The Mind of Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955)
In 1905 Albert Einstein posted to his friend and colleague Conrad Habicht a letter announcing four scientific papers he would soon be sending. The content of these documents would trigger a revolution in understanding the nature of everything, both on the macrocosmic and microcosmic scales. These papers, written during the months from March to June of that year were regarding the following:
The Size of Molecules
Brownian Motion and
I will not attempt to elaborate on these topics that not only led to greater understanding, but have also led to many of the last century’s technological developments including: photoelectric cells, lasers, nuclear power, fibre optics, semi-conductors, satellite navigation, space travel and even genetics. But it is not so much what came out of his mind but how his ideas first began that interest me.
The first event that sparked his imagination came when he was 4 or 5 years old. He was sick in bed one day, and his father brought him a compass. Observing its behaviour greatly excited him as he examined its mysterious powers. The fact that the needle behaved as if influenced by some hidden force field, rather than through touch or contact, produced a sense of wonder that motivated him throughout his life. On many occasions he recounted this experience stating that,
‘I can still remember that this experience made a deep and lasting impression on me, something deeply hidden had to be behind things’.
He was born to a Jewish family; though his parents did not adhere at all to any Jewish religious traditions. Albert however, from the age of 6 until 11 singularly began observing Hebrew feasts, traditions and Sabbath day observances. That devotion continued until at the age of ten an important mentor entered his life.
It was an old Jewish custom to take in a needy religious scholar to share the Sabbath meal; the Einstein’s modified the tradition by hosting instead a medical student - on Thursdays. His name was Max Talmud aged 21.
To those weekly visits he brought books on science and mathematics. He would set the young Albert problems that he would delight in solving before the following Thursday. The important books that Max introduced him to were called ‘Peoples Books on Natural Science’ by Aaron Bernstein, which he read ‘with breathless attention’. They particularly stimulated thought experiments including those that led Einstein to his theories on relativity. Later in life when the two met, Talmud asked Einstein what he thought of Bernstein’s work and replied, “It has exerted a great influence on my whole development.”
With Talmud opening Einstein’s mind on a scientific level, this also led him away from religious faith and commitment, although later in life, he would return to a belief in some divine intelligence ‘being behind the existence and order of all things’.
The next big influence in Einstein’s education was a school he attended when 16. Although he was under age, his parents tried to enter him into a college in Zurich but he failed the entrance exam. Not the maths and science papers, but those on literature, French, zoology, botany and politics. To prepare for eventually entering the college he attended the cantonal school in the village of Aarau. It was the perfect school for Albert and he loved it. The teaching at this school was based on the philosophy of the Swiss educational reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi who was against rote learning. He believed it was possible to learn and truly understand the laws of math and physics beginning with
hands-on observations leading to intuitions, conceptual thinking and visual imagery. It was here, as Einstein later recalled, ‘in Aarau I made my first rather childish experiments in thinking that had a direct bearing on Special Relativity.’
From 1896 to 1900 he attended Zurich Polytechnic and for the first two years was particularly impressed by the physics professors, but because what was taught was more historical than modern and pioneering, he became disenchanted.
So these were the foundation blocks that moulded the mind of Albert Einstein:
the gift of a compass,
a period of religious discipline,
the young mentor Max Talmud,
the books of Aaron Bernstein
and especially the Aarau School.
The thought experiments that produced those scientific papers in 1905 were the fruits of a mind trained to visualize what had never before been conceived. Revelation.
As an illustration of this process by which ideas developed I include this quotation:
‘One day during the1930s, Einstein invited Saint-John Perse, (later in 1960 awarded the Nobel prize for literature) to Princeton to find out how the poet worked. “How does the idea of a poem come?” Einstein asked. The poet spoke of the role played by intuition and imagination. “It’s the same for a man of science,” Einstein responded with delight. “It is sudden illumination, almost a rapture. Later, to be sure, intelligence analyzes and experiments confirm or invalidate the intuition. But initially there is a great leap forward of the imagination.”’