Albert Einstein (1879–1955) was the greatest scientist of the 20th century, bar none.
In fact, he’s probably the second-most original and influential scientist of all time—after Isaac Newton . . . but it’s close.
To understand just a bit of his influence, see how many of The 50 Most Influential Scientists utilize Einstein’s ideas!
Of course Einstein was a genius, and genius appears in many forms, as we show in The 50 Greatest Living Geniuses.
So, what did Einstein do, exactly?
He published pioneering work on several phenomena that were deeply puzzling to physicists of his day, including Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect. Then, he made two startling discoveries that went far beyond anything known at the time: matter-energy equivalence (E=mc2), which laid the foundations for the atomic age, and the special theory of relativity, which predicted the mind-boggling time-dilation effect which was experimentally confirmed decades later. And he did all of this in the year 1905, when he was just 26 years old!
Finally, his later general theory of relativity revolutionized Newton’s theory of gravitation and laid the foundations for all of modern cosmology. It still stands to this day as the twin pillar of modern physics, alongside the quantum theory.
In order to honor the achievement of one of the most creative human beings who ever lived, we at the TheBestSchools.org explored Einstein’s early education in one of our early efforts, which we reprint at the end of this article: “Einstein—The Early Years.”
But here, we set about trying to gather reminiscences of Einstein from surviving scientists who knew him personally when they were young. We contacted dozens of individuals who we thought might have crossed paths with the great man during his last years, which were spent at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
That was back in 2012. At the time, it had been 57 years since Einstein died. As one might expect, there are only a few scientists still alive who were directly acquainted with him. Below, we give edited versions of the reminiscences of three of them. Only one remains alive at the time of this revision in 2017, namely, Freeman Dyson. Walter Thirring died in 2014 and Robert Bass in 2013.
Reminiscences of Einstein
Freeman J. Dyson (b. 1923) is best known for demonstrating in 1949 the equivalence of the Feynman and Schwinger-Tomonaga formulations of quantum electrodynamics (the quantum theory of the electromagnetic field). He is the author of many distinguished books for a popular audience, including, most recently, The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books, 2006), and A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (University of Virginia Press, 2007).
Professor Dyson wrote to us that, while he never spoke with Einstein, he did observe that in the last years of his life, he withdrew into himself and made no effort to interact with the younger scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study:
Although my time at the Institute for Advanced Study overlapped with his, I never exchanged a single word with him. It is a sad fact that, in the last years of his life, he did not take the slightest interest in the young Institute members around him. He never came to our seminars and never sat with us at lunch. I do not blame him for this, since I am now older than he was then and I do not try to keep up with what the young people around me are doing.
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Walter Thirring (b. 1927) is best known for proposing in 1958 the Thirring model in quantum field theory. He published one of the first textbooks on quantum electrodynamics, and has been a vocal proponent of an emergentist (as opposed to reductionist) understanding of nature. He has recently published two books for a popular audience: a volume of natural philosophy, Cosmic Impressions (Templeton Press, 2007), and a memoir, The Joy of Discovery (World Scientific Publishing, 2010).
Professor Thirring’s recollection of Einstein’s way of interacting with younger colleagues during his last years at the Institute for Advanced Study is different from that of Dyson. He has kindly given us permission to reproduce the following redacted passage from his memoir, The Joy of Discovery (pp. 75–77):
Einstein was, of course, retired during my time (1953-1954), and he died in 1955, but he continued to come to tea from time to time and find out what everyone was up to. He had an impressive appearance. I can still see him before me as if it were yesterday: the white mane of hair was somewhat thinner, his face furrowed by the many successes and failures, but his charm remained intact. . . .
I was fortunate enough to get to know Einstein personally. He felt a bond to my father, who had been one of the few people participating in the international protest when Einstein was thrown out of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. Our first conversation took an unexpected turn. After I explained that I was just an associate faculty member in Berne, his face lit up and he raved about what a wonderful time he’d had in Berne and how much he’d learned about physics during his time there. I could understand the first part, as Berne was where he’d enjoyed the first years of his marriage to Mileva, but the last bit surprised me. . . .
Einstein put it like this: he used to like to walk through the old town to the bear caves and watch feeding time. He observed that the bears usually walked with their mouths to the ground and would only find what was in front of their noses. Sometimes one would get up on its hind legs and could see from this higher perch where the really good treats were. This reminded him of most physicists who bent over their calculations and only saw the last equation. But the most important connections are discovered only when you can see the situation from above. . . .
What I noticed as Einstein’s most marked characteristic was his simplicity. This already began with his clothing; usually he wore just a sweater and a wrinkled pair of pants. Socks were for special occasions. In a similar vein, his speech was also simple; he never attempted to impress others with ornate language. His entire appearance was not that of a high ranking official, but maybe that has only served to strengthen the lasting effect he has had. . . .
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Robert W. Bass (b. 1930) is best known for his contribution to the theory of the topological stability of plasmas. He has also published calculations showing that the theories of Immanuel Velikovsky are not inconsistent with chaotic orbits derivable from standard Newtonian mechanics and nonlinear dynamics.
The following is a redacted version of Dr. Bass’s unpublished reminiscences of Einstein, which he has kindly shared with us:
In late 1949 I was fortunate to be one of the 32 USA recipients of a Rhodes Scholarship, and decided to apply to Wadham College in Oxford, because I hoped to study under the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics, E. A. Milne . . .
I would never in 1949 have even dreamed of anything so immodest, but my late father, English Literature Prof. Robert D. Bass, told Dr. Frank Aydelotte, the Director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), and then American Secretary to the Rhodes Trust, that Einstein was my hero (true enough!) and that I had “always wanted to meet him” (a proud-parental exaggeration if not outright pushy-prevarication), as a result of which in the Spring of 1950 I was invited to visit the IAS.
Aydelotte’s assistant Dr. Gilmore Stott, who later became the Provost of Swarthmore University, invited me to spend the night at his home, heated by a coal-stoked basement furnace, and within walking distance of the IAS. The next morning he took me to Einstein’s office where the great man was expecting to meet us, and, as a favor to Aydelotte via Stott, eventually agreed to set aside his usual reluctance to autograph copies of his popular book The Meaning of Relativity (Princeton UP, 1922), which I was then visibly carrying with me.
When I have stated later that I once “enjoyed 15 minutes alone with Einstein,” it was not quite accurate, because Dr. Stott was also present, but he never said a word other than to explain why I was carrying a copy of the book.
After I had mentioned that I had chosen Wadham College because I hoped to study under Milne, Einstein indicated that while he respected Milne as a serious scientist, he completely disagreed with Milne’s work on relativity. . . .
Evidently Frank Ayedelotte had thought that it was unfair to the other 31 Rhodes-Scholars Elect that one of their class had got to meet Einstein alone, so in the early Fall of 1950 he held a Sailing Party for the Class of 1950 in his own home, as we were getting ready to embark in September for a transatlantic voyage on one of the great ocean-liners named after a Queen, and invited Einstein as the Guest of Honor.
As the time for our return to New York drew near, Aydelotte said, “Now Einstein, can you give these young men any parting advice?”
And Einstein replied: “If I could give the young men any advice it would be this: don’t believe anything is necessarily true just because you see it in the newspapers or hear it on the radio or everybody else believes it! ALWAYS THINK FOR YOURSELF!!!”
Einstein—The Early Years
Many of you will have heard it said that Albert Einstein—the man whose name is synonymous with “genius”—was a “bad student” in school. Or that he was possibly dyslexic, or borderline autistic, or even schizophrenic—all claims that have been published in recent years.
A comforting thought for those of us who spent too much of our youth daydreaming, or who were shy or withdrawn, but who remain convinced we are geniuses!
More recently, there has been a trend towards debunking the idea that Einstein was a poor student and/or mentally “handicapped” in some way, as a sort of urban myth.
What is the truth of the matter? It turns out to be somewhere in the middle—as usual.
In their witty and incisive article, “The Legend of the Dull-Witted Child Who Grew Up to Be a Genius,” Barbara Wolff, a researcher with the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Hananya Goodman, a science librarian at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Ashdod, Israel—show conclusively that as a school child Einstein actually did quite well in the lower elementary grades (see here).
It is also true, however, that he disliked the Luitpold Gymnasium (high school) in Munich, where he was a student from age eight to age 15. He seems to have had a rebellious temperament—a sure sign of psychosis in a teenaged boy!—and to have had clashes with some of his teachers there. In essence, he seems to have chafed under an old-fashioned system of rote learning, and to have pursued his interest in physics avidly on his own.
His family had to relocate to Italy following the failure of his father’s electrical equipment business, and at age 15 Einstein found himself at loose ends. He appears to have been quite glad to leave the Luitpold Gymnasium behind, but it was unclear where he should study next.
The best-known part of the story has to do with his failure in the entrance exam on his first attempt to enter the Zurich Polytechnic Institute.* Since he had left Gymnasium without a diploma, he was asked to take an entrance exam instead, which he failed. However, his grades on the exam in mathematics and physics were excellent! The reason he failed was that the Swiss college, which was one of the outstanding schools in Europe, demanded a higher level of attainment in other subjects like French than had been required by his Gymnasium in Munich.
After this temporary setback, Einstein was sent to a private school in northern Switzerland to finish high school in the normal way. Two years later, with his diploma now in hand, he was admitted to the famed Zurich college at age 17 without further ado. Once again, the truth is not as glamorous as the myth.
After his somewhat checkered high school career, how did the world-famous-physicist-to-be do in college?
It was a lot like the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich all over again. It wasn’t that Einstein couldn’t do the work. It was just that he already knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life, and insisted on doing things his own way. As astrophysicist Michael M. Shara has recently put it (go here):
There was this kid, this cocky, arrogant kid who had picked up all this physics by himself, and not by listening to these demi-god professors . . . He just went off and did it by himself.
One of his teachers at the Zurich Polytechnic, the eminent mathematician and physicist Hermann Minkowski, remembered that when he first heard the news of Einstein’s paper on special relativity, he remarked at the time:**
Oh, that Einstein, always missing lectures—I really would not have believed him capable of it!
And, of course, everyone who knows anything about Einstein has heard that when he graduated from the Zurich Polytechnic, he could not find a university teaching position commensurate with his gifts for a number of years. Instead, he had to accept a humble job as a patent assessor in the Swiss federal patent office in Bern.
It was there, in 1905, aged 26, in relative intellectual isolation, that he penned the papers on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, the special theory of relativity, and the equivalence of matter and energy that turned the history of physics upside down and eventually made his name a household word.
In the case of Einstein, myth really cannot compete with the breathtaking facts!
*Better known today under the name ETH Zurich—Eidgenosse Technische Hochschule, or Federal Technical College, Zurich.
**Cited in Constance Reid, Hilbert—Courant (Springer Verlag, 1986), p. 105.