How Einstein Started

Any journey starts with a single step. Einstein’s career also started with a single book he read – it was a visual encyclopedia that shaped the way he thought of the universe.

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What was at the beginning of it all? According to Walter Isaacson’s book, it was a compass. A five-year old Albert was lying in bed sick when his father brought him a compass to play with. Albert asked how it worked. And just saying that compasses work because of Earth’s magnetic field was not enough of an explanation. He wanted to know how it really worked.  He wanted to visualize it.

Since that encounter with a compass, and many books later, there was one book that especially struck Albert’s imagination. So much that he started visualizing in his head everything he read in it. This book was People’s Book on Natural Science. The author specifically asked his readers to take an imaginary trip through space. And Einstein did. At 15, while walking in the Italian countryside, he first imagined what it would be like to ride along a beam of light. That was his first thought experiment, one of more that would later make him who he became.

About his thought experiments, Einstein famously said;

 The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.

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The facts in the timeline are based on Walter Isaacson’s book Einstein: His Life and Universe .

The biography, the first full biography on Einstein, Isaacson shows the complicated world inside Einstein’s head. There is a side of him that is childlike – he is endlessly curious but he can’t take care of himsef. To compensate for this side, he marries his cousin who cares for him with a motherly devotion. The other side of Einstein, one we don’t know as much about, is the romantic Einstein. He takes beautiful women on summer boat rides. He tells his wife that people were never meant to be monogomous. Then there is a sad side to Einstein: for years he watched his younger son spiral into depression and eventual insanity. There is also some enigma to the man: we find out he had a daughter with his first wife who disappeared from correspondence between the two less than a year after birth. Throughout all this, Einstein not only manages to focus on his work, the work becomes the only escape he has from the drama of his personal life. Towards the end, we find him fully immersed into his thought as he is solving the biggest problem of his life, the unified field theory. That is the theory of everything.

Don’t judge him until you read about Einstein in his own words. In The World As I See It Einstein speaks directly to us. He starts with the meaning of life. He insists there is one and the question itself is not meaningless. Although he is disappointed by war and politics, he is hopeful about the human race in the future. Even by the end of his life, Einstein is still hopeful. But his tone in Out of My Later Years has changed – now he has a message for us and the people who live after us.
Eintein’s thoughts go beyond our range in many cases. Explaining what Einstein meant is a job fit for other scientists. Stephen Hawking dove into the heart of what the relativity theory means in A Stubbornly Persistent Illusion.
The original explanation of the relativity theory comes from Einstein himself in Relativity: The Special and General theory. You might find it surprisingly accesible.
If you have suspected that the difficulty of the theory has been exxagerated by scientists who are not famous for being good explainres, you will feel at home reading The Einstein Theory of Relativity written by the Nobel Prize laureate Hendrik Antoon Lorentz who was involved in shaping the theory. The book is math-free. And the man who wrote it asked Einstein himself for clarifications.