In the popular view, the image of Albert Einstein, without doubt the greatest scientific mind of our century, is that of the recluse, complete with disordered, flowing white hair and somewhat disheveled clothing. To a certain extent, that image has validity; certainly Einstein was a kind of recluse, living in a world of physics, deep in the recesses of high-level abstraction.
Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann present a different image of the man, however, an image unknown to most of us: that of “the human side” of the theoretical physicist. Dukas was Einstein’s secretary from 1928 until his death in 1955, and since then she has been a trustee of his literary estate and archivist of his papers. Hoffmann, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Queens College, CUNY, worked with Einstein on research for the general theory of relativity. A few years ago, Dukas and Hoffmann collaborated on the prizewinning biography, Albert Einstein: Creator and Rebel. This time they have taken examples from Einstein’s personal correspondence to show his concerns in nonscientific as well as scientific areas.
Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, Einstein’s first fascination with science came as the result of a gift from his father—a compass. As its needle always pointed north, Einstein grasped both the truth of the laws of nature and the demonstrability of those laws. By the age of twelve, he was reading scientific books, and by nineteen he was studying in Zurich, Switzerland. Even at that age he saw his work as his only real goal in life. In a letter to his sister, he wrote: “I have never permitted myself any amusements or diversions except those afforded by my studies. . . . If everybody lived as I do, surely the writing of romantic novels would never have come into being.”
Following that period of study, Einstein worked briefly as a private tutor in Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen; from 1902 to 1909, he worked as an examiner in the Swiss Federal Patent Office. Amazingly enough, it was while working as a civil servant that Einstein proposed his theory of Special Relativity and the Mass of Energy, in 1905. Einstein developed this theory, which had as much influence on modern astronomy and atomic science as any in the last three hundred years, in the hours after work. His letters give a clue to the kind of mind which can function in this way, for in 1918 he wrote to a friend that he had originally planned to become an engineer but found “intolerable” the idea that he would have to apply “the inventive faculty to matters that make everyday life more elaborate—and all just for dreary money-making.” Obviously, one must do something in life to earn a living, but that can easily be a secondary concern. For Einstein, thinking, “thinking for its own sake,” was the important thing in life. In the same letter he indicated that when he had no special problem to work with, he would reconstruct proofs which he had long known of mathematical and physical theorems. “There is no goal in this,” he said, “merely an opportunity to indulge in the pleasant occupation of thinking. . . .”
Einstein admitted in his correspondence that he appeared to be a hermit, but he also knew he was “a man possessed . . . hoping to unearth deep secrets.” Even for Einstein such a struggle was difficult, sometimes seemingly “beyond my powers,” but more importantly it was rewarding “because it makes one immune to the distractions of everyday life.”
Letters such as these and others presented by the editors support the image of a recluse, a man with a vast mental capacity who marched in the academic procession commemorating the 350th anniversary of the University of Geneva wearing his straw hat and his everyday suit. It is the other letters, however, which support a different image of Einstein than is generally held: that of Einstein as a humanist.
In 1919, in response to a query about his reasons for working in science, Einstein wrote...
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