The Secret Life of the Universe: The Quest for the Soul of Science

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Having eventually caught on to her humanity, he terrorized her, heaving a bowling ball at her head, and braining her with a hoe. Fortunately for all, the tantrums ceased, and the intellect began cranking. When Albert was four or five and sick in bed, his father brought him a compass. The boy felt tremors and chills at the marvelous apparatus that bespoke unseen powers in nature; it was an intimation of the world behind the world that he would devote his life to uncovering and explicating. The Einstein mythology of course has it that the young Albert was a dunce in school, who even flunked math; in fact he was a whiz who was hungry for all the knowledge his mind could hold.

There were, of course, things he would rather not have had to learn — such as what his Catholic schoolmates in Munich thought of Jews. One day his religion teacher brought a large nail to class, and informed the students that this was what the Jews had used to secure Jesus to the cross. Einstein was the only Jew in his class, and became thereupon the object of regular taunts and beatings. At nine he transferred to another school, which offered Jewish religious instruction, and for a few years he became a zealot, faithfully keeping the Sabbath, observing every dietary law, composing his own sacred songs.

Science and mathematics provided another source of spiritual strength. Despite all his brilliance and curiosity, or perhaps because of them, Einstein grew increasingly bored with school. Teutonic regimentation was not for him, in more ways than one. When he was sixteen, he left Munich to join his parents in Italy, where they had gone after the family business had failed; determined never to return to Germany, he planned to study for admission to the Zurich Polytechnic — and, not incidentally, to avoid being drafted into the German army at seventeen.

In the summer of , he completed his first paper in theoretical physics, on the effects of a magnetic field on the ether, the ubiquitous but invisible medium in which light waves were believed to propagate. That year, too, he fell in love for the first time, with Marie Winteler, the daughter of the family he was boarding with in Aarau, Switzerland, while he went to prep school for a year.

Marie herself would prove insufficiently extraordinary for Einstein, however, and he would look elsewhere for a wife. At the Zurich Polytechnic, Einstein comported himself with his customary indifference to academic discipline. His mathematics professor called him a lazy dog. In his spare hours, he cultivated Bohemian friendships with like-minded truth-seekers, played Bach and Mozart on his beloved violin, and fell in love again, this time with a fellow physics student, Mileva Maric, a brooding Serbian three years older than he, with a congenitally dislocated hip that gave her a limp and a mug so unappetizing only genuine romance could see past it.

Tough times would ensue for the couple. Mileva failed to take her degree, and he was the only physics student in his graduating class not to get an academic job. University authorities would be unconscionably slow to recognize what they had in him: not until , four years after he transformed physics, would he be tendered a junior professorship. In , the doctoral dissertation he presented in the kinetic theory of gases was rejected as disrespectful to an esteemed predecessor whose work he controverted. Einstein was reduced to taking an underpaid tutoring job. The next year, Mileva gave birth in Serbia to a girl, named Lieserl, whose very existence remained a secret until , when several letters in which the parents mention her were found; Einstein evidently never saw his child, who may have died or been given up for adoption.

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By this time he was angling for a job at the patent office in Bern, and to aspire to a position in the Swiss civil service required unimpeachable moral credentials; an acknowledged bastard infant would have been a wrench in the works. As it happened, he got the job, and married Mileva once he had the income to support her.

So what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul? Why have you still not sent me your dissertation? I promise you four papers in return. The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary, as you will see if you send me your work first.

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The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms Such movement of suspended bodies has actually been observed by physiologists who call it Brownian molecular motion. The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is an electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time. The second paper, which would serve as his at-last-successful doctoral dissertation, determined the size of molecules in liquids.


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The third paper examined the way multitudinous bumps from liquid molecules caused the jitterbugging of microscopic particles suspended in the liquid. I think that these investigations of Einstein have done more than any other work to convince physicists of the reality of atoms and molecules.

Special relativity revises the classical principle of relativity described by Galileo and adopted by Newton, which worked closely enough for the needs of classical mechanics; however, the velocity of light and of electrons, which the seventeenth century could not imagine, required a whole new explanation. According to Galilean relativity, when one thing moves in relation to another, both are effectively moving in relation to each other.

This statement, which may appear trivial at first, is of great moment. It means there is no privileged observer. Each party to the event has an equal right to claim that it is at rest and the other is moving relative to it. A train going fifty miles per hour in one direction and another going one hundred miles per hour in the opposite direction are going one hundred fifty miles per hour relative to each other.

In , however, an experiment by the American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley demonstrated that the speed of light is always the same, at some , miles per second.


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  5. This finding contradicted Galilean relativity: if you applied the Galilean transformation to two objects passing each other, each at 75 percent of the speed of light, then their relative speed should be percent of the speed of light. Yet Michelson and Morley showed the constancy of the speed of light: a beam of light will come at you at the same speed whether its source is moving toward you or moving away from you, or whether you are moving toward or away from it.

    Einstein faced this contradiction between classical relativity and the constant speed of light, and produced the insight that abolished absolute time and reconciled the apparent irreconcilables. And there is no way to declare that one of the observers is really correct. In other words, there is no way to declare that the two events are truly simultaneous. Imagine two flashlights mounted alongside railroad tracks to the right and left of a stationary observer on the platform; he sees them flash at the same time.

    Einstein’s Quest for Truth

    But another observer, sitting on the train, moving toward one flashlight and away from the other, will see the very same flashes as one before the other. The thought experiment continues. Now imagine a light beam in the moving train that bounds from the floor to a mirror on the ceiling and back down.

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    From within the train the beam would appear to go straight up and down. From the platform, however, the beam would follow a zigzag path and appear to cover a greater distance. At the speed of light, it becomes a line running straight up and down, as though it had lost a dimension. T he only trouble with this sudden efflorescence of genius is that it failed to attract the attention Einstein had hoped for; he had thought some professorial eminence might take notice and immediately offer him a university post.

    Planck was soon lecturing on relativity at the University of Berlin. An Englishman would hardly have given us this theory. It might be here too, as in the case of Cohn, the abstract conceptual character of the Semite expresses itself. In Einstein applied to the University of Bern for the quite shabby entry-level position of Privatdozent , and submitted as part of his application seventeen published papers, including those on special relativity and light quanta; the application customarily required an additional unpublished paper called a Habilitation thesis, which Einstein had not written, but which could be waived for applicants otherwise remarkable.

    The lumpen professoriate refused to waive the requirement; Einstein did not write the thesis, and was turned down for the job. A year later, after failing to make the short list for a high school teaching job, he swallowed his pride, wrote the Habilitation , and became a Privatdozent , though the pay was so dismal he had to stay on at the patent office as well. At last, in , the University of Zurich considered him for a junior professorship. He was soon out the door, however, as the German branch of the University of Prague dangled a full professorship before him.

    But Prague did not suit him, and he left in short order as his alma mater, now known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, beckoned him home to Zurich. Then in came the offer that left no doubt about his acceptance among the very best of the best: a professorship at the University of Berlin, directorship of a physics institute founded just for him, and inclusion in the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where at thirty-four he would be the youngest member.

    There was an overriding reason why the Berlin offer appealed so much to him: he had fallen in love with his Berliner cousin Elsa Einstein.

    The Secret Life of the Universe: The Quest for the Soul of Science

    Mileva had borne him two sons, but her doom-laden temperament began to repel her husband, and he found warm comfort, if not exactly torrid passion, in the motherly attentions of Elsa. Mileva had an affair of her own, and in Berlin took the two boys and moved out. Einstein, who still loved his children, coaxed her back, then issued a directive of domestic tyranny that suggests a truly monstrous hatred for his wife: she must tend to his laundry and feeding and keep his office tidy, give up any intimacy, stop talking at his request, leave his bedroom or study when commanded, and treat him with respect in front of their children.

    At last Mileva could take no more, and left for Zurich with their sons. Einstein, who took pride in keeping his emotions under tight rein, accompanied them to the train station and wept uncontrollably all day. Science was his perpetual refuge from personal turmoil, and as his marriage was dissolving the general theory of relativity was coming into being.