Friday, November 04, 2005

Accidental Genius

The mathematician Hermann Minkowski took an almost immediate dislike to his student, calling him a ‘lazy dog’ who ‘never bothered about mathematics at all.’ Minkowski’s disapproval made it impossible for his pupil to obtain a job as an assistant, or even get references as a junior assistant at his own school, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. As a result, he had to take a menial dead-end job as a patent clerk. Three years latter the most famous patent clerk in history published his paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which, along with two others published in 1905 in the Annals of Physics, established Albert Einstein’s reputation.

His old adversary Hermann Minkowskiwas not about to let this ‘lazy dog’ have the last word. Minkowski described in a 1908 lecture how relatively fell naturally from the geometry of four-dimensional space-time. Einstein was not, at first, happy with Minkowski’s geometrization of his ideas (which may have reflected residual animosity as much as intellectual resistance). In 1909, shortly after this insight, Minkowski died of appendicitis (not uncommon in the days before antibiotics). An unrepentant Einstein held off accepting Minkowski’s space-time until 1912, even though the idea was essential to his general theory of relativity (which he didn’t get around to publishing until 1915). So just by chance Einstein did get the last word.

Do you think Herr Professor Hermann was too harsh? The history is a bit murky, but suggests that Albert Einstein led a somewhat reckless youth that seriously peeved his professors and peers. Here’s the story. Albert’s father Hermann, along with his uncle Jakob ran one of Europe’s early electrical engineering companies, at one time employing 200 people mainly to install electric lights in small towns. Unfortunately, competition from larger firms like Siemens forced them to close German operations in 1894 and pursue contracts in Italy.

Rather than changing schools, 15-year old Albert was left on his own to complete his education in Germany. In retrospect, this may not have been wise. Albert engineered his own expulsion, then convinced the family doctor to certify that he suffered nervous fatigue and would need the year off to recover, upon which he promptly renounced his German citizenship (to avoid compulsory military service), and moved to Italy. In Italy he worked a bit for the family business, but mainly dawdled, enjoying the pleasures of Italian life. Somewhere along the line, he became convinced that he would do well to obtain a degree.

Having left high school without any diploma, and only a letter from a teacher testifying to his mathematical ability, Einstein had some convincing to do. He initially failed his entrance exams for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), but finally gained entrance in 1896 to study math and physics. In Zurich Einstein enjoyed the good life, including getting his girlfriend and fellow physics student Mileva Maric pregnant (the girl Lierserl was given up for adoption).

He did well on his exams, but his recklessness irritated his professors, particularly Minkowski, who then made it impossible for him to obtain a job in academe, even as a junior research assistant. Which is how Albert Einstein wound up working in a patent office in Bern in 1902. Still living with his future wife Mileva Maric, he spent most of his time on problems in physics (specifically those related to proving that atoms were real, which was controversial at the turn of the century). Albert married Mileva in 1903, and in 1904 Mileva gave birth to their son Hans. Three papers published in 1905 in Annalen der Physik – the first on Brownian motion of molecules, the second on the photoelectric effect (which won him the Nobel Prize) and the third on relativity – made Einstein’s reputation.

Letters between Albert and Mileva, found in the safe deposit box of Hans Einstein, lend support to earlier speculations that Maric had actually coauthored Einstein’s papers. She may even have been the prime contributor to them, but suppressed her role to help Albert obtain an academic position. There is evidence that the three 1905 papers were submitted jointly under the names Einstein and Maric, but that Maric’s name was dropped by Annalen der Physik because women were not supposed to publish in German journals of that day (intense thinking was argued to be a strain on women’s fragile constitutions, though it is more likely that male professors, having obtained their sinecure, didn’t want any more competition). Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921, at which time his award of approximately $32,000 was given to Mileva Maric under the written terms of their 1914 divorce (along with 40,000 Marks for child support)

Once he was able to accept Minkowki's neat representation of relativity in terms of the geometry of flat four-dimensional space-time, Einstein found that he needed to bone up on the math classes he had earlier skipped. So he borrowed the lecture notes from his old friend and student at ETH, Marcel Grossman for various math classes that he couldn't be bothered to attend at the time. Grossman also helped him with the formulation of a general model of curved space-time, which Einstein eventually published in 1915 as his Theory of General Relativity. This is why it took 10 years to get from the special to general theory.

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