Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Even Einstein Was Not Immune to Academic Jockeying

An excerpt from Steven Gimbel’s new biography of the great scientist follows his quest for a permanent position, through Zurich after 1909

Jewish Lives (Sponsored)
April 28, 2015
Albert Einstein celebrating his 75th birthday at Princeton University, March 15, 1954. (AFP/Getty Images)

Albert Einstein celebrating his 75th birthday at Princeton University, March 15, 1954. (AFP/Getty Images)

This is a sponsored post on behalf of Yale University Press and their Jewish Lives series.

Between the correspondences, visits, and other professional attention he and his work were receiving, and because he’d been publishing numerous reviews and other articles, Einstein felt himself becoming more and more a part of the scientific community, even if he was in its outer orbit. To really be in the thick of it, he needed a university post. As with so much else, Einstein assumed the rules did not apply to him. Rather than the usual process, a professorship would simply appear for him because of the strength of his ideas.

The universities of the time were government institutions at which the appointment of professors was a matter of a central bureaucracy, and, as is the case with bureaucracies, there was a procedure. After you received a degree and a doctorate, you became a privatdozent at a university. This is where you paid your dues. As a privatdozent, you were considered an adjunct member of the department but received no pay. You were expected to give regularly scheduled classes that augmented the lectures of the professors, but the students would pay the instructor directly—that is the “privat” part. If you were a good teacher lecturing on relevant subjects, you would have lots of students and would get both money and a reputation. In addition to teaching, there was a research component and you were expected to write a Habilitationsschrift, a written work that showed you to be a cutting-edge researcher. In modern terms, the doctoral dissertation was what we now think of as a master’s thesis, while the Habilitation was what we now consider a dissertation.

Einstein hoped to bypass this step but was unsuccessful. Professor Kleiner (through whom Einstein received his doctorate at the University of Zurich) thought he could get a newly created position in theoretical physics in Zurich. Physics at this time was an almost exclusively experimental field, but the sort of work that Planck, Einstein, and others were doing seemed to be a wave of the future and Kleiner sought to have a dedicated position for it at Zurich. When he approached the bureaucrats, the best he could get was not a full professorship, but a new assistantship underneath him. He thought that Einstein would be a good fit for that spot, but to get that appointment Einstein would have to play the game and first become a privatdozent. Kleiner convinced Einstein that it would be prudent to get himself such a post at the university at Bern.

Einstein did, and he held his first lecture series on the physics of heat. Since he needed to maintain his job at the patent office, he held his lectures on Saturday mornings at 7:30. They were attended by four students—three of Einstein’s friends and one university science student. After a while his friends faded away, leaving him with just a single attendee for his initial class.

Kleiner told Einstein that in order to make the request to bring him to Zurich as an assistant, he would need to observe Einstein so he could report on his teaching. Traveling to Bern, Kleiner observed an Einstein lecture that was a complete disaster. Convinced that Einstein would be a menace in the classroom, Kleiner wrote a report that not only cost Einstein the appointment, but began a widespread whisper among Swiss and German physicists that Einstein was unsuited to teach at all.

Enraged by his growing reputation as pedagogically incompetent, Einstein contacted Kleiner and demanded that he get invited to Zurich to lecture to the students there to show that he was not the disorganized, rambling, incomprehensible monologist Kleiner thought him to be. Kleiner agreed, and this time Einstein gave an unusually good presentation, good enough to convince Kleiner to support him.

The process of getting Einstein an official offer was not completely smooth. Kleiner had to convince those at the university, and this meant assuaging the anti-Semitic concerns of his colleagues. Kleiner made clear to them that he knew Einstein well enough to attest that while Einstein was of a Jewish background, he did not display the usually associated disagreeable characteristics they believed Jews to possess. His word was sufficient on the matter, and the offer was made.

But an offer is not a job. The proposed salary was less than he was making as a patent clerk. Financial matters were of real concern to Einstein because he had a family to support, so he turned down his chance to become a physics professor. It is not clear whether this was simply a negotiating tactic or if Einstein truly was willing to walk away from the opportunity to become a working scientist and remain a bureaucrat for life over a few francs. But the offer was ultimately increased to equal his salary at the patent office, and he accepted. Albert Einstein was now a professor.

The move to Zurich in 1909 was good for the family. Einstein and Mileva were back in the city they loved and where they had an established network of old friends with whom to talk, eat, and play music. Soon there was another addition to the family, as Mileva gave birth to their second son, Eduard, in 1910. The labor was difficult, and Mileva’s recovery was slow. She brought her mother into the household to help with the children and housework. Einstein met his students at a local coffeehouse trying to re-create the magic of his own university days. He built intricate toys out of matchboxes and string for the kids. Life was happy, but it was not to last.

Einstein received an inquiry from the German University in Prague about his interest in a full professorship there. A chair had been created for theoretical physics, and Einstein would be not only a good fit but also an impressive addition to the faculty. For Einstein, it would be a major step forward in his career. At Zurich, he was a mere assistant; at Prague he would hold his own position. Einstein responded, clearly indicating his interest.

The offer was not a straightforward matter, however, for two reasons. First, the application required the candidate to specify a religious affiliation, and being a nonbeliever automatically disqualified one from employment by Emperor Franz Joseph’s government. Einstein was reluctant, having renounced his connection to Judaism. Eventually he agreed to have “Mosaic” put down on the form. Secondly, he would have to become a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but he refused to give up his Swiss identity. Once again, nationalism and religion would complicate Einstein’s life. A compromise was reached, and Einstein was allowed to maintain dual status. The matters resolved, Einstein joined the university in late 1910.

The university gave him a nicely appointed office, its major quirk being that it looked down into the yard of the adjacent insane asylum. Of its inmates Einstein would say, “There are the other crazy people, the ones who do not work on physics.” Enhanced professional and social status and a significant raise came with the new position, but the move had unexpected negative consequences. The formality of the university conflicted with Einstein’s demeanor. His disdain for authority led him to dismiss the usual class-based etiquette that was expected. Einstein biographer Philip Frank noted that “the tone with which he talked to the leading officials of the university was the same as that with which he spoke to his grocer or to the scrubwoman in the laboratory.” Indeed, he got off on the wrong foot in this way. When informed that it was standard practice for incoming faculty members to pay personal visits to the homes of the other professors, Einstein at first was willing to do so. He visited those who were closest or who lived in a section of town in which he wanted to stroll. But once the task began to become tedious, he simply stopped, thereby snubbing significant colleagues who thought they deserved such a visit.

Einstein’s combined loathing for mindless social formality, coupled with his sense that his importance put him above it, led him to adopt a strange combination of arrogance and empathy. Einstein could be silly, poking fun at the absurdity of social custom, sarcastically undermining those who held social power. Frank wrote:

Einstein’s conversation was often a combination of inoffensive jokes and penetrating ridicule, so that some people could not decide whether to laugh or to feel hurt. Often the joke was that he presented complicated relationships as they might appear to an intelligent child. Such an attitude often appeared to be an incisive criticism and sometimes even created an impression of cynicism. Thus the impression Einstein made on his environment vacillated between the two poles of childish cheerfulness and cynicism. Between these two poles lay the impression of a very entertaining and vital person whose company left one feeling richer for the experience. A second gamut of impression varied from that of a person who sympathized deeply with the fate of every stranger, to that of a person who, upon closer contact, immediately withdrew into his shell.

Einstein’s complicated personality put him at odds with his surroundings, alienating those who thought themselves powerful. “Persons who occupied an important social position frequently had no desire to belong to a world whose ridiculousness in comparison to the greater problems of nature was reflected in this laughter,” Frank noted. “But people of lesser rank were always pleased by Einstein’s personality.” In the lofty realm of academia, Einstein found himself in a world he viewed with scorn. The seemingly endless faculty meetings struck him as both trivial and vicious. The forms and rules of the university bureaucracy used up valuable time and energy.

Additionally, Einstein found himself intellectually cut off. There were no other theoretical physicists with whom to discuss his thoughts. The assistant he had brought with him moved on, and the replacement was not up to Einstein’s standards. He felt stranded just as his theoretical musings were becoming more and more difficult.

The situation was even worse for his family. Living a purely domestic life, Mileva was becoming more and more alienated from Einstein, who saw her as a homemaker and not as a scientific colleague. With the move to Prague, Mileva not only lost her friends and social network, but she stepped into a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which harbored racial bias against her as a Serb. Unlike the cosmopolitan Zurich, which Mileva had never wanted to leave, the people of Prague had a different character that struck the Einsteins as snobbish and uncaring. Though they found some friends in the new city (Einstein spent some time in the circle of prominent Jewish intellectuals that included Franz Kafka), Mileva wanted to leave. She was miserable. Einstein was absorbed in his work to the point of neglecting his family. Eduard was ill; he would be physically and mentally unwell for most of his life, and Mileva believed that the water and air of Prague were partly to blame. Life was getting darker and their marriage was getting rockier.

By 1911, Einstein’s place in the world of theoretical physics had been well cemented, and this made it possible for him to look to relocate out of Prague. He had received an offer from the Dutch university at Utrecht, but Mileva wanted to return to Zurich. The one attractive aspect to the Utrecht position for Einstein was its association with his hero Lorentz, whom he would meet that year at the initial Solvay Conference in Brussels.

Ernest Solvay, a Belgian chemist who made a fortune from his patented means of producing soda ash, decided to bring together the top scientific minds from across the world to discuss a cutting-edge topic of interest, radiation and the quantum. Marie Curie, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford, and Jean Perrin were four of the ten in attendance who were or would become Nobel laureates. It brought together people Einstein knew and respected and whose work he had read in admiration for decades. His great influences, Lorentz and Poincaré, would both be there. Even if he had not felt intellectually isolated in Prague, this gathering would have seemed a dream come true. It was a who’s who of the scientific world, and Solvay made sure that they were treated like royalty, something highly unusual for academics, even those at the elite level.

Little of consequence emerged from the conference itself, and Einstein thought it largely a waste of time. He did, however, find himself even more taken with Lorentz than he anticipated. “H. A. Lorentz presided with incomparable tact and incredible virtuosity. He speaks all three languages [German, French, and English] equally well and has a uniquely acute scientific mind and delicate tact. A living work of art.” His interactions with Poincaré, on the other hand, were more of a disappointment. He had hoped to convince both of the forefathers of relativity of his idea’s veracity, but while Lorentz found himself on the fence (a few years later Einstein would be invited to give an address at Leyden, where he would again try to convince Lorentz), Poincaré was dismissive to the point of stubbornness, something that annoyed Einstein, who, of course, was more than capable of displaying the same trait when a view contradicted a deeply held intuition.

Traveling from the conference allowed Einstein to stop in Utrecht to discuss the proposed position, one of several inquiries from various universities. He was not serious about Utrecht, but thought that a competing offer might give him some leverage with the Swiss authorities in his bid to return to Zurich.

The ETH, Einstein’s alma mater, had recently been given the authority to grant Ph.D.’s, and with the influx of graduate students came a simultaneous increase in the research expectations of the faculty. No longer were they just teachers, as the institution now needed world-class scientists working at the front line of the discipline. When an opening occurred for a physicist, Einstein thought himself perfect, especially since the job required no teaching of large introductory classes, only smaller seminars with advanced students. It was his old university. It was the Zurich that he loved and to which Mileva insisted on returning. Einstein wanted the job.

Weber was still in charge of the physics department, and Einstein had burned that bridge long ago. But Weber was older and in poor health and would therefore not be a part of the search for the new colleague. Einstein needed help from the inside. Fortunately, his old friend Heinrich Zangger was at the university, and the head of the entire division in which theoretical physics was housed was none other than Einstein’s university chum and guardian angel, Marcel Grossmann. Grossmann had finished at the ETH with Einstein and went across town to the University of Zurich to earn his Ph.D. in mathematics. He returned to the ETH and had been teaching there for several years.

Einstein appealed to Grossmann and Zangger to pull all the strings they could, and the behind-the-scenes machinations were well under way when an inquiry about his interest in the Utrecht position arrived. Ordinarily, this would have been of little concern, and Einstein would simply have thanked them for their interest and declined politely. But this note was from Lorentz himself. Einstein wrote to his operatives that time was of the essence. If Lorentz contacted him again directly he might not be able to decline at the risk of insulting him. But if he could write back that he had already accepted another position, he could save face with his hero. Grossmann, who had smoothed the way so that Einstein could get through the ETH in their college days, and who then got him the job at the patent office when he needed it, once again came through and secured for Einstein the position back at the ETH. Einstein gingerly addressed Lorentz: “I write this letter to you with a heavy heart, as one who has done a kind of injustice to his father.” He explained that when he left Zurich for Prague he had given his word to the Swiss academy that he would return when a suitable position opened and that one had. So in 1912 the Einstein family moved back to Zurich.

If Einstein thought that their return would reintroduce harmony into the household, he was wrong. Mileva’s moods got darker. She was depressed and jealous of anyone or anything that attracted Einstein’s attention. It did not help that Einstein not only was spending an incredible amount of time working on his general theory of relativity, but that he was also rekindling a relationship with his cousin Elsa. Mileva’s state drove Einstein away, and Einstein’s alienation only made things worse for Mileva. It was a domestic spiral heading downward. She also developed rheumatism, which made it difficult for her to leave the house. So even though she was back in Zurich, she could not visit her friends. Mileva was stuck in the house, stuck in her life, and her depression got worse.

Things were also bad at work. The mathematics that would be needed for the general theory of relativity included new and advanced tools Einstein had never seen. Minkowski had shown Einstein that he would have to think in terms of the geometric structure of a four-dimensional space-time. This was tough enough. But Einstein realized that if he were to impose a gravitational field into this geometry, it would require a complex set of mathematical entities, called tensors. These would be the basic component of all of the calculations and would turn the space-time of his theory away from the Euclidean geometry he fell in love with as a child and into a much more complex non-Euclidean space that he had no idea how to work with.

Einstein needed someone with the technical background to teach him what he needed, someone who could understand the physics and who already knew the mathematics, someone who could sit down for long stretches of time and work with him through the new computational tools. It just so happened that Grossmann’s doctoral dissertation and subsequent research were in this exact area. When Einstein described his ideas about a relativistic gravitation theory and how it would cause space to become warped, he asked Grossmann what sort of geometry would be required. Grossmann explained that it was the geometric approach developed by Bernhardt Riemann, a new generalized picture of geometry, but that Einstein should be worried because it was perhaps a bit too difficult for physicists to understand. When Einstein asked if there was a way around this, Grossmann said no, and so, just like a decade earlier when the two studied from Grossmann’s notes for their university exams, they came back together at the ETH and worked from Grossmann’s research to bring Einstein up to speed. The two began to work on figuring out what sort of equations would be required for Einstein’s task. For two years, they collaborated closely on papers that explored—sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly—the structure of the new theory.

While Grossmann was the only person in Zurich with whom Einstein could discuss the technical details, there were plenty of colleagues at the ETH who were constantly dropping in on Einstein to discuss his work. This had something to do with his fame, but not in the sense one might have expected. A strict no-smoking policy had been put into effect for Einstein’s building, but since Einstein was Einstein, he assumed the rules did not apply to him and word soon got around that Einstein’s office was the place to go if you needed to light up. As such, several times a day every smoker in the physical sciences developed a sudden interest in the theory of relativity.

In July 1913, Einstein was honored to receive a visit from Planck, accompanied by Walther Nernst, who had spearheaded the Solvay conference and would go on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry as a founding father of physical chemistry. The two came to Zurich not for a social call, but to recruit Einstein to Berlin. Planck was assembling the top physics community in the world around the university, the Prussian Academy of Science, and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, and he wanted Einstein to be a part of it. Einstein was flattered by the offer and extremely excited by the details—he would be very well paid as an associate of the university, the academy, and the institute, but would have virtually no expected duties. He would have the right, but not the expectation, to teach—no more administrative paperwork, and no more faculty meetings. Planck was offering Einstein a prestigious position with a large salary that required him to do only the thing he wanted to do most, work on his general theory of relativity. He would be surrounded by colleagues he liked and respected, and with whom he could have the sort of detailed discussions of his work in progress. It was Einstein’s dream job.

But Einstein’s dream was Mileva’s nightmare. She refused to uproot the family again, and she refused to leave Zurich, especially for Germany. Switzerland was neutral territory, it was their joint home, the place she and Einstein had met and created a life together. Germany was his homeland. There they would be surrounded by his family, which never really embraced her. The prospect made her angrier and angrier. Einstein, incensed by Mileva’s dissent, gave her an ultimatum—he was moving to Berlin, and if she wanted to remain married, she would come too. Ultimately she relented, and they moved in 1914, but while Mileva moved in body, she did not relocate in spirit. Her heart was still in Zurich, and the ramifications of the move became immediately apparent in their marriage—the arguments were constant and the resentment between them became unbearable. They separated, and Mileva and the boys returned to Zurich.

Einstein was deeply affected by the breakup of his marriage, and he desperately missed the boys. But with the move to Berlin, his relationship with his cousin Elsa deepened. Elsa was his cousin on both sides. Elsa’s mother was Einstein’s aunt, and Elsa’s father was Einstein’s father’s first cousin. She loved Einstein and doted on him. His everyday needs were taken care of, as she treated him like a prince. Elsa made life extremely comfortable and freed him from the mundane tasks of life to focus on his work.

Excerpted from Einstein: His Space and Times by Steven Gimbel, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2015 by Steven Gimbel. Reprinted by Permission.


Steven Gimbel is the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities as well as chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College.