Chapter 13 of 'Einstein' - all chapters at

13. Albert heard footsteps coming down the hallway. He looked up to see Mileva standing in the doorway. She was holding quilting needles and a half-finished blanket she was making for the baby. She had also donned a housecoat over her house dress and had exchanged her daytime shoes for a pair of slippers. “I put Hans Albert to bed,” she said mildly. “Is he sleeping?” “He fell asleep right away. Throwing those toys must have tired him out.” Albert looked into her face to see if she were making a joke, but he could find no indication of levity. She was apparently just stating a fact, though in other days, this episode would have been fodder for a good laugh between them. Mileva was three years older than Albert and had begun her academic career in medical school at the University of Zurich. She met Albert when she switched to the Polytechnic to study mathematics and physics.

Neither of them had success upon leaving the Polyechnic. Mileva did not pass the mathematics section of her final exams, and Albert was not chosen as an assistant for any of his professors. Their plans to stay together were thwarted for the moment, especially since Albert's parents did not approve of the match. He returned to Italy and she returned to her family home in Serbia, where she learned that she was pregnant. She stayed in Serbia for the duration of her pregnancy. Long before they got together again, the child had been born and Mileva had put her up for adoption.

On both a practical and emotional level, it was a very difficult time for both of them. Unable to attach himself to a professor at the Polytechnic, Albert was unemployed for a long time after finishing. He learned of the pregnancy at his family home in Italy and then later, of Mileva’s decision to the baby up for adoption. He felt helpless, and also extremely guilty for not being there at this critical time. He became more determined than ever to get a job and establish himself, so that they could have their life together.

However, everything he tried for some time – from trying to get a position with a researcher, to teaching, to tutoring – was short-lived and led nowhere. Months passed, and then years before he settled in Bern with a job at the Patent Office. And then another year went by before they agreed that it was time for her to join him.

He had never meant for them to be separated so long. When she arrived, they were married and found their own place in Bern. They had Hans Albert within a year, and Mileva settled into her role as mother and housewife. They had talked about whether this role would be confining or boring for someone of her intellect and talents, but she was looking forward to motherhood.

When the baby came, she enjoyed being with him so much that it seemed to be working out. Gradually, however, over the past eighteen months she seemed to grow tired of having no life outside the house. She seemed to resent him for having a life outside the flat and for wanting to do physics when he was home, but what did she expect? Physics was an important part of who he was and always had been. It should not be a surprise that it was frequently on his mind, especially when he was forced to spend much of his day contemplating patent applications.

After standing for a while in the doorway, Mileva moved away without saying another word. Albert could hear her settling in the sitting room with her knitting.

For a moment, he thought about going out to the sitting room to be with her. But he did not think it would help matters. It would do no good for him to pretend he wanted to be with her when his mind was somewhere else.

Albert shook his head and tried to get back to his physics by considering the concept of absolute space, which had taken a couple of big hits recently. Hendrik Lorentz put it in doubt by showing that objects contracted in the direction of their motion due to the effects of electromagnetic waves. How could there be absolute space if the lengths of objects varied according to external conditions? When Newton came up with the concept of absolute space, he did not say that it only applied when objects were stationary or when there were no electromagnetic waves.

“Absolute” meant that it applied under all conditions.

On the other hand, Newton’s laws of motion depended on absolute space. He returned to the question of whether those laws should be tossed out the window? If so, he had to ask himself again: what would replace them?

Albert fidgeted in his chair and grimaced. He did not have an answer for these questions. Nor did he have an answer to the next logical question, which had to follow if one were challenging Newton’s absolutes.

What about absolute time?

It was a simple question, but extremely difficult to answer, perhaps even impossible. This was not the first time Einstein had considered the possibility that the concept of time might need to change from its classification as an absolute, nor was he the only one. People like Ernst Mach thought absolute time was hanging by a thread, just like absolute space. But there was no evidence to support that point of view. With absolute space, at least, there were experiments and mathematical calculations that demonstrated a divergence from Newtonian predictions. There was no such evidence for challenges to absolute time.

The challengers were going on instinct, which was a risky business in a field like physics. In addition, no reasonable scientist would discard something useful without a good reason. To date, no one had produced a good reason for discarding the notion of absolute time.

Albert stopped in his meandering to consider again what the concept of absolute time meant to Newton. For him, it was a linear concept, regular and predictable. Einstein was very familiar with the definition: a series of events occurring in irreversible order and measured in regular intervals. All of Newton’s laws of motion depended on the concept of this linear, predictable and regular concept of time.

What if they were all wrong?

Albert grimaced again.

Sure, he thought. That one will go over wonderfully in the world of physics. If the concept of absolute space would be difficult to replace with something meaningful, just try to imagine replacing a concept of time that was regular and predictable. The whole world of physics – no, wait – the whole world would be disoriented and confused.

Still, Einstein would be willing to take it on if his work took him in that direction. In his life, he had been willing to challenge not only all physicists, living or dead, but every concept in physics. It was his nature, and part of what made him so unlikable in certain academic circles. He had been challenging beliefs and ideas since he was the only Jew in a Catholic school with seventy children. He had not changed during his youth in Germany and Italy, his young adulthood, his graduate studies, or his post-graduate life. His confrontational style had left him without a job in academia or research, but with an uncompromised approach to problem-solving.

If he wanted to take on the concept of absolute time, he would do so. But he didn’t expect it to be easy.

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