Albert Goes to Work

5. Born in Switzerland, Besso had moved to Bern the previous year after Einstein helped him secure a position at the Patent Office. Of Jewish and Italian heritage, he was short, olive-skinned, and quick-witted. Though he was six years older than Einstein, the two men had become friends in Zurich, where they both attended the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. Einstein was also the one who introduced Besso to his future wife, Anna. The Besso family had moved to Italy, where they had a son, but moved back to Switzerland when Michele started at the Patent Office. Despite Albert’s affinity for the city’s trolleys, the two men walked to work together every morning. It was only about a mile from the center of the city to the Patent Office, but they found time for discussion of topics ranging from physics to philosophy. The only subject they almost never addressed in their talks was their work at the Patent Office.

The friendship between Einstein and Besso was based on more than a common occupation and shared experience at the Ecole Polytechnique. Besso was also an excellent mathematician and accomplished engineer. Albert trusted his judgment and frequently bounced ideas off him, especially when he encountered obstacles. They walked in silence through the streets of Bern for several minutes before Besso spoke. "Something on your mind today, Einstein?" he asked. "I have a feeling you're not thinking about the freshness of the morning air." Albert did not want to talk to Besso about his situation at home. When he did not reply, Besso glanced at his face. "Come on, my friend," he continued, lightheartedly. "Have you lost your gift of conversation? This is not how you charmed the ladies in Zurich a few years ago." Albert sighed and turned to look at his good-natured friend. Even though he knew there was no malice behind the bantering, it was still irritating, especially so early in the morning when he had not even had a cup of tea. But he decided to ignore his irritation and avoid a fight by changing the subject and introducing a line of conversation that they had discussed many times before. "Tell me what you think about the nature of light," Albert said matter-of-factly, as if he were saying, “Tell me what you think of the flowers in the springtime.” Besso smiled vaguely. "Light is good," he replied breezily, probably knowing full well that Albert was avoiding his question. "I'm in favor of light." Albert ignored Besso’s flippant response and pursued the subject. "Thanks to experiments all over the world, virtually every rule in classical mechanics has become suspect. If we've learned anything over the past few decades, it's that we must distrust any and all absolutes." "That's true enough," Besso agreed.

"Well, then, why should the speed of light be any different?" Albert asked rhetorically. "Why should it be the ultimate speed limit? We have evidence now that light will not travel faster than 186,000 miles per second, even if the source of the light is moving, but should we really consider the speed of light an absolute? What assurance do we have that it will not become as suspect as the absolute length of a piece of wood?" He was referring to the work of Fitzgerald and Lorentz, which showed that objects would contract as they moved extremely fast because the electrons inside the objects would move more closely together. Einstein did not know why the electrons moved more closely together, but he was convinced now that they did. And so was Michele Besso. "Now wait a minute," Besso argued. "You cannot lump the speed of light in with variables like the concept of length. The speed of light has been proven to be constant in rigorous experiments all over the world. Where is this doubt of yours coming from?" "You’re missing the point,” Einstein countered. “Look at what you're saying. You're saying that length is a variable now. A few years ago, probably even a few months ago, you would have bet your last mark it was absolute. Does it really make sense to pick out one factor such as the speed of light and say, 'Oh no, that is the one thing that could never be variable.'" Besso thought for a second before responding. "What about your last paper?" he asked. "Does that have anything in it that could help?" Within the past few months, Einstein had carved enough time out of his mornings and nights to produce two scientific papers on subjects he had been studying for years. The prestigious journal, Annalen der Physik, had agreed to publish both of them. One was an explanation of the poorly understood phenomenon called Brownian Motion, which Albert contended was due to the random motion of molecules. At the time, the existence of molecules themselves was not universally accepted. In proving their existence through the use of mathematics and probability, Einstein explained a poorly understood phenomenon while adding credence to the existence of a fundamental building block of nature.

Besso’s reference, however, was to the other paper Albert had submitted. In it, he tackled the long-standing scientific question of the nature of light, presenting at least the beginning of an answer to the question of whether light was composed of waves or particles. The dispute over the nature of light dated back to the ancient Greeks. First, the results of an experiment would suggest that light had to be composed of waves, then ten or twenty or even a hundred years later, the results of an experiment would suggest just the opposite, that there was no other reasonable interpretation than that light was composed of particles. Not that long ago, the argument seemed to be resolved when Fresnel and Maxwell proved experimentally that light traveled as waves. But there was much more to come. Since the photoelectric effect produced in experiments at the end of the 19th century was attributed to negatively charged electrons, there was renewed support for the particle explanation. Still, debate continued, and more explanations were offered regarding the nature of light. Albert's thoughts on the subject had been molded by the experimental evidence, but he also took as an important point of reference the work of a physicist named Max Planck, who discovered one of the most fundamental constants of nature while studying radiation. Planck proved that energy was not continuous, but instead emitted in discrete bursts called "quanta". Albert believed that this discovery had direct relevance to the question of the nature of light, and he succeeded in proving it mathematically in his scientific paper. He showed that light was contained in infinitesimal self-contained packets, and that the energy in these packets was equal to the frequency times Planck's constant.

Einstein did not conduct an experiment that suggested one interpretation over the other. He was not a laboratory scientist, after all, and relied on the results of other discoveries and experiments to inform his theoretical view. Then he would prove his theories with strong and creative mathematics. He did not want a laboratory. Mathematics was much more predictable and reliable. Both of Albert Einstein's recent papers, which addressed the totally different subjects of Brownian Motion and the nature of light, introduced new ideas into the scientific world. In his mind, however, they were limited in focus because they looked at only one aspect of a question. He wanted to do more. He wanted to explain recent findings that were inconsistent with current theories and use this explanation to introduce a new theory of mechanics. To do so, he realized that he needed to know if the speed of light was truly an absolute in a world where everything else seemed to change according to circumstances. Besso looked over at his friend and colleague, who had grown quiet. He realized that Einstein’s mind was wandering, and as a patient man, he did not interrupt the process. Albert would answer his question eventually. Finally, Einstein looked up and, as if there had been no pause whatsoever, continued the conversation. "No, no, my paper does not deal with that aspect of it. It's a temporary explanation that pushes the mathematics forward, but it's not a final explanation. Not even close.” After a few more steps, he added, “Of course, none of this is final, but that's just the point. By accepting the speed of light as an impassable limit, we're saying it's final, it's absolute, and it's unchanging. Nothing in physics these days is final or unchanging." The two men continued to walk through the streets of Bern. It was impossible to walk far in the city without passing some of its ubiquitous fountains, mostly built during the Middle Ages to memorialize historic events and the heroes of old Switzerland. Set in the midst of the rows of gray houses or in the middle of busy intersections, the fountains added unexpected character and color to the scene. Their route also took them close to the Aare River, which wound its way through the heart of the city. The river served as the source of much of the area's commerce and provided a serene backdrop with its smoothly flowing waters and meandering path through the city. Bern was also known as a city of flowers, and multi-colored geraniums grew in the window boxes of the small houses that they passed on their way to the Patent Office.

Albert did not notice them. Nor did he notice the fountains, the sandstone facades of the houses or the meandering river in the distance. He had become lost in thought and saw little of the color and beauty of the city. He kept his head down, watching his brown shoes move forward one step at a time. Besso walked silently beside him for a few minutes, wondering whether their dialogue concerning the nature of light was over, or if the thoughts were merely back-building in Albert's mind as they made their way toward the Patent Office. Besso knew that Einstein’s approach to problems – combined with his tenacity, creative use of mathematics, and ability to see how the tiniest details fit into the larger picture – made him such an exceptional, perhaps even a unique physicist. This combination of character and abilities was also why his friend had more potential for scientific discovery than any other person he knew. Of course, that realization never kept the engineer from having a little fun at his friend's expense.

“There is no shame in accepting one absolute in all of nature, my friend," Besso asserted. "Deep down you know it's true, and you'll be a much happier man if you just accept it." 6.

Albert Einstein and Michelangelo Besso climbed the stairs to the Swiss Patent Office, which was located on the upper floor of the Federal Telegraph building. Several of the other technical experts were already sitting at their desks, beginning the process of dismantling someone else's idea. Besso and Einstein hung their coats on the rack and took their seats, preparing to join the patent crusade. Albert had been working at the Patent Office for almost three years. Although he was a physicist working at a job normally reserved for an engineer, and his mind had a tendency on occasion to drift to less practical subjects, he was an effective technical expert. In part, his effectiveness stemmed from his superb attention to detail, and in part it stemmed from his desire never to be unemployed again. The two-year period between Albert's graduation from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich and his arrival in Bern to take up his position at the Patent Office had been a time of great uncertainty. His friends at the ETH had all received academic posts under their lead professors, but Albert did not receive an offer following graduation. His independence and rebellious nature left him without a mentor on the faculty. He realized he was solely responsible for this situation by insisting on following his own intellectual path instead of anyone else's, and at times doing so arrogantly, but the snub still hurt.

At the time, the lack of an offer for an academic position also presented a financial hardship because Albert was cut off from the support of his relations in Genoa following his graduation. They had been supporting him as a student, but once he graduated, he was forced to leave Switzerland and return to his parents' house in Milan, which served as a base of operations for his job search. He wrote numerous letters to professors and researchers inquiring about academic positions. Some were answered; most were not. With no other options, he took a temporary job at the Swiss Federal Observatory and moved back to Zurich. Having a position in Switzerland allowed him to get his Swiss citizenship, but did not help him to find a more permanent position there. Eventually, he was forced to return to Milan. Although it was difficult to focus on physics during this period, Einstein did publish a paper on chemical reactions in Annalen der Physik in December 1900. He sent a copy to a leading researcher in the field asking for a position in his laboratory, but received no response. He also inquired about a position in the laboratory of a Dutch physicist who was doing research into the nature of ultimate cold. There was no response to that inquiry either. Einstein landed another temporary job in May 1901, when he was invited to teach at the Winterthur Technical School while the regular professor served a stint in the army. By July, however, the regular professor had returned. He continued to search for work in Switzerland. With the help of one of his friends from the ETH, he found a private tutoring job for an English boy in Schaffhausen. This position also did not last long. Einstein's free-spirited approach to academics made him somewhat less than ideal as a private instructor, and he was looking for work again by the end of the year. Albert used some of his free time to finish his dissertation on the kinetic theory of gases at the University of Zurich, and then tried to put it to immediate practical use. He included his dissertation in his application for a position advertised at the Swiss Patent Office. He also contacted another of his friends from the ETH, Marcel Grossman, whose father happened to be friends with the director of the Patent Office, Friedrich Haller.

Dr. Haller was a large, good-natured man with impressive engineering credentials who was a bit of a free spirit in his own right. Despite Einstein's lack of practical knowledge, Dr. Haller apparently saw the potential to which Herr Grossman alluded in his recommendation and hired him as a technical expert, third class. Albert began in the Swiss Patent Office in June 1902. After all of his wanderings and false starts, he was thrilled to have a more permanent job, especially in Switzerland. He moved to Bern with enthusiasm for his new venture, determined to succeed in the patent business, establish himself in a profession, and make his home with Mileva. The technical expert's job was to evaluate the scientific merit of patent submissions, verifying the validity of the inventor's logic and the soundness of the methods. Each submission came with a model that demonstrated how the pieces fit together and the mechanisms were designed to function. Thus, Albert’s job was to take abstract ideas and apply them in detailed, practical ways. The question was no longer, "What is the meaning of this idea?" or "What is the nature of this item?" The question was simply, "Does this work or doesn't it?" Theories and abstractions suddenly became someone else's domain. In a way, it was an odd fit because the young man who usually opposed norms and challenged standards was suddenly responsible for imposing them. Instead of rebelling against this situation, however, Albert accepted it. Somehow, he grasped that it would be useful to develop his pragmatic side. Adopting this attitude, he was almost immediately very good at a job that seemed contradictory to his personality, but one that he needed to support himself and his family. Albert’s desk in the Patent Office was nothing like his desk at home. This one was smaller and less cluttered, as if designed for more finely directed labor. He settled in, the model jogging his memory about the project that had landed on his desk at the end of the previous day.

Devices designed to synchronize clocks were sometimes sent to him, and he had become fascinated at the methods proposed by inventive young minds. Some of the devices worked, and some of them didn’t. Albert job was to decide what was a brilliant new idea and what was a poorly realized concept. There were times when Albert became so involved intellectually with a patent application that he lost hours at a time without noticing its passage. At these times, he was so intrigued by an application that he devoted all of his mental energy to viewing the world in the same way as the inventor. He could follow a good patent application from beginning to end, losing himself in the proof of concept.

Unfortunately, this was not one of those times. While he stared at the model on his desk, Albert was thinking how much easier the technical expert job would be if he could evaluate the applications purely on mathematics. Albert had come to believe in mathematics as the ultimate judge and jury in science. It was the only method that led to certainty in an area of great uncertainty.

Physics experiments were extremely delicate and sensitive matters, often dealing with microscopic particles or objects moving very fast. The required precision was extraordinary. There was so much room for error, so many ways in which something seemingly trivial could throw the experiment completely out of whack, destroying the value of the findings. The experimenter might not even realize that something minor had gone wrong, or that it would have an effect on the results. And even if an experiment was successful, the findings would have no significance until someone else replicated it, achieving exactly the same results with the same precision and strict attention.

With mathematics, there was no second reviewer, no replication required, and no interpretation of experimental findings. The idea either worked or it didn’t, according to formulas and numbers. There would always be some subjectivity involved; for example, certain assumptions had to be made in any proof, which could reflect the scientist’s view of the world. In general, however, mathematics provided as objective a reality as it was possible to achieve.

Einstein liked the clarity. He was firmly convinced that the issues facing physics at the turn of the century would be resolved through mathematics. It was the practical dimension underlying the arrangement of the universe and all of its manifestations. Even as a young man, he had the sense that mathematics reflected creation.

It was the practical tool that held the abstract world together.


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