The AHA! moments series begins with Einstein


1. Albert Einstein had not been sleeping well. He was a man of medium height and slight build with even features and penetrating brown eyes, but his eyes were half-closed and bags were becoming a regular feature beneath them. The hair on his head was uncombed, and some of the short hairs in his moustache were sticking straight out like porcupine quills. He had risen before sunrise and walked quietly through the flat toward the bathroom at the end of the hall. Although he spent several minutes splashing cold water on his face and trying to wake up, there was no discernible change in his appearance when he emerged. He looked dazed as he made his way through the sitting room into the kitchen. It was always the coldest room in the flat, especially in the morning. He struck a match and made a fire in the stove, closing the little door and warming his hands as heat began to emanate from it. The warmth worked through his clothes and began to drive the chill from his body. It was May 1905, and Albert felt the pressure of unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Numerous recent experiments had shown that the accepted laws governing motion did not correspond to the behavior of the universe. For the most part, these laws had been developed by Isaac Newton and remained unchallenged for over two hundred years. Physicists at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century were scrambling to integrate these experimental results into the existing theoretical framework, but it was not working very well. Albert was struggling with the new findings. Many scientists viewed them as anomalies, trying desperately to prove that there must have been experimental errors. Others devoted themselves to finding ways to bend Newton’s theories so that these findings could be shoehorned in without disruption to the core of the theory or the applicability of the law. Albert thought these attempts to salvage Newton’s theories were a waste of time. The theories were wrong, and that’s all there was to it. Contemporary scientists needed to accept this new reality and move on. But move on to where? He shook his head and looked around. The fire in the stove was going, but he had forgotten to fill the tea kettle with water. He left the pleasant warmth for a moment to fill the iron kettle in the sink. He returned to his comfortable spot, placed the kettle on the burner, closed his eyes again, and waited for the water to boil. Albert had been watching for years as the prevailing theories of mechanics, the part of physics that explained motion, were being systematically destroyed. The planet Mercury was not where it should have been in the vast reaches of space, according to the traditional method of measuring such phenomena. And, amazingly, well-conducted and verifiable experiments had shown that an object moving extremely fast, approaching the speed of light, would be shorter than that same object when it was standing still. There were other examples, leading any open-minded scientist to realize that something was amiss in the world of physics in general, and the field of mechanics in particular. Albert sensed that he was witnessing the most important movement in physics in centuries – the movement toward new theories of motion – and he was on the outside looking in. He was not a professor at a university. He did not have an appointment at a scientific laboratory. Instead, he was a technical expert at the Bern Patent Office, checking patent applications for a salary. It was not a bad job; in fact, it was a solid job with a number of advantages and some interesting assignments. But it was not physics. Having studied in Zurich before coming to Bern, Albert had been living in Switzerland for several years. The atmosphere made it seem more like home to the young man than Germany ever had, and he had succeeded in acquiring Swiss citizenship. Even in Bern, one of the largest and most sophisticated cities in Switzerland, the air was mountain fresh. There was a sense of stability and calm, at least partially borne in Switzerland's political neutrality, which had been established following the defeat of Napoleon nearly a hundred years earlier. The only sounds in the flat were the flames licking the bottom of the kettle as the water slowly heated on the stove. Albert cut a piece of bread from last night's loaf and nibbled on it as he waited for the water to get hot. The bread was dry and tasteless, but he ate absent-mindedly, not thinking to heat it up or butter it.

Albert needed to think about the problems in mechanics. Even if he tried not to think about them, the problems would rattle around inside his head until he finally paid attention. The recent experimental findings and scientific proofs flew in the face of conventional explanations. Albert realized that the discoveries were moving much faster than the theoretical rationale and desperately wanted the world of physics to keep pace. However, in the absence of an appointment at a university or scientific laboratory, it was difficult to remain current in the field. With a full-time job at the Patent Office and a wife and child at home, it was a delicate balancing act to remain to up-to-date on theoretical matters in physics. Mileva had told him over and over again, and in no uncertain terms, that he was failing in this balancing act and that his family had lost out in the juggling of time and mental space in his life. When he thought about it, he realized that she was right in a way. Even when he was with them, his mind was elsewhere, pondering the results of an experiment performed half a world away or the insights of a paper that had just been published. But he couldn’t help it. It was not that he didn’t care about his wife and child; it was simply that they were not all he cared about. He could not just leave physics and devote all of his time to work and family. He simply could not do it. His reverie ended as the kettle on the stove began to whistle. Using a pot-holder, he pulled it off the fire. He had a large mug that he drank from every morning, darkened on the inside from innumerable cups of tea. He placed his strainer with the tea leaves on the lip of the cup and poured the boiling water through it.

He let the tea steep for a minute or two. When it was strong and dark, he picked up the warm mug and carried it with him into the room he used as a study. Usually, he had about two hours to himself before Mileva and Hans Albert awoke, and he needed to make use of every minute.

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