It’s the birthday of the physicist who said: “Why is it that nobody understands me, and everybody likes me?” That’s Albert Einstein (books by this author), born in Ulm, Germany (1879). As a boy, he was slow to begin speaking, which worried his parents, and later, as a student, he was unremarkable. He graduated from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich with a teaching degree, but despite his obvious intelligence, his grades weren’t very good — he skipped classes he disliked, and refused to work on projects that didn’t interest him. After graduation, he was the only member of his class not offered a teaching job at the institute, and he spent two years trying unsuccessfully to find a permanent teaching position. Finally, he gave up and applied to work as a technical assistant at the Swiss patent office in Bern. He was hired, and he went to work six days a week, eight hours a day. The work was easy for him, and he earned 3,500 Swiss francs a year.
At the patent office, he worked all day at a lectern, reviewing applications of inventions to see if they were worthy of receiving patents. He said: “Working on the final formulation of technological patents was a veritable blessing for me. It enforced many-sided thinking and also provided important stimuli to physical thought.” His boss encouraged him to be skeptical of every application, not to be taken in by the assumptions of the would-be inventors, and Einstein took the work seriously and was a strict reviewer. Because he was so efficient, he was able to get a day’s work done in just a few hours, which left him the rest of the day to pursue his own scientific ideas. He kept all his notes and theories in the second drawer of his desk, which he called his “theoretical physics department.”
Einstein tried to manage his time evenly: eight hours a day at work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for everything else — although in reality, that “everything else” often cut into his sleep. One of the things he did in his free time was meet with a group of friends to discuss physics and philosophy. Before he secured the job at the patent office in June of 1902, Einstein had advertised himself as a physics tutor. A Romanian philosophy student named Maurice Solovine saw his ad in the paper and went to Einstein’s house to sign up. The two men talked for hours, and after a few more sessions, Einstein decided they should abandon the idea of a tutor-student relationship and just get together to talk as peers. Soon they expanded the group to include others, and named themselves the Olympia Academy. They gathered at Einstein’s apartment, where they ate sausages, cheese, and fruit, and debated the ideas of great thinkers.
All of these ideas about philosophy and theoretical physics were in Einstein’s head as he sat in the patent office conducting what he called his gedankenexperimenten, or thought experiments. He also considered the patents he was reviewing, many of them about electric light, power, the mechanisms of clocks, and electromagnetism. Einstein called the patent office “that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful ideas.”
In the year 1905, while he worked as a patent clerk, Einstein published four papers that changed the field of physics. These papers were about his particle theory of light; determining the size of molecules suspended in liquid, and how to determine their motion; and special relativity, including his famous equation relating energy and matter: E=mc².
He said, “All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.”