Do Not Throw the Toys!

10. The Einstein family sat down to supper with Hans Albert in a high-chair next to his mother. Mileva set down the large pot of beef stew, full of carrots, celery and other vegetables. She had baked fresh bread as well, and she sliced it carefully. Then she served hearty portions of the stew in large bowls to Albert and her and a small portion of the soft items mashed together for Hans Albert, who was waiting impatiently for the food to arrive. The aromas filled the house. Mileva brought out a carafe of red French vin de table, and Albert poured them each a glass.

There was only intermittent conversation between Albert and Mileva at the supper table, occurring between bites of food and Mileva’s assisting Hans Albert, who was expressive enough for everyone. He was very hungry and seemed to be thrilled with the smells and taste of the stew. Mileva fed him small bites, trying to get food in his mouth without spilling most of it. She was only partially successful, but the baby still seemed pleased to be eating such a grown-up meal. After dinner, Mileva retired to the kitchen while Albert took Hans Albert into the living room and addressed him face to face.

"How about some music?" he asked. Hans Albert did not react in any way. “Stay right here.” Albert disappeared briefly into his study. When he returned, he was carrying his violin case. Hans Albert was seated in the same position by his box of toys, apparently waiting for his father to amuse him. Albert sat in his easy chair about five feet from his son. As Hans Albert watched carefully, he removed the violin and ran the bow across the strings to see if it was in tune. After a few minor adjustments, he began to play. He played Bach, a calming and highly structured piece that he had played hundreds of times. Hans Albert seemed mesmerized by the music, sitting on the floor with his eyes wide open, watching his father work the bow over the strings. As the strains of Bach continued, the enchantment of the music began to wear off. Hans Albert’s looked past his father at the pictures on the wall, then panned around the room. Albert's fingers functioned almost on their own, the hands of an accomplished musician who no longer played every day but still had a nice touch. As he worked his way through the piece, however, he kept an eye on Hans Albert, who had risen and was looking into his toy box. Albert suddenly stopped playing Bach and began to pluck the strings noisily with his fingers. The change in sound made Hans Albert stop and look back at his father, who smiled benignly as if he had no idea where that strange noise was coming from. Then he took up the bow and started to play again, but in a light-hearted improvisation that he hoped would keep the young boy's interest. Hans Albert watched his father play for another minute, but listening to the music was a passive activity and he had entered an active mode. He turned away and headed toward the box of toys again.

While Albert kept one eye on his son, Hans Albert reached his destination, peered over the side of the box, and surveyed the possibilities. He reached in and pulled out a wooden train engine, with moveable wooden wheels on spools. Then he found two more wooden train pieces, a passenger car, and a caboose. As Albert worked his violin and Hans Albert played with his wooden train cars, Mileva passed in and out of the dining area. She nodded, as if pleased that Albert had picked up his violin. He did not notice her and continued to play, becoming more absorbed in the music as Hans Albert played with the wooden train. When he had an opportunity to throw himself into it, music was perhaps the only diversion these days that could take Albert's mind completely away from the frustrations of his life and the scientific impasse that he was trying to overcome. At first, he had been playing primarily to entertain his son, but now he was playing because the music could take him into a different world, where all the pieces came together neatly in one coherent whole. He did not notice when Hans Albert finished his game with the wooden train and started looking for something else to do. He peered inside the box again, but when none of the other toys captured his imagination, he sat down on the floor. His father was absorbed in his music and his mother had gone back into the kitchen. Then, in an improvisational move of his own, Hans Albert picked up the wooden train engine and launched it in the direction of his father. It hit the side of Albert's shoe as he played, then slid across the hardwood floor to the wall. Albert felt the object bounce off his shoe but continued to play. He stopped, however, when another piece, the passenger car, suddenly came flying in his direction. This piece was thrown with more velocity and accuracy, hitting Albert's kneecap with a thud. "Vas is das?"

He stopped playing as the wooden caboose went flying past him. Hans Albert laughed with a light giggle that belied the ferocity with which he'd launched the attack against his father. "Nein, Nein," Albert called. "Do not throw the toys!" Hans Albert giggled again as he looked around for something else to throw. Albert set the violin on his chair and walked over to the child sitting on the floor. He shook his head back-and-forth, repeating his admonition against throwing objects, but the boy was having too much fun to believe he was in any kind of real trouble. Mileva suddenly appeared as Albert was doing the next best thing to convincing his son that he had misbehaved. He moved the toys away. "What happened?" she asked. "He threw the train pieces." "He's never done that before." "He's very good for the first time," Albert replied, rubbing his kneecap. Hans Albert was still giggling. Mileva shook her head. Albert watched her carefully, thinking she might find humor in the situation, but there was no smile, no hint of warmth in her face. Albert shook his head. He knew he was not the greatest father in the world. It did not come as naturally to him as it did for others, including his own father. Hermann was a genial, easy-going man, with a thick moustache and a love of beer and sausage who had always looked and played the part perfectly. He was not quite so good as a businessman, however.

The family had been forced to move from the town of Ulm along the Danube to Munich when Albert was Hans Albert's age because Hermann's business failed. Then the business failed again when Albert was fifteen years old, and the family moved from Munich to Italy so that Hermann could open an electrochemical shop with his brother, Jakob. That was the time when they tried to leave Albert behind in the sterile and oppressive atmosphere of the Luitpold Gymnasium, but there was no way he was staying behind in Germany with his family moving to Italy. Albert did not know if he would make a good businessman. He suspected he would be no better than his father, but the question of his business talents was irrelevant since he had a steady job at the Patent Office. While the pay was not great, it was enough to live comfortably and stay in Switzerland, where Albert and Mileva both felt at home. It was curious that his father had always disapproved of Albert's relationship with Mileva, even though he had never met her. This disapproval caused a rift between father and son that lasted until Hermann died in 1900. It was only after Hermann had passed away that Albert and Mileva were finally married. Though he was far too young to understand, Albert made a silent promise to his young son: "You may marry whom you please. I give you my blessing now, in case I become unreasonable later." 11.

When Albert retreated into his study, he turned up the lamp and noticed an open book on the top of the bookcase. He knew without checking that it was a copy of A Treatise on Human Nature by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Albert remembered the focus of Hume’s analysis and the power of his ideas. He had not discussed them with anyone in a long time, but the philosopher’s work had been a prominent topic of discussion during the days of the Olympia Academy, when Einstein and his friends would discuss science and philosophy, mathematics and poetry, and life and death all at once, mixing areas of thought as easily as they mixed sausage and beer. It was Albert’s period of unfettered free-thinking, and the writings of David Hume had been an important part of it.

A Treatise of Human Nature dealt directly with the nexus of philosophy and science and the idea of absolutes, a subject of particular interest to Albert Einstein at the moment. Hume suggested that human nature played a role in the sciences; the inclination of philosophers and scientists alike had been to separate the two as if they existed independently. The Scottish philosopher suggested that science depended on human experience, and because the perceptions based on that experience were subjective, there was no absolute truth. Albert had discussed this point with his colleagues in the Olympia Academy, and he and Besso had revisited the question of absolutes just that morning. Albert admitted that perception was part of science. The fact that many different perceptions were possible suggested that reality was relative, not absolute, and that truth – even scientific truth – was indeed subjective. This logic seemed ridiculous because there was an indisputable reality right in front of us every day. Hume might argue, however, that here was more to reality than showed on the surface.

These thoughts flitted through Albert’s mind as he stood at the door of the study, holding his violin by his side. He could hear the sounds of Mileva changing Hans Albert in their bedroom. Then he heard her place him in the crib, and she began to sing, just as she did every night when he went to sleep. Albert laid the violin on the desk and returned to the sitting room to find the cigar he had extinguished before dinner. At least half of it was left. He found a match on the desktop in his study and lit it. It was chilly in the messy room, but Einstein did not notice. Thinking about Hume led him to consider another aspect of his philosophy: inductive reasoning. He knew that the term meant taking one's thoughts from a part to the whole, from a particular to the general, or from the individual to the universal. But on this evening, as he took advantage of his solitude to let his mind wander, he considered the coincidence that there was also a type of inductive reasoning in physics, thanks to a man named Michael Faraday. At least, he thought it was a coincidence. Albert felt as if he had a lot in common with Faraday. Part of what compelled the 19th-century scientist to conduct so many experiments and make so many discoveries, in spite of a lack of scientific background or mathematical training, was his intuitive belief in the unity of physical activity. He believed that heat, light, electricity, and magnetism were some of the forces that comprised a unified nature. Albert agreed with this view and wanted to explain the entire set of recent findings in the world of physics as the manifestation of a unified nature. Like Faraday, he believed that it was there, lurking behind the scenes, available for discovery with the right approach. Faraday’s experiments on electromagnetism had served as the basis for Maxwell's equations. By moving a magnet through wire coils, he tried to determine whether or not magnetism could produce electricity. His experiments were the beginning of the march toward usable electrical currents and were therefore a monumental achievement in the history of science.

However, Faraday's discovery left a hole in scientific thought as big as a moon crater. It turned out that a magnet had to be moving to produce an electromagnetic field. This finding was contrary to accepted theory because the effect depended on relative motion. While many scientists considered this an irrelevant detail, Einstein sensed it was extremely important.

Albert was distracted momentarily as Mileva walked in front of the door to his study. She did not look in, which was just as well. He was starting to gain a little momentum in his thinking. While it was still unlikely that he would make any real progress toward a unified theory of nature this evening, he decided to continue pondering the disparate elements that could play a role in the development of one.

If he ever stopped doing that, he really would be in trouble.


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