Chapter 2: The Day Albert Einstein Discovered Relativity

2. The study was painted a faded off-white and had no windows. On the right side as Albert entered was a series of wooden bookcases containing numerous thick, hard-cover mathematics and physics books, but also soft-cover periodicals like the leading physics journal Annalen der Physik. Interspersed throughout the bookcases were books on other subjects, including philosophy. David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature lay open on top of one of the bookcases. On the wall above the bookcases were framed drawings of two giants of science: Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton. At the far end of the room was a door leading to the rear of the flat, but that door was never used and remained locked from the inside.

Albert's desk was immediately to the left. It was a medium-sized wooden desk with a blotter in the center and a lamp to the right. Papers were stacked in seemingly random piles on the desk, some printed with text and others with hand-written notes or mathematical equations. The chair in which he sat was probably the oldest item in the room, including Albert himself. It was a straight-backed chair with a layer of worn brown leather over the seat, which was barely high enough to allow Albert to sit at his desk and write. He sat in the familiar chair and reached across the desk to light the lamp. As the room became brighter, Albert surveyed the clutter on the desk top. He was eager to review several items, but had no idea where they might be in the pile of papers. He had looked at them not long ago, so he hoped they would be near the top of one of the piles. Over the past few months, perhaps even longer, he had been struggling to bring his thoughts together on the recent revelations in science. He had thought for some time now that the discoveries shaking the previously unshakable tenets of physics were all tied together. He believed they reflected a different type of arrangement that looked like the world of absolutes described by Galileo and Newton, but was different somehow, turned sideways perhaps or compressed, but definitely different. He didn't know what was happening to the old order, but he sensed there was a new order waiting to be discovered, suggested by the work of a number of scientists and experiments that seemed to make no sense.

Albert had no answer as to why traditional theories could not explain the recent findings. His lack of progress frustrated him, even as he realized that no other physicist was able to explain it any better than he could, even those at universities and laboratories where they were able to contemplate the problem all day long without interruption. Of course, many of these physicists had not accepted that a new theory, or set of theories, needed to be developed. They were still trying to explain – in terms of traditional theories – the startling new findings and extraordinary insights about the nature of objects as they moved through space. In Einstein’s opinion, they were on the wrong track. Of course, the ones who were on the right track were also unable to explain the new findings. Perhaps they did not believe it could be done, or perhaps they were not able to break through the conceptual barriers that led to a new theory. Whatever it was, their productivity was prodigious in terms of evidence that the old theory was fraying at the edges, but non-existent in terms of a broad-based explanation. Albert shrugged. Would he have the answer if he were studying these problems at a major university? Maybe, but maybe not. He cringed at the thought of all that collegiality. He was not a team player as a scientist and detested the seminars, colloquia and lead-professor tradition that imposed a paradigm or restrictions on young thinkers. He preferred independence and needed the freedom to make his own mistakes in his own time. He did not need anyone telling him how to approach a subject, nor did he need a laboratory to test his theories. He tested his theories in his mind, using thought experiments and mathematics. He did not care that other scientists saw this method as unprofessional and ineffective. He insisted on doing science his own way, which was the main reason no professor had picked him up as a researcher after his academic studies. That was okay with him. He would have gone crazy in someone else’s lab, and probably driven everyone else crazy at the same time.

Albert shook his head, trying to clear it for the work ahead of him. He began to read a paper on electromagnetism by James Maxwell, which he had pulled from the pile on his desk. Maxwell's work had fascinated Albert since he was a student at Zurich Polytechnic. At that time, Maxwell was so revolutionary that his theories were not taught as part of the curriculum. However, Albert read him extensively outside class, trying to come to grips with an explanation of electromagnetism that did not agree with Newtonian laws on one very important topic: how the distance between two objects affected the forces acting between them. Experiments performed by Michael Faraday in the mid-19th century were the springboard for much of Maxwell's work on electromagnetism. Faraday had only an eighth grade education, but enjoyed an instinctive understanding of the connections between the forces of nature. He invented the first electric motor and showed that it was possible to convert mechanical energy into electrical energy. Through his experiments, he also proved that electric currents can produce magnetic fields and that magnetic fields can produce electric currents. Until Maxwell, however, there was no mathematical explanation for this activity. Maxwell took Faraday's theories and experiments and developed a set of equations that explained the relationship between electricity and magnetism. He not only deduced the existence of electromagnetic waves as a combination of electrical and magnetic fields, but discovered that they traveled at the same speed as light. As a result, he surmised that light was a type of electromagnetic wave. Albert was familiar with the concepts as well as the mathematics. He sensed their importance because they dealt with questions that were at the heart of the uncertainty regarding mechanics. Answers to these questions might explain a variety of poorly understood phenomena.

Sipping his tea, Albert spent about twenty minutes refreshing his memory about Maxwell and the disruptions he had brought to the world of physics. Einstein had the feeling that he and Maxwell spoke the same language, centered around a mathematical explanation of a sensible universe. Maxwell had used mathematics to interpret experimental evidence, which was often Einstein's method as well. With respect to light and electromagnetic waves, however, the mathematics did not go far enough. There was more to this explanation, but Albert could not see it. At least, not yet. He put the paper down. What are you trying to tell me, James? Albert paused briefly, hoping that the quiet of the morning and the peace in his study would allow an answer to pop into his brain. As with many other mornings like this one, none did. He raised his tea mug, but the tea had grown cold. He sighed, then rose from his chair with concepts of electricity and magnetism still swimming in his head and walked through the empty sitting room toward the kitchen. As he walked through the flat, his thoughts involuntarily shifted from thoughts of Maxwell to thoughts of his earlier days in Bern when he had pondered other questions about how nature worked. At the time, he was living alone in a cramped room near downtown Bern and hopped from one temporary job to another. During that period, he associated with a group of young men who tested him intellectually and expanded his view of the world. They established what they half-jokingly called the "Olympia Academy," a group of three young men who spent their time discussing the great issues of science and philosophy. It was outrageously presumptuous, but none of them cared as they dissected and challenged the ideas of history’s most notable scientists and philosophers. One of Albert's cohorts in the so-called Academy was Maurice Solovine, a Romanian who came to Einstein seeking a physics tutor, and in return provided insight into a wide range of subjects, especially literature, philosophy and mathematics. The two young men quickly recognized that their relationship could be a symbiotic one, learning from each other and putting their knowledge together to enhance their understanding of life's answerable, as well as its unanswerable questions. The third member of the group was Conrad Habicht, whom Einstein had known in Zurich and whose specialty was mathematics.

The three of them would spend long nights jousting with each other, playing off each other's insights and trying to take the ideas of Western Civilization's great thinkers into uncharted territory. Physics merged with philosophy, which merged with romanticism in this eclectic group of nimble minds, and the fact that they wrote nothing down and came to no firm conclusions had no effect on their enthusiasm for the process of discovery. Sometimes, they would combine the intellectual exercise with a more physical form, and spend a weekend hiking and camping at Lake Thun outside Bern, discussing one new way of looking at the world after another as they trekked across the mountainside.

Albert realized that it was all a little absurd, and definitely time for it to end when it did. After all, he was twenty-six years old now. But he also realized that those discussions with his intellectual friends had an impact on the way he thought about everything, including some of the basic tenets of physics.

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