The above question is what parents around the world might say to a supercilious kid who acts like he knows everything — Einstein as a global synonym for genius.
The apple, it’s said, doesn’t fall far from the tree. Albert Einstein’s father, Hermann, seemingly born to innovate and calculate, showed a marked enthusiasm for mathematics. After he finished high school, Hermann and his parents moved to Ulm, a town in southern Germany that promoted itself with the motto Ulmenses sent mathematici — “the people of Ulm are mathematicians.”
Unable to afford a university education and faced with anti-Jewish admission barriers in higher education, Hermann went to work in his cousin’s featherbed company and married, at age 29, Pauline Koch, the daughter of a prosperous grain dealer. Their first child, born in 1879, was to be named Abraham but the parents worried the name sounded “too Jewish.” Instead, they named their son Albert Einstein.
Two years later, the parents had a second child, a daughter. Albert’s parents told him she would be like a wonderful toy, fun to play with. Albert’s reaction when he saw her: “Yes, but where are the wheels?”
Young Albert Einstein was slow in learning how to talk. With his speech backwardness, plus an apparently innate rebelliousness, opposition to regimentation, refusal to go along with school marching and rote learning, and a reluctance to pay sufficient attention in the classroom, his teachers warned he wasn’t likely to amount to much.
“He had such difficulty with language,” his sister said, “that those around him feared he would never learn.”
Albert told a psychologist that he rarely thought in words. Years later, Einstein was an acquaintance of Sigmund Freud but seemed more interested in physics than psychology: “I should like very much to remain in the darkness of not having been analyzed.”
Einstein on age: “Anything truly novel is invented only during one’s youth. Later one becomes more experienced, more famous, and more blockheaded.”
On Russia and communism: “At the top there appears to be a personal struggle in which the foulest means are used by power-hungry individuals acting from purely selfish motives. At the bottom there appears to be complete suppression of the individual and freedom of speech. One wonders if life is worth living under such conditions.”
Einstein on religion: “Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything I can comprehend is my religion…. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.”
Einstein on the rising power of Hitler: “He is living on the empty stomachs. As soon as the economic conditions improve he will no longer be important.” On the centrality of economics, that’s the same message that Bill Clinton’s campaign manager James Carville coined as the Clinton’s campaign’s key focus in 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
In April 1933, the German government passed a law declaring that Jews could not hold an official position, including at the universities. Among those forced to flee were 14 Nobel laureates and 26 of 60 professors of theoretical physics in the country. Fittingly, such refugees from fascism who left Germany or the other countries it came to dominate — Einstein, Edward Teller, Lise Meitner, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Otto Stern, Eugene Wigner, and others — helped to assure that the Allies rather than the Nazis first developed the atom bomb.
Hitler’s response to those in Germany who sought to temper the Anti-Jewish policies: “Our national policies will not be revoked or modified, even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary science, then we shall do without science for a few years.”
(Note: For more information, see Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2007.)
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