Chapters 3 and 4 of Einstein's Creative Journey

3. Albert found the tea strainer he had left in a shallow dish on the stove and put it back on the lip of his mug. Then he poured water from the kettle through the strainer. It was not as hot as it had been for his first cup of tea, but that didn’t matter. He carried his fresh tea back to the study and sat down at his desk, trying to get his mind back on Maxwell’s work. It was provocative, but it still did not suggest anything broader to Albert. He shook his head slightly and reached into a new pile, pulling out one scientific paper, then another. They all looked alike, sitting on his desk. He kept tossing them aside unceremoniously until he found the one he wanted. It was a paper by Hendrik Lorentz, whose work Albert thought could be brilliant, which was why the edges were frayed and some of the ink had almost rubbed off the paper. Hendrik Lorentz was a Dutch physicist who gave Monday lectures on his theories at the University of Leiden. The existence of the negatively charged particle called the electron was one of those theories.

This idea was put forward after a professor of natural and experimental philosophy at Trinity College in Dublin, George Fitzgerald, explained the results of one of his experiments by saying, amazingly, that moving objects contract in the direction of their motion. Naturally, Lorentz wondered how that could be. After extensive analysis, he suggested that the contraction described by Fitzgerald was the result of electromagnetic forces acting on an object. In other words, moving objects could contract in the direction of their motion because the electrons within an object assumed new relative distances from each other, actually shortening the length of the object. These were some of the most revolutionary concepts in contemporary physics. In fact, they were probably some of the most revolutionary concepts in the history of physics. All of this was fine and good, but where did it leave Albert Einstein as he read Lorentz' paper for the two-hundred-and-twelfth time?

Albert put down the paper and sat back in his chair. He smiled vaguely, realizing that he had gone so far away in his thoughts that he had no idea what time it was or how long he had been pondering the questions of the day in physics. He had done this before, sometimes spending a whole day consumed by a single question, refusing to accept the lack of an answer and not noticing the passage of time. Of course, that was before he had a full-time job and a baby. He looked around at the messy desk, but before he could launch another search through the papers, he heard Hans Albert crying, and then heard the unmistakable sounds of Mileva getting up to attend to him.

4. Mileva and Albert had met while physics students at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich and discovered that they had more in common than an interest in science. After getting to know each other, they performed musically together. She played the piano, and he played the violin. They would go to the spacious, ornate houses of local businessmen or politicians and play Chopin or Mozart or Vivaldi, their two instruments complementing each other as they filled a room with atmosphere. Afterward, they would walk through the streets of Zurich and return to his flat or hers, talking about music or physics.

They also talked about how their lives were changing as young adults in a Europe that seemed to be undergoing great upheaval at the end of the century. They discussed what a new century would bring for them individually and what it would bring to the world, and they felt fortunate to be living in Switzerland. And then, of course, because they were both trained in physics, they discussed how the scientific world was changing. As one century drew to a close and another was about to dawn, they wondered where they fit into this transformation. Change could be intimidating and confusing, but to two socially active young people with training as scientists and musicians, it also promised opportunity. Soon, they were seeing each other separately from the musical performances or the outings with their friends. The attraction deepened. In his early twenties, Albert was a desirable partner, a free-thinking young man with a self-assured attitude and quick wit. His youthful good looks and impulsive demeanor endeared him to a number of young women in Zurich. Mileva was less gregarious, but she held a peculiar fascination for the young Einstein. Three years older than Albert, she possessed even features with deep brown eyes and thick brown hair to go with a full mouth and full figure. The combination of her quiet charm, sensual appearance, and interest in science and music made her an excellent companion, and especially at the beginning of the time they spent together, there was more passion in their relationship than in any he had known before. They had a long courtship, during which they were frequently separated, but they eventually married after Albert secured the job in Bern. Albert and Mileva Einstein had lived in this flat for two-and-a-half years. It was not a large flat, but there was plenty of room for their small family and enough space for Albert to have a study. It was located close to downtown, with a view of Bern's famous clock tower from the sitting room window. They could hear clearly the sound of the bells marking the hour. For centuries, the Clock Tower has been the most prominent structure in Bern. It was a beautifully constructed tower, suggesting the history and tradition of this part of Switzerland. When the Great Fire destroyed most of Bern's wooden buildings in 1405, the Clock Tower and much of the rest of the city were rebuilt in sandstone. All other clocks in the city were set from its time, and the city's roads were measured relative to it. The bell was originally struck by hand to announce the hours, but in 1530, a mechanical apparatus was installed, including the moving figures that celebrated the striking of the hour.

Albert liked the Clock Tower and its mechanical regularity. He also liked living near the center of town, where the trolleys were continually coming and going, full of people. The trip on the trolley was never fast, but it was always comfortable. When it rained, the trolley stayed mostly dry. Albert heard Mileva walk through the sitting room and into the kitchen to start breakfast. Sometimes, she would stop by the study to say good morning, but not this morning. Or she may have looked in to see he was absorbed and just gone on without disturbing him. He did not see her as he went down the hallway toward the bathroom, but did peek into the bedroom to see what the baby was doing. Hans Albert was wide awake and staring straight up at him. He was becoming more like a boy and less like a baby every day. Albert wondered what was transpiring in that small but active brain, and what meaning his mind attributed to the images captured by his eyes. So much of the world was new to eyes that wide open and a mind that fresh, but did it make sense yet? Had a cause-and-effect relationship between actions been established, or was it all just a mesh of unrelated images? Father and son stared at each other for a few moments until Albert broke away and headed into the bathroom to shave. Albert disliked many activities associated with preparing for going to work, but shaving was the worst. He was good at concentrating when a task engaged him mentally, such as his physics or even some of the work at the Patent Office, but he was not very good at mundane tasks. His mind tended to wander, and he would end up making errors, or in this case, leaving sections of his face unshaven. Or he would err in the other direction and cut himself. He had already sliced himself so deeply on two occasions that he was still bleeding when he arrived at the Patent Office. He had needed to apply a towel to his face to prevent blood from oozing onto the latest patent application. This morning, he set up the shaving bowl in the bathroom, dipped the brush in it, and jiggled it around to create a thick lather. He applied the lather, avoiding the line of his moustache, and opened the drawer to find his razor. He watched in the mirror as the razor cut a swath through the lather on his cheeks. He felt the cool steel blade move with a slight scratching sensation against his skin. He tried to maintain his focus on this methodical progress, but as usual, once he had started and the process was proceeding, he began to think of other things. It was not the problems of physics that took his attention away this time; instead, it was the elements of his daily life that jumped into his thoughts. As the blade turned the corner on his cheek and came up against his jaw bone, he conceded again that Mileva was probably right to criticize him for not paying sufficient attention to his family. While he recognized this deficiency and occasionally felt guilty about it, he also realized that he was not likely to change. Changing would mean sacrificing the time and energy he spent thinking about physics, and he did not want to do that. But even as he admitted that he was in some ways a neglectful husband and father, he thought perhaps this blade cut both ways. While he sometimes shortchanged his family due to his concentration on the problems of physics, wasn’t the opposite also true? Wasn’t his physics work often shortchanged because he was spending so much time attending to the demands of his family? The answer was probably yes, but on a practical level, it was a realization that did him no good. Even though Mileva herself was a physicist with true appreciation for his work and the issues he was addressing, she would not sympathize with him on this point. When he broached the subject, she inevitably maintained that as important as his physics was, his family had to come first. He could argue until he was blue in the face that it did, and show by example after example that it did, but she could not be swayed. In her view, he was shortchanging his family with his inattention, and all other considerations had to be secondary.

Albert poured water from a pitcher they kept in the bathroom onto the straight razor to wash the lather from it. Then he brought the razor back up to his neck and delicately began scraping off the growth in short upward movements. He thought about a time when his life was not this complicated, remembering the early days of his courtship with Mileva when they would play music at events hosted by families in Zurich. He thought about one of their first events, the wedding of a wealthy couple. They had started playing a number of standard pieces, but then began to improvise. Playing his violin, Albert expanded on Mileva's piano improvisations, and vice versa. It was great fun and made something memorable out of an otherwise uneventful event. Afterwards, they walked home together, talking and laughing about all the mistakes they had made, though no one seemed to notice. Albert remembered the low-cut black dress that Mileva was wearing and how provocative she looked as they walked through the streets of Zurich. Mileva walked with a slight limp, and she had to walk especially slowly that evening wearing her fancy black shoes. But that did not bother Albert, who was wearing his tuxedo and carrying his violin case and sheet music. Despite the lateness of the hour, they took their time, sauntering through the city streets and enjoying each other's company in the cool, crisp night air. Albert remembered her observation that evening as they discussed their improvisations in more detail. Despite their mistakes and unsuccessful interplays, they had created something out of nothing. It was something unique, harmonious and perhaps even beautiful. “Music can be like that,” Mileva had said. “But so can physics. In fact, it should be like that. It should be creative and unique, and there should be as much improvisation in physics as there is in music.” He viewed her differently after that comment. He had never looked at science that way, but he realized as soon as she said it that it was exactly what he hoped to find in his own study of physics.

Albert wiped the remaining lather from his face and finished washing up with a damp cloth. As he moved into the bedroom to get dressed, he was thinking about the effects of the pressures in his life. Between the demands of his job and family, perhaps he was silly to believe he could offer a real breakthrough in physics. No one who had conducted the experiments that showed the discrepancies between empirical findings and current theories had been able to do it. No one working full time at a university or a scientific laboratory had been able to do it. No one whose life was organized around physics and its advances had been able to do it. What made him, with none of these advantages – and some clear disadvantages – believe he could do it? Albert shrugged, thinking these dead-end thoughts as he dressed for work at the Patent Office in his rather predictable daily outfit: a high-collared white shirt, brown gabardine suit with matching vest, and dark brown shoes. He was trying to get the two ends of his bow tie at the right length when Mileva suddenly opened the door to the bedroom. “Michele is here,” she said in a neutral tone. “He is?” Albert replied. “He’s early.” “No,” she corrected him. “You’re late.” There was no judgment in her voice. This was the first time they had spoken that morning, and Albert was trying to gauge her mood. While the tone was not especially warm, there was none of the bitterness that had been creeping into it recently. “All right,” he said, still fiddling with his bow tie and trying to adopt a soft tone similar to hers. “I’ll be right there.” She stared at him, paused for a moment, then came over to where he was standing. She took the two ends of his bow tie, carefully measured them, and tied it slowly and methodically while he stood perfectly still. He breathed in the familiar smell of her hair as she worked on his tie. When she was finished, he tightened the tie and straightened it in the mirror. “Danke,” he said simply. “You have not eaten breakfast.” “I’ll have tea at the office.” She did not pursue the point. There was a moment of awkward silence as they stood facing each other in the bedroom, until he finally put his hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be back at the end of the day.”

She nodded and continued to stand there as he edged by and walked down the hallway, where Michelangelo Besso was waiting.


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