Einstein brought us a recipe for the universe

For 250 years, time and space had been fixed dimensions, but in 1915 the daydreams of an office worker shattered this world view. At his desk in the patent office,…

For 250 years, time and space had been fixed dimensions, but in 1915 the daydreams of an office worker shattered this world view. At his desk in the patent office, Albert Einstein had devised a new and coherent theory of the universe. The theory curved space, brought the stars closer to us, and made time relative.

The past / Science history

Reading time: 19 minutes

While his peers are running around playing or kicking a ball, a thin, dark-haired boy sits and digs into thick books at his home in a suburb of Munich.

Someone in the extended family never calls him anything other than “the boring cousin”, and Albert Einstein actually much prefers to sit and dream, read or play the violin than to climb trees.

At school, he always tops exams, a loner who gets the highest grade in almost every subject. Every waking hour he spends his days in a pile of textbooks that the parents bring to their inquisitive son. He is most fond of natural sciences, and for that there is a simple but peculiar reason.

When he was five years old and lying sick in bed, his father gave him a compass. The boy turned the compass circle after circle, but the needle always turned in the same direction for a reason the father said was called magnetism.

At the age of 16, in 1895, Einstein took the entrance exam at the Polytechnic School in Zurich, one of the finest natural science universities on the continent. He fails – but not in mathematics or physics, but in literature and social studies.

A drawer hums with wisdom

However, the defeat does not cause this ambitious boy to give up. He does better the following year and in 1900 he can boast of a university degree in physics and mathematics.

However, the diploma turns out not to be worth the paper it is written on. Without success, Einstein looks for a job teaching at different universities, but instead has to settle for various low-paying jobs as an insurance salesman and tutor. The most important reason is that Einstein is from a Jewish family during the heyday of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Albert Einstein is constantly in financial trouble and he feels that he has failed and in a letter to one of his closest he says that “it probably would have been better if I had never been born” but he can at least be happy about his success in women’s affairs.

“When you’re courting a beautiful woman, every hour seems like a second. When you are sitting on red-hot lumps of coal, every second seems like an hour. It’s relativistic.”

As shy and reserved as Einstein was as a child, the grown-up Einstein is a constant charmer and women fall in love with this handsome man with that powerful gaze.

But Einstein sees only one woman: former fellow student Mileva Maric, who shares his passion for physics, mathematics and music.

In the long run, however, he cannot live on love and tap water. In June 1902, the father of one of his friends offers him a permanent job as a technical expert at the Swiss patent office in Bern, and there the 23-year-old Einstein now sits at a desk and works his hand.

To his great joy, Einstein discovers that he only needs two hours to complete each day’s tasks. This frees up a huge amount of time for what Einstein calls the theoretical physics department – the daydreams.

Einstein was born in Ulm on March 14, 1879 and grew up in Munich.

His younger sister Maria, called Maja, became a doctor.

Einstein with his first wife, Mileva Maric, whom he married in 1903. They divorced in 1919.

He uses every free moment to reflect on ideas that have been floating around in his mind for years, and little by little, his desk drawer starts to overflow with scientific papers, all of which are the results of the brilliant ideas that will become his trademark.

During his brainstorming trips to the extreme limits of the natural sciences, he becomes convinced that physics needs to be rethought. Questions about the existence of atoms, the nature of light and the relationship between mass and energy are among the complex subjects he delves into.

Einstein immerses himself so deeply in his thoughts that he walks around in a trance and forgets everything around him. On his way home from work, he walks through the streets without paying the slightest attention to his surroundings, and often he is out in the countryside before he realizes it.

“Science is wonderful, if only you don’t have to make a living from it.”


Einstein himself thinks that he is in some kind of mental wolf crisis, but the fact is that the brilliant ideas have become so many in his head that it is about to boil over. And after an almost superhuman mental struggle, in 1905 he publishes four articles, each of which could be worthy of any head genius and a veritable dynamite into the physics of the day.

One of the articles deals with the special theory of relativity – a theory that will later be substantiated and has a decisive significance for human understanding of the universe. However, the contemporary way of thinking is not ready for Einstein’s genius.

As summer turns to autumn and autumn to winter, Einstein waits for the reaction of the learned, but he receives no applause, only icy silence. That silence is not broken until towards the end of the year, when one of the greatest thinkers of our time gives him a friendly pat on the shoulder.

German physicist Max Planck praises Einstein’s papers, and in particular the paper on special relativity, which “immediately caught my attention”

Video: Einstein arrives in the US in a good mood:

Einstein bends the universe

Although with these four papers Einstein heralded the agenda of physics in the 20th century and was awarded a doctorate for the performance, he still has to wait without success for a job offer in the field of research.

He doesn’t even get a position as a high school teacher, but the patent office rewards him with a promotion from 3rd degree technical expert to 2nd degree specialist.

As a rule, Einstein sits at his desk every day except Sundays, and although he now has a family to look after – in 1904 he and Mileva had a son – he manages to find time every week to play in a string quartet.

However, no matter what he does, he can’t get rid of the nagging sense of uselessness that something is missing from the theory of relativity.

Einstein dreams of expanding the theory so that it can also explain gravity, and as he sits over his worksheets one afternoon in 1907, a thought pops into his head that he will later describe as his happiest moment.

“Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, but I’m actually not sure about the universe.”


Suddenly the reality dawns on him that if you are in free fall, you don’t feel your own weight – you only feel weightlessness. This simple idea surprises Einstein and also leads him to a completely new theory of gravity: General Relativity.

But many years will pass from the birth of the idea to the finished theory in all its splendor. There is a lot of work and a lot of mental gymnastics ahead.

Aunt and fiancé

Four years after Einstein revolutionized science, he receives his first offer to teach at a university. In the fall of 1909, he becomes a lecturer at the University of Zurich, and now the path becomes easier.

The eyes of the scientific world have finally opened to Einstein’s articles and his genius. Now offers for high positions are pouring in from all over the world.

From Zürich the road leads to Prague in 1911, a year later he goes back to Zürich and in 1914 this 35-year-old prodigy of physics is hand-picked to hold a professorship and gain a place in the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin.

For the first time, Einstein now has the opportunity to immerse himself in his theory of gravity, but the freedom of research and a good salary are not the only things that tempt him in Berlin: Elsa Löwenthal, who is his aunt – and fiancee – also lives there.

In February 1919, Einstein divorced Mileva Maric. Three months later he marries his cousin, Elsa.


His and Mileva’s marriage has long been difficult, and in a letter Einstein informed his wife that she was “an unfriendly and short-tempered person who does not know how to appreciate the quality of life and extinguishes the joy of life in others with her mere presence.”


Mileva and Einstein now have two sons, but they are also the only thing they have in common, apart from the eternal arguments. Mileva is jealous of her husband’s success, his group of friends and his job, but Aunt Elsa, on the contrary, is thoughtful, proudly looking at Einstein and caressing him gently.


When Einstein is sick, Elsa takes care of him. She gives him a hairbrush so he can tame his hair, which likes to go all eight at once, and she washes and irons his clothes so he can look good at fancy dinner parties. When Einstein gets bogged down in work and forgets everything around him, she suggests exercise, rest and healthy eating.


“He who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”



But such loyalty snorts from Einstein like water from a goose.


“I’m going to smoke like a chimney, work like a horse, eat without thinking and not go out for a walk except in very good company.”


Knocks Newton off his pedestal


Night after day, Einstein immerses himself in refining the original theory of relativity, and often whole weeks pass without him coming out into the open air. An acquaintance who comes to visit says that Einstein’s mind is somewhere else and he looks more like a long-haired lion who recently received a terrible electric shock.


Often his mind is so tied to work that he forgets both to sleep and to eat, and in the apartment, which is certainly large but not so richly furnished, all the floors are covered with tightly written papers with tightly written mathematical symbols and formulas.



Einstein racks his brain, he thinks and thinks but finally realizes that his mathematical skills are not sufficient for the task he intends to solve.


“I have come to have a deep respect for mathematics, but some aspects of it I have considered a luxury until now in my ignorance,” he writes in a letter to his acquaintance.


Classical geometry is simply not enough to describe Einstein’s understanding of the universe, and he repeatedly runs into problems with his equations.


With the help of others, including an old friend and mathematician, Marcel Grossmann, he nevertheless manages to reach so far that in 1913 he can present to history a draft of a theory that uproots the contemporary world view.


The bed is not flat and stable as Isaac Newton, one of the most famous natural scientists in history, claimed.


On the contrary, it is curved, and gravity is a curvature of the universe, says Einstein, but also admits that his theory is still only a hypothesis – and may even be quite false, as skeptics firmly point out.


“We can’t solve the problems by thinking the way we did when we created them.”



When Einstein gives a lecture about his theory of relativity, some people are impressed, but most people condemn this theory, which they think not only goes against common sense, but also turns all accepted theories about concepts such as motion, space and time on their heads.


Einstein himself is convinced that he is right, but to dispel all doubts, he suggests a feasible experiment.


If his theory holds, the light of a distant star is deflected a bit when it passes close by the Sun’s gravitational field – and this very thing should be able to be proven by photographs of stars in close contact with the Sun during a total solar eclipse.


World war delays


The next total solar eclipse will be on August 21, 1914 and will be visible from southern Russia. Einstein encourages astronomers to test the theory.


“More cannot be done in the academic field. In this matter, it is only they, the astronomers, who next year can do theoretical physics an inestimable favor,” he writes in the late summer of 1913.


Einstein did not walk in socks. He couldn’t bear the thought of tearing holes in them.


A young astronomer in Berlin, Erwin Freundlich, is willing to accept Einstein’s challenge, but he needs money. “Just go ahead and order the glass plates,” Einstein replies, adding that he’s willing to contribute some of his own limited savings if needed.


But it turns out not to be necessary because the rich suddenly line up and on June 19, 1914, Freundlich heads for the Crimea along with many others.


However, hostilities suddenly stand in the way of the project, 20 days before the eclipse, on August 1, 1914, the Germans declare war on Russia and in the Crimea, Russian soldiers take Freundlich and his companions prisoner and confiscate their equipment.


When the moon has made its entrance over the solar circle, Freundlich is behind bars. It is true that he is released after a few weeks, but the possibility of taking advantage of the solar eclipse has passed and thus Einstein is once again left alone in the struggle to prove his theory.


The last point


For the rest of 1914 and most of 1915, Einstein isolates himself in his study where he continues to work on his masterpiece. While the war rages in Europe, he sits around and does nothing else. This 36-year-old physicist is exhausted and on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the end of November 1915, when he finally succeeds in putting the finishing touches to one of the most significant physics discoveries of all time, the theory of general relativity.


“If you can’t explain something simply enough, you haven’t understood it well enough.”



“This theory is of incomparable beauty,” Einstein says proudly to one of his friends, and to another admirer he says, “This is the most valuable discovery I have ever made in my life.”


Now there is nothing left but to achieve the final proof that the theory comes home and reconciles with reality. Einstein needs another eclipse.


A new star sparkles in the sky of history


Time and again, Einstein has challenged astronomers to test his hypothesis that the deflection of light in a gravitational field during a solar eclipse can be detected, and when a respected British astronomer, Arthur Eddington, finally sees the opportunity to do so, he does not hesitate.


Among scientists, Eddington is considered one of the very few who actually understand Einstein’s theories. He is full of admiration for the theory of relativity and has even written an explanation of it in English. In 1919, he sails from London to the island of Principe, west of Africa, to take pictures of the total solar eclipse seen from there on May 29 at 15.13



When the big day arrives, Eddington is fully prepared. He has set up all his photographic equipment on a 150 meter high hill on the north coast of the island, so to speak, in the front row. But the hours leading up to the eclipse are dark both in the sky and in Eddington’s mind.


The sky is almost completely cloudy and seems to block the view of this rare phenomenon. But then there is nothing like a magic wand has been waved and the sky becomes completely clear in the section where the sun is now. And it couldn’t have been more difficult, because now the outermost strip of the moon appeared at the far end of the solar disk. Eddington himself has no time to enjoy the total eclipse during the five minutes it lasts.


He is busy switching photographic plates to document the event. And when the glass panels are finally all in a light-tight box, the job is far from over. Now months of work is underway to interpret the images and determine if they are usable at all.


The light on error levels


In Berlin, Einstein eagerly awaits Eddington’s results. Outwardly, he tries to pretend that it doesn’t really matter, but in reality, he feels that time is passing by endlessly. “There is still no news about the solar eclipse,” he writes in a letter to his mother on September 2, 1919.


“If a cluttered desk means a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk mean?”



A week later, he finds it difficult to contain himself in a conversation with a research partner in the Netherlands: “Doesn’t it happen that you heard about the English research on the solar eclipse?”


When the results are finally announced at a meeting of the Royal Societies of Science in London on November 6, 1919, the world has changed once and for all. In one day Einstein is no longer an unknown office block but a global superstar.


“After detailed studies of the light-sensitive recordings, I am prepared to state that there is no doubt that Einstein’s prediction proved to be correct,” says astronomer Frank Dyson firmly at the meeting, where there was really only one issue on the agenda: the results of the eclipse.


Einstein’s desk the day he died – in disarray as usual.


In the next few days, the general theory of relativity and its straw-haired author will be the front page of newspapers in many parts of the world:


“Revolution in Science. A new theory of the universe. Newton’s ideas failed,” trumpets the front page of The Times in England. “The light is astray in the firmament,” reports the New York Times.


For Einstein himself, this confirmation is a great victory, even if he himself never had doubts.


And while only a few understand exactly how Einstein changed the universe, he becomes the hero the world so desperately needs right now. After years of senseless killing in the trenches, humanity is thirsty for good news.


Even newspapers that the whole public looks in amazement at this curly-haired and disheveled genius who can both play the violin and sprinkle funny proverbs around him, people admire his long and tousled hair and his habit of drawing equations on tablecloths and his popularity increases even more because of how informal and down-to-earth he is in phase – light years from what might be expected from a man who has revolutionized the world view of physics.


Money for Einstein’s head


In 1922, Einstein received the Nobel Prize, a recognition he had long awaited – but ironically, he received it not for the theory of relativity, but for the paper on the photoelectric effect that he published in 1905.


The honor and fame seem to have no end, and Einstein is now among the famous people, together with royalty, leaders of countries and other people who are sought after by the photographers of the newspapers. He visits the President of the United States, he also visits the Japanese Imperial couple and is seen on the red carpet with Charlie Chaplin.


But he also makes time to promote his message as a pacifist and is among those advocating for a new Jewish center in Palestine.


Arthur Eddington undertook the task of proving Einstein’s theories.

When the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, the newspapers reported that Einstein’s name was on the list of those the Nazis wanted to kill and that 20,000 marks had been placed on his head.

“I didn’t know I was so valuable,” Einstein said with his familiar sense of humor about the rumor.

But Einstein was Jewish and the bottomless hatred of the Nazis did not escape him. When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, he severed all ties with Germany and settled in Princeton, USA.

For the rest of his life, Einstein remains a living legend, and in 1952 he barely remembers adding the title “president” to his resume. When Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, dies, Einstein is invited to take over.

“I’m not the right person and I can’t do this,” answers the scientist who is now 73 years old and has been dealing with various diseases for years.

And one spring night in 1955, one of history’s greatest minds stops thinking. Vascular disease will kill Einstein at 01.15, where he is lying in a hospital bed at Princeton Hospital.

On his desk there are usually stacks of papers with unfinished calculations, but his most important calculations he had finished long ago and with them he brought mankind a completely new understanding of the universe.


Stine Overbye

Related Posts