A Biography

Jürgen Neffe; Translated by Shelley Frisch

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




When Albert Einstein woke up on November 7, 1919, a wintry gray Friday morning, in his apartment on Haberlandstrasse 5 in Berlin, his life had been transformed. The forty-year-old had no idea at this point what the next few weeks and months—and the rest of his life—had in store for him. His quest to "sneak a look at God’s cards"1 brought him about as close to the essence of nature as anyone had ever been. Even so, on the day of his "canonization" in the temple of science, he could scarcely envision the direction his life was about to take.

Until this point, Einstein had stayed out of the public eye. Now he learned firsthand that research and technology were not the only two forces that were shaping the twentieth century. The mass media had discovered him and made him the first global pop star of science. It is hard to imagine anyone more fully embodying the notion that fame feeds on itself. Today, Einstein’s popular image—a craggy face encircled by a white mane, with a bulbous nose and a look of wide-eyed innocence—is better known than that of any other human being.

Fame and the mass media go hand in hand. The Times of London set off a chain reaction in the media that morning in November, and Einstein’s fame was immediate. Newspapers and magazines were the voices of the epoch—the age of radio began about a decade later.

The British paper introduced to its readers "one of the most momentous, if not the most momentous, pronouncements of human thought."2 This newspaper normally maintained a tone of genteel detachment and objectivity, but in this case the editors euphorically proclaimed a "revolution in science."

For the originator of the uproar far away in Berlin, the content of the report was no surprise. After all, the "revolution"—the general theory of relativity—had occurred four years earlier. And Einstein was already well aware that an astronomical measurement more than five months earlier had confirmed his "new theory of the universe."

Einstein had made several predictions as touchstones for the correctness of his model. One of them stated that large masses curve or bend space. If this curvature really existed, light would have to follow their forms exactly on its path through the universe. In the proximity of the sun, the closest massive body to the earth, it would have to be deflected by a tiny but quantifiable amount.

This amount can be calculated exactly using Einstein’s formulas: 1.7 seconds of arc in geometric terms. In the cosmos, this is equivalent to a distance of the breadth of a match. The previous prediction on the basis of equations by Isaac Newton, the forerunner of modern physics, had predicted only half of this amount, and had yet to be tested. The moment was arriving to put Einstein’s theory to the test. If his prophecy could be confirmed in practice, his model would triumph over Newton’s, two centuries after the latter’s death.

The requisite measurements are only possible every few years, when the moon covers the sun completely for a few minutes, from the vantage point of people on earth. Only then can stars in the vicinity of the sun even be detected, allowing a possible curvature of the light rays to be measured by the solar mass. Now the readers of The Times were learning that British researchers in the tropics had been successful in conducting this very test during a solar eclipse, on May 29, 1919.

Einstein had learned the results in the early part of the summer. On September 27, he wrote to his mother, who was bedridden with cancer in Switzerland, "Today some happy news. H. A. Lorentz telegraphed me that the English expeditions have locally verified the deflection of light by the Sun."3 The formal announcement was held off, however, until a statement was read at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society in London on November 6. This remarkable meeting altered the course of Einstein’s life. The British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who was present at the meeting, recorded his impressions:

The whole atmosphere of tense interest was exactly that of the Greek drama: we were the chorus commenting on the decree of destiny as disclosed in the development of a supreme incident. There was dramatic quality in the very staging: the traditional ceremonial, and in the background the picture of Newton to remind us that the greatest of scientific generalizations was now, after more than two centuries, to receive its first modification. Nor was the personal interest wanting: a great adventure in thought had at last come safe to shore. . . . The laws of physics are the decrees of fate.4

At this moment, Albert Einstein was reborn as legend and myth, idol and icon of an entire era. The mortal Einstein had just passed his creative zenith, and the rather tragic second half of his life lay before him. An immortal of the same name then stepped onto the international stage—the Einstein that would be embedded in the consciousness of the twentieth century as the archetype of the adventurer of the mind whose philosophical quest embodied a conscience for mankind and put the principle of responsibility on a par with the standard of science and progress. His name became synonymous with genius even during his lifetime.

On November 10, The New York Times picked up the story with the headline, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens" and announced, "Einstein Theory Triumphs."5 The paper reassured its readers that no one need bother trying to grasp the new theory. Only "twelve wise men" would be able to understand it. On November 11, another headline followed on the same topic, and for the rest of the year, additional stories on a nearly daily basis opened the eyes of the readership to the preposterous new world of relativity and its creator. These reports also played a major role in fostering Einstein’s fame to the notoriously curious, sensation-seeking, and enthusiastic American public.

In Berlin, people were oblivious to these developments. They were burdened with other concerns one year after the end of the war. The majority of the population was hungry and cold. Early that month, the winter had set in prematurely, and the first snow had fallen. There was barely anything to eat and almost nothing to burn. The railroad had suspended passenger services for eleven days to transport as many potatoes and as much coal as possible to the city.

Nearly everything was in short supply. Even the small pleasures of life became big problems. Der Abend noted, "You are just as likely to win the lottery or be hit by lightning as you are to buy a bar of chocolate at a normal price."6 Refugees from the East crowded into the congested city. Living quarters were hard to come by, and the homeless camped out in wind-protected corners. Sooner or later, the owners of large apartments were required to take in boarders—including the Einsteins, who had a seven-room apartment on Haberlandstrasse.

Einstein wrote to his mother in September 1919, "We have to relinquish a room (rent it out). Starting tomorrow, the elevator won’t be operating anymore, so each exit will involve a climbing expedition, and in addition to that, much shivering lies ahead of us this winter."7 The following March, he reported to his sons from his first marriage, Hans Albert and Eduard: "One week we had no lights, gas, occasionally even no water."8

Aside from such practical limitations, Einstein saw no reason to alter his daily routine on this morning in November. After waking up in his bedroom right next to the front entrance—the spartan furnishings were limited to a bed, a closet, a chest, a table, and a couple of chairs— he walked through the library and the living room to get to the bathroom at the other end of the apartment, which adjoined the bedroom of his cousin Elsa, whom he had recently married, just after divorcing his first wife. Afterward the family ate breakfast together. The Einstein household—which also included Elsa’s two daughters, Ilse and Margot—did not have to endure hunger. The family was well supplied with what Einstein, a passionate eater, called "fodder," thanks to regular packages from Switzerland.

After breakfast, Einstein usually went upstairs to work at his desk in an attic room, where he spent most of his time. Two windows looked out over the roofs of Berlin. In one corner, next to his desk and a window, was his telescope, a basic model designed for amateurs. If he saw anything at all with it, it was more likely to be neighbors than stars. On the walls were pictures of Schopenhauer and of three great British physicists: James Clerk Maxwell, Michael Faraday, and, in a special spot, Newton.

Einstein retreated to his little empire for hours at a time. Sometimes, when he needed a change of pace, he went downstairs and improvised on the piano in the Biedermeier-style sitting room. Much to the chagrin of his neighbors, he played his violin, which had been his companion since childhood, only at night—in the tiled kitchen, because it echoed so nicely there.

The approaching storm of popularity had not reached him just yet. Letters addressed to "Professor Albert Einstein, Germany" would not get delivered to his house. The daily mail, which Otto, the doorman, would later bring up by the basketfuls, still fit in the mailbox. No statesman or queen was rushing to the telephone to congratulate him. The only telegram on record is from Hendrik Lorentz, a Dutch colleague he greatly admired. Lorentz told him that the results of the solar eclipse had been published in London.

While The Times was churning out yet another fact-filled story about the historic solar eclipse ("The Revolution in Science"), readers of the Berliner Morgenpost were being told to anticipate a far less consequential partial lunar eclipse the following night. Since the weather was overcast, there was little likelihood that onlookers would see much of this spectacle, but the newspaper told its readers exactly what to expect: "In Berlin, where the full moon will rise at 3:58 p.m., the moon will move into the shadow of the earth 2 minutes before midnight and will be located almost due South."9

For several centuries, astronomers have been able to predict exactly when solar and lunar eclipses would occur. Celestial phenomena of this sort have always fascinated people. Since antiquity (and probably far earlier), stargazers have explored the clockwork mechanism of the sky with increasing precision, first with the naked eye, and, after Galileo’s time, with more and more sophisticated telescopes. At the beginning of the twentieth century, astronomic charts and maps became astonishingly precise. Anyone conversant in the laws of mechanics, as Newton formulated them more than 250 years ago, can pinpoint celestial events as precisely as most situations require. Their perfection is marred by trifling amounts—no more than small deviations after the decimal point—that would interest no one but pedantic specialists.

London was informing the world that an essentially unknown man named Albert Einstein in Berlin had challenged mankind’s fabulous achievement of a perfect celestial formula with a model of the universe that was altogether new and, he predicted, more precise than Newton’s. His utterly incomprehensible theory bore a suitably odd name: the general theory of relativity.

A man whose understanding of the motions of the stars and planets was no better than that of an amateur astronomer had assembled a strange system of formulas that described the cosmos better than any other scientist before him. He had no need to look through the eyepiece of a telescope—only to contemplate and calculate. Even though the old and the new systems deviated from each other by only infinitesimal amounts, their internal structure could not be more different. Newton’s point of departure was perplexing long-distance effects, which he described in his equations, but could not explain; Einstein furnished a model to calculate celestial events and, in doing so, explained them.

Updates on the scope and consequences of these new developments were quick to reach the British and American victors in the Great War, but for Einstein’s fellow countrymen, the magnitude of his success went unreported. Instead, the November 8 edition of the newspaper Der Tag carried a positive review of a book by someone named Johannes Schlaf, who actually advocated "helping the pre-Copernican worldview to triumph once again" and returning the earth to the center of the universe. There was not a single word about the boldest achievement of the twentieth century, which had enthralled British and American readers ever since its spectacular confirmation.

A precursor of today’s mobile telephone, which had just been introduced by the "Society for Wireless Telegraphy," was creating a sensation among the Germans. The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, which, as always, had its finger on the pulse of the times, reported, "We will have to prepare ourselves for the fact that soon the telephone will be one of those things we will be carrying around with us all the time, like our watches, notebooks, handkerchiefs, and wallets."10

On November 15 there was finally an announcement about a development in science that appealed to German pride: the Berlin researchers Max Planck and Fritz Haber were awarded 1918 Nobel Prizes—Planck for physics, and Haber for chemistry—and Johannes Stark received the physics prize for 1919. Each of these men came to have an important role in Einstein’s life, for better or for worse. Einstein himself would have to keep waiting for the telegram from Stockholm until November 1922, by which point he had been nominated for the prize a total of ten times.

The country as a whole was hovering between collapse and a new beginning. On the domestic front there was relative calm for the time being. A planned general strike had just been called off. The failure to strike dominated the headlines and was the talk of the town.

The young republic under President Ebert was negotiating with the victorious powers about peace terms and reparations. Eleven days later, General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg came up with one of the dominant themes of the Weimar Republic, the "myth of the stab in the back." This myth was one of the driving forces behind its eventual failure.

On the same day, November 18, the Vossische Zeitung was the first newspaper to provide a somewhat dull account of Einstein’s breakthrough, which was derived from the reports in The Times. Additional articles followed in other papers; their tone was generally matter-of-fact. The British, by contrast, could not get enough of this story. Sir Arthur Eddington, the scientific leader of the decisive solar-eclipse expedition, wrote to Einstein on December 1, "All England has been talking about your theory."11 Paul Ehrenfest reported from Holland on November 24, "All the newspapers are full of translations of agitated articles from The Times about the solar eclipse and your theory."12 In his reply, Einstein commented on "cackling by the startled flock of newspaper geese."13

On December 14, however, the picture changed in Germany as well. The front page of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung featured a photograph of a serious man with combed-back, dark hair and a thick mustache, his chin resting on the fingers of his half-open right hand, and staring straight ahead. The caption read: "A New Celebrity in World History."14

Up to that point, the public at large had taken very little notice of the man pictured here, but before long nearly everybody had heard about Einstein’s achievements. A contemporary description reflects the sentiment of those days: "During this time no name was quoted so often as that of this man. Everything sank away in the face of this universal theme, which had taken possession of humanity. . . . In all nooks and corners social evenings of instruction sprang up, and wandering universities appeared with errant professors that led people out of the three-dimensional misery of everyday life into the more hospitable Elysian fields of four-dimensionality. . . . Relativity had become the sovereign password. . . . It was the first time for ages that a chord vibrated throughout the world. . . . The mere thought that a living Copernicus was moving in our midst elevated our feelings."15

All at once, Einstein’s name was on everyone’s lips. The uproar about his strange theory of relativity was remarkable in light of the fact that no one could understand it. Einstein attributed "the mass excitement about my theory" to the intriguing "mystery of its incomprehensibility. . . . I am certain that it is the mystery of not understanding that attracts people; it impresses them with the aura and magnetism of mystery."16 He wrote to his friend Marcel Grossmann, "This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct."17

Until now, he could have kept thinking that the "relativity ruckus" would soon die down. "It was gracious destiny that I was allowed to witness this," he confided to Max Planck on October 23.18 But in early 1920 he wrote to his friend Heinrich Zangger in Switzerland, "As for me, since the light deflection result became public, such a cult has been made out of me that I feel like a pagan idol. But this too, God willing, will pass."19 He did not know at this time that even the gods were powerless in the face of his self-perpetuating fame.

His transfiguration drove him to distraction. He was besieged with nightmarish piles of unanswered mail. Following his lifelong habit of using poetry to express his emotions, he wrote a few lines of verse to vent his frustration about this epistolary excess:

A thousand letters in the mail

And every journal tells his tale

What’s he to do when in this mood?

He sits and hopes for solitude.20

Very few were able to grasp his thoughts and fully appreciate the heroic fruits of his years of labor to create a new cosmic order. Einstein found himself turning to the "Old Man" (as he called the Creator) to discuss these ideas, ignoring the fact that Nietzsche had long ago declared God dead.

The worship as hero and saint with which Einstein was greeted after 1919, and which sometimes reached the point of hysteria, particularly on his travels around the globe, resulted in large part from his having razed the existing structure of physics with his monumental wrecking ball and established his new, and still valid, view of the world on the rubble. However, his lofty status stemmed from the effect he had on people at least as much as from his accomplishments.

Science had dealt mankind a triple blow. First Copernicus dethroned the earth, the crown of creation, from its place at the center of the universe, then Darwin undercut man’s belief in divine creation, then Freud declared that people are ruled by their unconscious. Now Einstein emerged to offer consolation to the lowly human being, driven by instinct, derived from a primitive life-form, stumbling, lonely, on an insignificant little planet through the universe. He was living proof of man’s enduring grandeur. By means of pure thinking, man’s noblest art, he had succeeded in plumbing the depths of the universe.

Einstein entered the limelight—and drew out his enemies—for reasons that went well beyond this contribution to civilization. He wielded the authority he had attained as a physicist and prophet for humanitarian and political purposes. His quest and yearning for harmony and his crusade against any form of authority extended to humankind as a whole, and to the process of cultural progress. To a greater extent than any of his scholarly colleagues, Einstein combined his reputation as a scholar with a political agenda.

His inimitable, almost Chaplinesque appearance, coupled with his Groucho Marx–style spontaneous sense of humor, served him well in using the media for his own ends, just as the media used him for theirs. He was initially rather clumsy in handling the press, but he grew more and more skillful, all the while retaining a charming hint of awkwardness. His voice carried weight, his words made headlines, and his radio addresses were broadcast all across the country.

His poise in dealing with the press, radio, and film industry enabled him to create something that advertisers might now call a trademark. The Einstein brand blends the epitome of the absentminded professor and goofy bohemian, unconcerned with dress or speech codes, with the image of the clairvoyant analyst of our era and fearless fighter for freedom, human rights, disarmament, and world government.

When Einstein stuck out his tongue—at the world and the future— late in his life, he provided us with the image that signaled his complete transformation from a man to a metaphor. A breaker of taboos, part Galileo and part Gandhi, he succeeded in synthesizing artistic freedom with philosophical power. Einstein was a cross between Diogenes and Dali, as creative yet unassuming as can be.

However, now that the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had cast a shadow on his star, the photograph also captured the wistful aspect of a man who was no longer able to align the playfulness of his naïveté with the gravity of his childlike nature.

The year 1919, with November 7 as its apex, divides the course of Einstein’s life like a watershed. In the spring he divorced his first wife, Mileva, after years of discord, sealing his departure from his wild past and his youthful dream of a "vagrant life." A few weeks later, he married his cousin Elsa. The bohemian had returned to the bourgeois fold of his youth.

In late 1919, Einstein’s mother, Pauline, who had had the greatest formative influence on the first half of his life, moved to her son’s home on Haberlandstrasse. In the final phase of her terminal cancer, she wanted to die surrounded by family. She was able to experience the triumph of her son—"nourishment for Mama’s already fitting motherly pride."21 Now "Albertle," her little Albert, could begin his life as an adult.

Excerpted from Einstein by JÜRGEN NEFFE.
Copyright © 2005 by Rowohlt Verlag.
Published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.