Albert Einstein- A Physicist Would-Be Shoemaker

480px-Einstein1921_by_F_Schmutzer_2Both Einstein’s social life and the impact that it had on his scientific accomplishments have fascinated historians and the public alike. No more so than after his death in 1955 when, as he requested in his will, many of his personal papers were transferred to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1). What has become apparent over the years is how much of an influence his first wife, Mileva Marić, had in establishing Einstein’s scientific credibility. Serbian by birth, Mileva was exceptionally gifted and together with Einstein became a student of theoretical physics at Zurich Polytechnic (1). Their entry into higher education coincided with the discovery of how electricity could be harnessed as an energy source (1).

From the moment Einstein began college life he missed many of his classes relying on his close friend Marcel Grossman to lend him his course notes (2, p. 43). Then in 1897, only a year after she had begun her studies with Einstein, the young Mileva moved to Heidelberg in Germany to work under the tutelage of one of the giants of physics- Phillip Lenard (1). Lenard’s pioneering work lead to the discovery of the photoelectric effect which, put simply, described how electrons are emitted from matter that has absorbed electromagnetic radiation (1).

After a short time in Heidelberg, Mileva returned to Zurich where she joined Einstein in his intellectual pursuits (1). Perhaps not unexpectedly they both chose the same subject- that of thermal conductivity- for their college dissertations. Yet it soon became clear that both Einstein and Mileva had other interests- their love for one another grew over time and Mileva began playing a pivotal role in Einstein’s achievements (1). In fact Mileva became a true intellectual companion for Einstein contributing much to Einstein’s scientific papers.

Once married, Einstein and Mileva frequently organized social gatherings and established a scientific debating club at their home to fulfill their strengthened intellectual cravings (1).  In 1905 Einstein wrote his most famous of papers on his theory of special relativity—a theory that, together with his later general theory of relativity, would change the way physicists viewed our universe (1).  While several of Einstein’s papers prior to 1905 were on aspects of physics that were already well understood (particularly relating to statistical mechanics and the size of the atom, work that had already been elucidated by Ludwig Boltzmann and Josiah Willard Gibbs), they would provide an important foundation for his later work (3, p.55).

Einstein’s doctoral thesis established an accurate estimate of Avogadro’s number.  He also made important contributions to the understanding of Brownian motion (3, p.88-89) and Critical Opalescence- the study of how light is scattered as it travels through a gas (3, p.102).  Nevertheless it is for his papers on relativity that Einstein will be best remembered.

In 1933 Einstein made his move to Princeton to take a position as research professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.  Physicist Abraham Pais recalls much of the discussion between Einstein and his “spiritual partner” Niels Bohr.  Rumor has it that Bohr argued with Einstein even after Einstein’s death (3, p.6).  Elsewhere Einstein became outspoken in matters political.  As one editorial in Scientific American commented

“[Einstein’s] involvement in politics was motivated less by a craving for power than by a heartfelt desire to set right injustices and to fulfill the responsibilities incumbent on him as an unwilling co-author of history’s most terrifying weapon…..When observations of the total eclipse in 1919 detected gravitational bending of light in keeping with his theories, Einstein used his newfound international fame to speak out on issues and to advocate for a just world government….After Hiroshima, Einstein remarked, ‘If I knew they were going to do this, I would have become a shoemaker.'”(4)

Realizing that his own work had been used in the development of the Hiroshima bomb, Einstein became a powerful advocate for peace.  While he struggled to reconcile his own theories of classical physics with quantum mechanics (5, p.198), both his achievements in science and his involvement in politics tell of the multi-faceted nature of his influence on human history. 

Literature Cited

1. Einstein’s Wife- The Life of Mileva Maric-Einstein, 2003 Melsa Films. Aired on Wisconsin Public Television as part of a PBS Science Special

2. Roger Highfield and Paul Carter (1993) The Private Lives Of Albert Einstein, Faber & Faber Publishers, London, UK

3. Abraham Pais (1982) Subtle is the Lord, The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein, Oxford University Press, New York

4. Einstein=Man of Conscience2, Editorial in Scientific American (September, 2004), Vol 291, p.10

5. Nancy R. Pearcey and Charles B. Thaxton (1994) The Soul of Science- Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy, Crossway Books, Wheaton Illinois

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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2 thoughts on “Albert Einstein- A Physicist Would-Be Shoemaker

  1. Hello,
    Yes I have often pondered over these very same questions. Looking through the Highfield and Carter reference that I cited in the above article I found the following excerpts that give some indication of Mileva’s contributions to Einstein’s scientific achievements (I assume that is the influence you are asking about?):

    (i)Early on in their relationship:
    “Einstein’s letters to Mileva would increasingly present her as an intellectual comrad, matching him stride for stride on his journey through science. At this point he was clearly ahead of her, though ready to cover old ground again as she caught up. The surviving correspondence between them does not suggest that Mileva was bringing new ideas and insights to his work, but she made it much more congenial. Here at last- after his philistine parents and the unassuming Marie Winteler- was someone with the intelligence and interest to share the ideas that excite him” (p.44).

    (ii)Later on while sharing their intellectual cravings:
    “Einstein [made] a sustained attempt to wrestle with the questions that would one day be answered by his theory of relativity. Mileva was the first person to share his ideas- a dramatic confirmation of the extent to which she had become his intellectual confidante. Einstein’s pleasure in being able to spill his thoughts into a sympathetic ear was almost palpable”(p.51)

    (iii)Publication of Einstein’s first paper:
    “Despite its limitations, the paper’s publication was the first feather in Einstein’s scholarly cap, and there are some grounds for believing that Mileva helped him with it. In October he had promised that they would work together on the topic in Zurich, collecting ’empirical material’, and added “If a law of nature emerges from this, we will send it to the Annalen”. In subsequent letters, Einstein would write of ‘our paper’ and ‘our theory of molecular forces’. He showed particular interest in whether ‘our view’ would hold good for gases as well as liquids.” (p.66)

    (iv)Einstein clearly drew on Mileva for emotional support
    “Mileva’s faith and support were like a rock beneath him, at a time when he had little else to be sure of” (p.67)

    (v) On Relativity……
    “[Einstein’s] creative flow hardly suggested that Mileva’s presence was necessary to his inspiration, but his desire to share his thoughts with her was as strong as ever. He asked her to look up data in the library and to send him a key textbook. He wrote of the investigations they could carry out together to develop his new insights. Above all there is one sentence that leaps from the page of a letter written in 1901, and that has been seized on as proof that he and Mileva were already collaborating closely on the theory that would make his name: “I’ll be so happy ahd proud”, he wrote, “when we are together and can bring our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion” (p.70).

    I will answer your second question in due course.


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