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By WALTER ISAACSON
A childhood portrait of Albert Einstein and his sister Maja. Was Einstein a slow learner as a child? Einstein was slow in learning how to speak. His parents even consulted a doctor. He also had a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one headmaster to expel him and another to amuse history by saying that he would never amount to much. But these traits helped make him a genius. His cocky contempt for authority led him to question conventional wisdom. His slow verbal development made him curious about ordinary things — such as space and time — that most adults take for granted. His father gave him a compass at age five, and he puzzled over the nature of a magnetic field for the rest of his life. And he tended to think in pictures rather than words.
Albert Einstein on his 75th birthday, March 15, 1954, in Princeton, New Jersey Was Einstein learning disabled? Some researchers claim to detect in Einstein's childhood a mild manifestation of autism or Asperger's syndrome. Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of the autism research center at Cambridge University, is among those. He writes that autism is associated with a "particularly intense drive to systemize and an unusually low drive to empathize." He also notes that this pattern "explains the 'islets of ability' that people with autism display in subjects like math or music or drawing -- all skills that benefit from systemizing." I do not find such a long-distance diagnosis to be convincing. Even as a teenager, Einstein made close friends, had passionate relationships, enjoyed collegial discussions, communicated well verbally and could empathize with friends and humanity in general.
They were called Gedankenexperiment -.Did Einstein flunk math? One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a student. At age 16." Einstein laughed." he replied. If you reached the speed of light. his great breakthroughs came from visual experiments performed in his head rather than the lab. he was at the top of his class and "far above the school requirements" in math. By age 12. a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley's column with the headline "Greatest living mathematician failed in mathematics. correctly. "I never failed in mathematics.thought experiments. he also tackled the new theories by trying to prove them on his own. Not only did he learn the proofs in the books. his sister recalled. often accompanied by the phrase "as everyone knows. His parents bought him the textbooks in advance so that he could master them over summer vacation. he tried to picture in his mind what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. Einstein's childhood offers history many savory ironies. "he already had a predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic. Alas. The allegation even made it into the famous "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" newspaper column. an assertion that is made." In primary school." by scores of books and thousands of websites designed to reassure underachieving students. "Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus. A Google search of Einstein failed math turns up more than 500 thousand references. but this is not one of them. In 1935. He even came up on his own with a way to prove the Pythagorean theory Did Einstein think in pictures rather than words? Yes." and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and algebra on his own. wouldn't the light waves seem stationery to you? But Maxwell's famous equations describing .
On the other hand. What was the thought experiment that led Einstein to general relativity? He imagined a man in free fall. So for the next ten years he wrestled with this thought experiment until he came up with the special theory of relativity Einstein visiting the observatory of Mount Wilson. To understand what he saw. What thought picture did Einstein use for special relativity? Among other things. and anything he pulled from his pocket and dropped would float freely next to him — just as if he were in a closed chamber sitting still in a gravity-free region of deep outer space. imagine a man in a closed elevator chamber that is falling toward the earth. Time is relative. but to someone on the speeding train they would appear to have happened at different moments. He knew that math was the language nature uses to describe her wonders. he constructed his general theory of relativity. A person on the embankment might see the strikes as simultaneous.electromagnetic waves didn't allow that. and from that he came up with the idea that there is no such thing as absolute time. the light from the strike at the front of the train would reach him a moment before the light from the strike at the back of the train. . he pictured lightning striking at both ends of a moving train. She would feel pulled down to the floor. just as if she were being pulled down by gravity. which at that time operated the largest telescope. Because the train is speeding forward. imagine a woman in a closed chamber who is accelerating upward in outer space. From that he realized that simultaneity is relative to your state of motion. Hence the special theory of relativity. From the equivalence of gravity and acceleration. far from any gravity. so he could visualize how equations were reflected in realities. He would float feely in the chamber.
Is there a thought-picture that describes his conclusions about general relativity? Gravity. he produced four papers that upended physics. Picture what it would be like to roll a bowling ball onto the two-dimensional surface of a trampoline. It curves the fabric as it moves. but because of the way it curves the trampoline fabric. Now imagine this happening in the fourdimensional fabric of space and time. It can be described by using another thought experiment. The third. So he was toiling six days a week as a third-class examiner in the Swiss patent office. it's not easy. The second proved the existence of atoms and molecules. And the fourth noted an equivalence between energy and mass described by the most famous equation in all of physics. but that's why we're no Einstein and he was. said that there was no such thing as absolute time or space. Einstein had graduated from college but had not been able to get a doctoral dissertation accepted or get an academic job. Then roll some billiard balls.K. O. E=mc2 .. They move toward the bowling ball not because it exerts some mysterious attraction (as Newton's theory had it). The first showed that light could be conceived as particles as well as waves. he figured. was a warping of space and time. During his spare time. the special theory of relativity. What was Einstein's miracle year? In 1905. He was able to come up with a gravitational field equation that showed how matter curved space and how curved space told matter how to move.
They had fallen passionately in love and had an illegitimate daughter. she helped with the math. and Einstein sought a divorce. however. Eventually their relationship disintegrated. it took until 1922 before he was awarded the prize and she could. which he allowed to be given up for adoption before he ever saw her. Mileva Mari. Does Mileva Mari deserve credit as a true collaborator? Well. which was even harder. the respect she is due for overcoming most (but not all) of the obstacles facing a woman who wanted at that time to be a physicist. would eventually win the Nobel Prize. They then got married and had two boys. Because Einstein's theories were so radical. And she put up with him. What was Einstein's personal life like at the time? Helping him check his math was a moody Serbian. he presumed. and Dimitri Marianoff' to the civil registry office for their wedding. . But a careful analysis of all their letters and later statements shows that the concepts involved were all his. He offered her a deal: One of those 1905 papers. This should not diminish. and if she gave him a divorce he would give her the prize money. who had been the only woman in his physics class at college. She thought for a week and accepted.Albert Einstein escorts his daughter. Margot.
the primary justifications for denying Einstein a Nobel had been scientific: his work was purely theoretical. But politics intervened. Ostwald cited special relativity.How was relativity received? Scientists were unsure at first whether the general theory was right. who had made his . elevated him into a cult of genius. who had rejected Einstein's pleas for a job nine years earlier. and canonized him as a secular saint. The six-deck headline in the New York Times read: "Lights All Askew in the Heavens / Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations / Einstein Theory Triumphs." and it felt that relativity theory was not exactly either of those. The dramatic announcement in November 1919 that the eclipse observations had confirmed parts of Einstein's theory should have made 1920 his year. So the 1920 prize instead went to a scientist who was Einstein's scientific opposite: Charles-Edouard Guillaume. Up until then. After the eclipse observations. But Einstein proposed a dramatic experiment. one of the most famous faces on the planet. He became a scientific supernova and humanist icon. the arguments against Einstein were tinged with more cultural and personal bias. and it putatively did not involve the "discovery" of any new laws. He was first nominated for the prize in 1910 by the chemistry laureate Wilhelm Ostwald." That was back when folks knew how to write great headlines. At the next appropriate eclipse. Einstein's launch into fame contributed to the birth of a new celebrity age. Why did it take so long for Einstein to get a Nobel Prize? Initially his 1905 papers were considered baffling and unproven. scientists could measure how starlight passing close to the sun was bent by its gravity. To his critics. but the Swedish committee was mindful of the charge in Alfred Nobel's will that the prize should go to "the most important discovery or invention. The public earnestly puzzled over his theories. in 1919. the fact that he had suddenly achieved superstar status was evidence of his self-promotion rather than his worthiness of a Nobel. including antiSemitism.
The great impasse threatened to become embarrassing. it was for the discovery of a law. Joyce. Freud. This apparent dismissal of certainties seemed heretical. he considered calling his masterwork "Invariance .) This was not the case. Instead. In fact. Schoenberg and others were breaking conventional bonds. Carl Wilhelm Oseen. who joined the committee in 1922. But the committee was still not ready. Beneath all of Einstein's theories. in the words of the official citation. What cultural impact did Einstein's theories have? For nearly three centuries.modest mark on science by assuring that standard measures were more precise and discovering metal alloys that had practical uses. including relativity. relativity became associated with a new relativism in morality and art and politics. There was less faith in absolutes. despite the way it has been phrased by some historians. By 1921. the mechanical universe of Isaac Newton. Thus it was that Einstein became the recipient of the 1921 Nobel Prize. even though that was the primary focus of the relevant 1905 paper. based on absolute certainties and laws." Each part of that phrase was carefully calculated. an expressed sense that it would be inexplicable if he didn't. and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. of course. had formed the psychological foundation of the Enlightenment and the social order. the public's Einstein mania was in full force. as it turned out. Imaginative nonconformity was in the air: Picasso. not only of time and space. perhaps even godless. order. Stravinsky. "for his services to theoretical physics. Einstein walks through the campus of Princeton University Was Einstein a moral relativist? Einstein was interpreted as a relativist by many (including some whose disdain fueled their antiSemitism. but also of truth and morality. even duty. ever win a Nobel for his work on relativity and gravitation. So Oseen pushed hard to give the prize to Einstein for "the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." Einstein would not. with a belief in causes and effects. In fact. Indirectly. Nor was it for any theory at all. To the rescue rode a theoretical physicist from the University of Uppsala. including making good measuring rods. was a quest for certainties and absolutes. nor for anything other than the photoelectric effect. and there was a groundswell of support for him to win the Nobel — indeed. Infused into this stew was a conception of the universe in which space and time and the properties of particles seemed based on the vagaries of observations. He realized that the whole issue of relativity theory was so encrusted with controversy that it would be better to try a different tack. it was not for Einstein's theory of light quanta. Now came a view of the universe in which space and time were dependent on frames of reference. It was not a nomination for relativity.
he always insisted he did. even though he did not adhere to the rituals of the religion. His objection to quantum mechanics was that it assumed that the realities of the universe depended on our observation of it. Near the end of his life. but he deeply believed that God's handiwork was reflected in the harmony of nature's laws and the beauty of all that exists. The child knows someone must have written those books. and in 1933 he fled Hitler and moved to Princeton. and explained it once this way: "We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. he was offered the presidency of Israel. It .Theory" rather than "Relativity Theory. His first trip to America was to raise money for the Zionist movement. He often invoked God. Did Einstein believe in God? Yes. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort. such as by saying He wouldn't play dice. deistic fashion. There was an anti-Semitic reaction both to the publicity he got and to the abstract and seemingly heretical nature of relativity theory. and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. It does not know how. when rejecting quantum mechanics." When asked directly if he believed in God." because it was based on underlying invariances and certainties. As he famously declared: "A spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe — a spirit vastly superior to that of man. He defined God in an impersonal. But the rise in antiSemitism made him identify with the Jewish people even more. What role did Einstein's Jewish identity play in his life and achievements? His affiliation with the Jewish people was the strongest bond in his life. which he politely declined. Einstein's belief in something larger than himself produced in him a wondrous mixture of confidence and humility. which conflicted with his own faith that there was a reality that existed independent of our ability to observe it.
from the infinitesimal to the infinite -. did not give a complete description of the universe. That. which has probabilities and uncertainties at its foundation. He was not successful. A century after his great triumphs. we are still living in his universe. . and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.does not understand the languages in which they are written. the emission of photons. The two great theories that in 1905 he ushered into the 20th century -. nuclear power and lasers.from the smallest event imaginable.quantum theory and relativity -. Didn't Einstein reject quantum mechanics? He believed that quantum mechanics. space travel and even semiconductors all bear his fingerprints. but his lonely and stubborn quest tells us a lot about his personality and mind. Photoelectric cells and television. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. He spent the second half of his career trying to poke holes in the theory and to subsume it in a unified theory that would restore certainty and determinism to physics.are still twin pillars (although somewhat incompatible ones) of theoretical physics a century later. Einstein's tale encompasses the vast sweep of modern science. it seems to me. is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God." Einstein gives a speech at the London Albert Hall Are Einstein's theories still accepted? Yes. expansion of the cosmos. to the largest conceivable event. He signed the letter to President Roosevelt suggesting a project to build an atom bomb.
and his daughter Margaret Einstein take the oath of U. he worked on a speech he was scheduled to give for Israeli independence day. He put it aside on that final night to pick up a notebook that was filled with scribbled calculations. Just as he sought a unified theory in science. and the rest of us.Einstein. He came to understand America's freedoms. With his resistance to McCarthyism and quantum uncertainty. caused him to be an adamant opponent of McCarthyism. was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him. and he was pleased that democracy tended to balance itself after such excesses as the McCarthy investigations. And the last thing he wrote. His belief in the value of free thought and speech. citizenship. was Einstein disillusioned at the end? Einstein was not destined to die a bitter man. and his merry willingness to defy authority. just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe. "I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew. What were Einstein's politics? He was a pacifist until Hitler came to power and caused him to revise his geopolitical equations. To the very end. On his deathbed in 1955. He urged the building of the atom bomb. he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. right before the pain overwhelmed him." it began. but then became a leader in the movement to find ways to control it. . his secretary Helen Dukas.S. but as a human being. left. he sought a world federalism that would impose order on competing nations.
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