A Watch and a Dreadful Cigar

9. The two technical experts approached the Einstein flat in silence with Albert lost in thought. He had always believed that there was a harmony to creation that was reflected in the physical world. The way electrons moved, the way light manifested itself, the orbiting of the earth around the sun, and a million other phenomena. There was a logic, a continuity and a harmony to their construction and behavior. There had to be. And the harder physicists and other scientists looked, the more apparent and certain this order should have been. Unfortunately, just the opposite was happening, and it was more than a disruption in physics; it was a disruption in the order of the universe. In Einstein’s universe, at least. On numerous occasions, he had tried to express this concept to Besso, an engineer who frequently cared only about whether or not things worked. He would proclaim that "God does not play dice with the universe." Or, even more shocking, "I want to know God's thoughts." Einstein felt strongly that intimations of such cosmic answers could come from observation of the physical world and how it worked, delving into how things are put together and how they function, and understanding the logic and purpose behind them. In this way, it was possible to get a glimpse into the ultimate organization of the universe and the role physics played in it. Not lately, however. Lately, the glimpses into the order of the universe were few and far between.

Besso said goodbye to his preoccupied friend and walked jauntily down the street as Albert opened the front door to his flat. The aroma of beef stew greeted him immediately. Mileva was in the kitchen but came out when she heard the front door, carrying the baby. She was wearing a simple green-and-brown house dress with half-sleeves and her most comfortable brown shoes. "Can you take him while I finish dinner?" It was her normal greeting, but this evening, the sound of it piqued him. There was no recognition of his day or the fact that he had been forced to think other people’s thoughts and pursue other people’s concepts all day without having any real time to pursue his own. Yes, she had the baby all day long and should be free from minding him to make dinner, but he hadn’t had a moment to himself since early this morning either. It irked him that he had been in the house less than ten seconds before he was given a task to take him away from what he really wanted to think about, which was the persistent and prevailing problems of physics. He turned his attention to Hans Albert, whom he was now holding in his arms. He knew it was not the baby’s fault, and he tried to suppress his sense of irritation as he held him in his arms. Albert was intrigued by the progress of the child, especially as he seemed to add some new trick, some new ability to his repertoire every day. At first, there had been some anxiety-producing moments with the baby; however, Albert gradually became more comfortable and less nervous with him. As he watched the developing idiosyncrasies of his son, Albert could usually find some sort of game or toy with which he could entertain him. There were toys in a box in the sitting room, and sometimes he was able to interest his young son in one of them. Carrying the baby, Albert walked over and picked up a mobile that had worked before as a distraction. It had numerous moving parts that dangled from strings coming out of a wooden piece at the top. He put the baby down and held it up in front of him. Hans Albert’s eyes opened wide, and he stared at the moving parts of the mobile. For the moment, at least, he was fascinated. Albert watched his son, looking into his eyes and wondering what was going on inside that eighteen-month-old mind.

The fascination with the mobile, however, did not last long. The little boy began to emit pre-crying noises, and Albert quickly put down the mobile and talked to his son. "It's okay," he said in a comforting voice. "Everything's all right." But Hans Albert was ready to move, crawling toward the hallway and the rear of the flat. Albert caught up with him, but the baby started to cry when Albert picked him up and brought him back to the sitting room. "It’s not time to see your mama again," he said. "She'll be out soon enough." He put Hans Albert down by the box of toys in the sitting room and began to rummage through them, trying to find something that would capture the boy's attention. There were several items in the box that as far as Albert could remember, he had never seen before. Hans Albert had stopped crying and was watching his father carefully. The two Einstein males, one twenty-five years older than the other, sat on the floor together, looking at these items wondering what they were and what they were supposed to do. There were still sitting on the floor together when Mileva momentarily emerged from the kitchen. “Das ist gut," she said, when she saw them sitting together at the toy box. Then she disappeared again into the kitchen. Albert looked at the baby, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his silver pocket watch. The little boy was instantly mesmerized by this piece of modern technology, and he grabbed the shiny object with both hands. Albert held onto the watch for a moment and cautioned the child about its fragility before letting go. Seeming to understand the point his father was making, Hans Albert handled the watch as if it were made of eggshells. He put the face of the watch all the way up against his own face, staring at the moving needle as it made its way around the circle. The young boy's curiosity made Albert smile.

"It's a watch," Albert explained. He often spoke to the child as if he were much older. "The long hand is for the minutes and the small one is for the hour. The one moving around in the circle is for the seconds." Hans Albert looked at his father as if his explanation had cleared up the mystery of the watch. Albert continued to regard his young son. Everything is new at that age, he thought. Everything was also very large. When he was very young, Albert remembered that his father had seemed huge. It was not a scary image, just memorable. The boy quickly grew bored with the watch. Albert put it back in his pocket and picked him up. He was heavy, seemingly heavier even than he had been just the day before. Albert sat down on his favorite stuffed chair with his son in his lap. "What would you like to do now?" he asked. The boy looked at him blankly. He fidgeted and seemed uncomfortable on the chair, clearly wanting to be free to wander the sitting room. Albert shrugged and set the boy down, watching him trundle off on all fours across the wooden floor. Whether intentional or not, he was making progress toward the kitchen.

Albert rose again and caught up with him. "No, no," he chided. "You need to leave Mama alone to do the cooking. Come in here." He redirected Hans Albert toward the sitting room and the box of toys in the corner. The young boy obligingly took a ball from his father and began to roll it across the sitting room floor. He had a very purposeful look on his face that Albert imagined Dr. Haller at the office would have characterized as a German look. As his son continued to play, Albert took a cigar from his jacket pocket and lit it. He puffed pensively as he thought about the silly conversation at lunch and the German-ness he treated like a drunken uncle. Then he thought about the effects of such an upbringing.

Growing up in Germany had made him a very independent fellow, he realized. Still, it was difficult to measure how much of this independence was due to his upbringing and how much was simply his personality. Certainly, the highly disciplined schooling and rigid environment he faced in Germany outside his family home had contributed to his independent spirit. “Authority” had become a dirty word for him and he tended to go his own way in spite of the consequences. Of course, it had hurt him when he did not receive an offer of an academic position in Zurich after all of his colleagues did, but he understood why it had happened. In his time there, he had steadfastly refused to succumb to the professors' methodology, insisting on using his own approach to solving problems. This attitude had not won over the esteemed professors at the ETH. Albert made sure Hans Albert was still occupied with his toys as he continued to puff on his cigar. He had never been the type to conform easily. True, he had suffered negative consequences from that attitude, but his independent spirit and self-confidence could also be an advantage. They allowed him to depart from traditional explanations more easily than others might, and perhaps to challenge the status quo more quickly and tenaciously. Without this quality, a young scientist not associated with an academic institution might never have been able to come up with the two original papers he had submitted to Annalen der Physik over the past few months. His papers on Brownian Motion and the photoelectric effect had come out of nowhere, from a virtual nobody, and it took a very independent and strong-minded nobody to come up with them. His independent streak was also manifested in his methods, where his theories and papers were based on mathematics, not experimentation. He proved his hypotheses with logic and formulas, not with test tubes. While he was not the first to rely almost exclusively on mathematics, he was the first to apply this method to the problems he had addressed over the past few months. His approach could be considered unorthodox, but to Einstein, it was normal. It was the way he did things. It was familiar, and he was good at it.

He thought about the value of his approach to the scientific problems he was trying to solve and wondered if it really could be done, if it were possible to tie all the disparate elements of a unified theory of mechanics together through mathematical proofs. For a long time, he had harbored no doubt it was possible. But the problem remained unsolved. Albert did not know if that was because he had not put it all together properly yet, or if there were simply no new comprehensive theory to be discovered. There was no way to know for sure, of course, until he either proposed a new theory or gave up.

The more he worked on it, however, the more he wished he had a simple answer to the simple question of whether or not a new theory existed.

The kitchen door suddenly opened, and Albert was jarred from his reverie by the appearance of Mileva coming into the room carrying a huge pot. She cast a sidelong glance in his direction.

"Oh, Albert, put that dreadful cigar away and help me with this."


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