them at evening parties. And he was a frequent visitor to the house of Frau Bachtold where several of the women students lodged, sitting in the living room and attentively listening as Mileva Maric played the piano. At Aarau he had been the confidant of one young woman who played Schubert with him and asked his advice when proposed to by a much older man. At Zurich he appears to have exercised a similar influence. Years later Antonina Vallentin, a great friend of Einstein’s second wife, said significantly that “as a young man and even in middle age, Einstein had regular features, plump cheeks, a round chin—masculine good looks of the type that played havoc at the turn of the century.”
The first turning point in Einstein’s life had come with publication of his paper on the electrodynamics of moving bodies, an event whose significance, like the thunder of the guns at Valmy, was recognized at first by only a few. The second was of a totally different order—and not only because the implications of the General Theory were more important. This of itself would have ended his normal life as a Berlin professor, well enough known in his own field but still comparatively obscure outside it. But the circumstances in which the General Theory was tested brought Einstein a worldwide scientific fame which arrived almost literally overnight and swept him away from his scientific moorings into the stream of public events. Between the Armistice of November, 1918, and the end of the following year he became the most famous scientist in the world.
He had also been put on first a fat-free and later a salt-free diet by Dr. Ehrmann, his regular Berlin doctor who had emigrated to New York before the war. Einstein hated it all, but he was never one to kick against the pricks, and his good-humored resignation comes out in two incidents. When a box of candy was being passed round after dinner at Mercer Street one night he took merely a deep sniff. “You see, that’s all my doctor allows me to do,” he said. “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.”