15 things you might not know about Albert Einstein
Letters, postcards and photographs from the personal archives of Einstein’s sister and brother-in-law shed new light on the extraordinary life and complex character of the 20th century’s most famous scientist
Einstein’s younger sister Maja described him as a fat, rather solemn child, who was so slow in learning to talk that his parents almost gave up on him. The earliest known photograph of Einstein dates from his third year. This previously unknown image of Albert as a five-year-old shows rather an appealing face, albeit with the instantly recognisable drooping eyes and wide upper lip of the adult Einstein.
When he sat the entrance exam for the Zurich Polytechnic at the early age of 16, Einstein duly shone in the mathematics and physics papers. He failed the general paper, however, and was sent back to secondary school in the Swiss canton of Aarau for an additional year’s preparation. He sent this photograph home to his parents and sister in Milan, inscribed with a greeting from his new school.
In 1900 Einstein’s father, Hermann, was in failing health, and his electrical engineering business was struggling. For a brief period, the 21-year-old Albert seems to have contemplated taking over the family business. Given his famously absent-minded and impractical character, it is questionable whether he would have been suited to such a role. This postcard was sent home by Albert and Hermann Einstein in September 1900, when father and son took a trip to visit two company power plants near Venice.
Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, was not only his first cousin on his mother’s side, but also his second cousin on his father’s side (Charles Darwin also married a first cousin). This letter to his friend Michele Besso contains an early reference to their ‘sweet relationship’, which he curiously describes as ‘durable’ because he has sworn not to marry her.
In this letter written at the end of his life, Einstein referred to marriage as ‘an undertaking at which I twice rather shamefully failed’. Certainly, his first marriage, to a fellow physics student, Mileva Maric, could not be called a success: it foundered when Mileva refused to move with him to Berlin in 1914 after discovering his affair with his cousin Elsa. He once compared the saga of their divorce to the First World War.
His second marriage does not seem to have been a triumph either. He occasionally refers to Elsa after their marriage as ‘wife no.2’ (apparently another joke), and his extra-marital relationships included affairs with his secretary, with the owner of a Viennese department store and (in later life) with a Russian spy. Einstein once wryly categorised marriage as ‘a considerable test of patience’.
Friedrich Adler was a fellow physicist in Zurich, and was to some degree responsible for Einstein getting his first academic position in 1909. By 1916, however, Adler's interests had switched to radical politics, and in December that year he was driven to assassinate the Austrian minister-president, Karl von Stürgkh.
In this letter to Michele Besso, he discusses whether a petition should be organised to support Adler.
Einstein had financial difficulties in the years immediately after the First World War, and struggled with the maintenance payments for his first wife and children in Switzerland. His solution came in the form of investments in a Swiss stock fund, which he kept secret from the German authorities in order to avoid rules on tax and foreign income.
His letters to his brother-in-law, Paul Winteler, who managed the funds, sometimes use cryptic language to discuss financial arrangements: here he asks him to send ‘10 cases of plums’ to two addresses in Switzerland.
Einstein became world-famous almost overnight in November 1919, after the announcement of the successful experimental confirmation of the theory of general relativity. It was an experience he loathed, referring to his ‘exaggerated glorification’ as a ‘plague’ and a ‘heavy load’.
In this missive to his sister Maja, written in November 1929, he describes receiving an honorary doctorate in Paris as ‘the greatest stress that my decrepit ego could still endure’.
Einstein’s letters to his family and close friends almost always apologise for his not writing more often — at one point his replies became so erratic that his friend Michele Besso started wondering if his own letters were getting lost in the post.
Among a variety of imaginative excuses, he blames his genetic inheritance: ‘You do know that our father also wrote no private letters, not even to his sister?’
Einstein loved to spend time on his own in his country retreat outside Berlin, but his talents did not extend to housework. In this letter to his brother-in-law, Paul Winteler, he admits that he has tried his hand in the kitchen, ‘but the cooking didn’t seem to work out quite right’.
As a prominent public opponent of the nascent Nazi regime, Einstein was swiftly declared a public enemy in Hitler’s Germany — he lost his home, his job and his savings, and a bounty was placed on his head.
Under the circumstances, his ability to make a joke about the situation is almost heroic. In this letter to Maja, written from England in 1933 on the eve of his departure to the United States, he comments that among the things he has had to leave behind in Germany are his sailing boat and his girlfriends: ‘H. [i.e. Hitler] has only confiscated the former, which is insulting for the latter’.
Einstein didn’t hate everything about America when he first visited it, but it clearly wasn’t love at first sight. This 1931 letter to Maja written on California Institute of Technology paper, complains of the ‘unbelievably corrupt’ politics, the lack of manners and the disparities in wealth. Characteristically, he also disliked the fact that he was treated as a celebrity, which he refers to as having to ‘play the part of the good Lord or his assistant’.
Elsewhere he referred to the USA as a country where ‘a new garter has more importance than a novel philosophical theory’.
In his new life after he moved to America in 1933, Einstein soon settled into a pattern of summering along the East Coast, where he could indulge his passion for sailing. His letters from these years are full of his appreciation for the wild natural scenery of Connecticut and Long Island, and of the sparsity of population which contrasted strongly with his memories of home: ‘In overpopulated Europe, one can hardly imagine nature in such a wild and unspoilt form’.
Einstein loved reading — anything from the 18th-century novels of Laurence Sterne to Thomas Mann, from Herodotus and Aristotle to Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. His favourite book, however, was always Don Quixote — alongside the Bible.
After a period of intense religious belief as a child, Einstein repudiated the notion of a Judaeo-Christian deity, but the idea of a 'God' appears again and again in his letters. One of his most famous sayings is 'God does not play dice', by which he meant that the basic principles governing the universe could not be based on random operations.
'God' for Einstein seems to represent his search for the elusive fundamental truth that lies behind everything — 'the eternal riddle-maker', as he once put it, who 'makes jokes' for us to unravel.