Albert Einstein is an icon of the twentieth century. Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879, he is most famous for his theory of relativity. He also made enormous contributions to quantum mechanics and cosmology, and for his work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921. A self-pronounced pacifist, humanist, and, late in his life, democratic socialist, Einstein was also deeply concerned with the social impact of his discoveries.
Much of Einstein's life is shrouded in legend. From popular images and advertisements to various works of theater and fiction, he has come to signify so many things. In Einstein: A Biography, J�rgen Neffe presents a clear and probing portrait of the man behind the myth. Unearthing new documents, including a series of previously unknown letters from Einstein to his sons, which shed new light on his role as a father, Neffe paints a rich portrait of the tumultuous years in which Einstein lived and worked. And with a background in the sciences, he describes and contextualizes Einstein's enormous contributions to our scientific legacy.
Einstein, a breakout bestseller in Germany, is sure to be a classic biography of the man and proverbial genius who has been called "the brain of the [twentieth] century."
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 01, 2007
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Excerpt from Einstein by Jurgen Neffe
HIS SECOND BIRTH
THE FATEFUL YEAR 1919
When Albert Einstein woke up on November 7, 1919, a wintry gray Friday morning, in his apartment on Haberlandstrasse 5 in Berlin, his life had been transformed. The forty-year-old had no idea at this point what the next few weeks and months--and the rest of his life--had in store for him. His quest to "sneak a look at God's cards"1 brought him about as close to the essence of nature as anyone had ever been. Even so, on the day of his "canonization" in the temple of science, he could scarcely envision the direction his life was about to take.
Until this point, Einstein had stayed out of the public eye. Now he learned firsthand that research and technology were not the only two forces that were shaping the twentieth century. The mass media had discovered him and made him the first global pop star of science. It is hard to imagine anyone more fully embodying the notion that fame feeds on itself. Today, Einstein's popular image--a craggy face encircled by a white mane, with a bulbous nose and a look of wide-eyed innocence--is better known than that of any other human being.
Fame and the mass media go hand in hand. The Times of London set off a chain reaction in the media that morning in November, and Einstein's fame was immediate. Newspapers and magazines were the voices of the epoch--the age of radio began about a decade later.
The British paper introduced to its readers "one of the most momentous, if not the most momentous, pronouncements of human thought."2 This newspaper normally maintained a tone of genteel detachment and objectivity, but in this case the editors euphorically proclaimed a "revolution in science."
For the originator of the uproar far away in Berlin, the content of the report was no surprise. After all, the "revolution"--the general theory of relativity--had occurred four years earlier. And Einstein was already well aware that an astronomical measurement more than five months earlier had confirmed his "new theory of the universe."
Einstein had made several predictions as touchstones for the correctness of his model. One of them stated that large masses curve or bend space. If this curvature really existed, light would have to follow their forms exactly on its path through the universe. In the proximity of the sun, the closest massive body to the earth, it would have to be deflected by a tiny but quantifiable amount.
This amount can be calculated exactly using Einstein's formulas: 1.7 seconds of arc in geometric terms. In the cosmos, this is equivalent to a distance of the breadth of a match. The previous prediction on the basis of equations by Isaac Newton, the forerunner of modern physics, had predicted only half of this amount, and had yet to be tested. The moment was arriving to put Einstein's theory to the test. If his prophecy could be confirmed in practice, his model would triumph over Newton's, two centuries after the latter's death.
The requisite measurements are only possible every few years, when the moon covers the sun completely for a few minutes, from the vantage point of people on earth. Only then can stars in the vicinity of the sun even be detected, allowing a possible curvature of the light rays to be measured by the solar mass. Now the readers of The Times were learning that British researchers in the tropics had been successful in conducting this very test during a solar eclipse, on May 29, 1919.
Einstein had learned the results in the early part of the summer. On September 27, he wrote to his mother, who was bedridden with cancer in Switzerland, "Today some happy news. H. A. Lorentz telegraphed me that the English expeditions have locally verified the deflection of light by the Sun."3 The formal announcement was held off, however, until a statement was read at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society in London on November 6. This remarkable meeting altered the course of Einstein's life. The British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was present at the meeting, recorded his impressions:
The whole atmosphere of tense interest was exactly that of the Greek drama: we were the chorus commenting on the decree of destiny as disclosed in the development of a supreme incident. There was dramatic quality in the very staging: the traditional ceremonial, and in the background the picture of Newton to remind us that the greatest of scientific generalizations was now, after more than two centuries, to receive its first modification. Nor was the personal interest wanting: a great adventure in thought had at last come safe to shore. . . . The laws of physics are the decrees of fate.4
At this moment, Albert Einstein was reborn as legend and myth, idol and icon of an entire era. The mortal Einstein had just passed his creative zenith, and the rather tragic second half of his life lay before him. An immortal of the same name then stepped onto the international stage--the Einstein that would be embedded in the consciousness of the twentieth century as the archetype of the adventurer of the mind whose philosophical quest embodied a conscience for mankind and put the principle of responsibility on a par with the standard of science and progress. His name became synonymous with genius even during his lifetime.
On November 10, The New York Times picked up the story with the headline, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens" and announced, "Einstein Theory Triumphs."5 The paper reassured its readers that no one need bother trying to grasp the new theory. Only "twelve wise men" would be able to understand it. On November 11, another headline followed on the same topic, and for the rest of the year, additional stories on a nearly daily basis opened the eyes of the readership to the preposterous new world of relativity and its creator. These reports also played a major role in fostering Einstein's fame to the notoriously curious, sensation-seeking, and enthusiastic American public.
In Berlin, people were oblivious to these developments. They were burdened with other concerns one year after the end of the war. The majority of the population was hungry and cold. Early that month, the winter had set in prematurely, and the first snow had fallen. There was barely anything to eat and almost nothing to burn. The railroad had suspended passenger services for eleven days to transport as many potatoes and as much coal as possible to the city.
Nearly everything was in short supply. Even the small pleasures of life became big problems. Der Abend noted, "You are just as likely to win the lottery or be hit by lightning as you are to buy a bar of chocolate at a normal price."6 Refugees from the East crowded into the congested city. Living quarters were hard to come by, and the homeless camped out in wind-protected corners. Sooner or later, the owners of large apartments were required to take in boarders--including the Einsteins, who had a seven-room apartment on Haberlandstrasse.
Einstein wrote to his mother in September 1919, "We have to relinquish a room (rent it out). Starting tomorrow, the elevator won't be operating anymore, so each exit will involve a climbing expedition, and in addition to that, much shivering lies ahead of us this winter."7 The following March, he reported to his sons from his first marriage, Hans Albert and Eduard: "One week we had no lights, gas, occasionally even no water."8
Aside from such practical limitations, Einstein saw no reason to alter his daily routine on this morning in November. After waking up in his bedroom right next to the front entrance--the spartan furnishings were limited to a bed, a closet, a chest, a table, and a couple of chairs-- he walked through the library and the living room to get to the bathroom at the other end of the apartment, which adjoined the bedroom of his cousin Elsa, whom he had recently married, just after divorcing his first wife. Afterward the family ate breakfast together. The Einstein household--which also included Elsa's two daughters, Ilse and Margot--did not have to endure hunger. The family was well supplied with what Einstein, a passionate eater, called "fodder," thanks to regular packages from Switzerland.
After breakfast, Einstein usually went upstairs to work at his desk in an attic room, where he spent most of his time. Two windows looked out over the roofs of Berlin. In one corner, next to his desk and a window, was his telescope, a basic model designed for amateurs. If he saw anything at all with it, it was more likely to be neighbors than stars. On the walls were pictures of Schopenhauer and of three great British physicists: James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and, in a special spot, Newton.
Einstein retreated to his little empire for hours at a time. Sometimes, when he needed a change of pace, he went downstairs and improvised on the piano in the Biedermeier-style sitting room. Much to the chagrin of his neighbors, he played his violin, which had been his companion since childhood, only at night--in the tiled kitchen, because it echoed so nicely there.
The approaching storm of popularity had not reached him just yet. Letters addressed to "Professor Albert Einstein, Germany" would not get delivered to his house. The daily mail, which Otto, the doorman, would later bring up by the basketfuls, still fit in the mailbox. No statesman or queen was rushing to the telephone to congratulate him. The only telegram on record is from Hendrik Lorentz, a Dutch colleague he greatly admired. Lorentz told him that the results of the solar eclipse had been published in London.
While The Times was churning out yet another fact-filled story about the historic solar eclipse ("The Revolution in Science"), readers of the Berliner Morgenpost were being told to anticipate a far less consequential partial lunar eclipse the following night. Since the weather was overcast, there was little likelihood that onlookers would see much of this spectacle, but the newspaper told its readers exactly what to expect: "In Berlin, where the full moon will rise at 3:58 p.m., the moon will move into the shadow of the earth 2 minutes before midnight and will be located almost due South."9
For several centuries, astronomers have been able to predict exactly when solar and lunar eclipses would occur. Celestial phenomena of this sort have always fascinated people. Since antiquity (and probably far earlier), stargazers have explored the clockwork mechanism of the sky with increasing precision, first with the naked eye, and, after Galileo's time, with more and more sophisticated telescopes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, astronomic charts and maps became astonishingly precise. Anyone conversant in the laws of mechanics, as Newton formulated them more than 250 years ago, can pinpoint celestial events as precisely as most situations require. Their perfection is marred by trifling amounts--no more than small deviations after the decimal point--that would interest no one but pedantic specialists.