My Friend, Albert Einstein

Most of us know Einstein as the brilliant mathematician and scientist who propounded the theory of relativity and the quantum theory of light. To Banesh Hoffmann, the great thinker was also a friend. He writes about Einstein with respect and affection, and some of what the author says about Einstein may surprise you. The essay appeared first in Reader’s Digest and was reprinted later in Unforgettable Characters (1980), a volume compiled by the magazine’s editors.

He was one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, yet if I had to convey the essence of Albert Einstein in a single word, I would choose simplicity. Perhaps an anecdote will help. Once, caught in a downpour, he took off his hat and held it under his coat. Asked why, he explained, with admirable logic, that the rain would damage the hat, but his hair would be none the worse for its wetting. This knack for going instinctively to the heart of a matter was the secret of his major scientific discoveries- this and his extraordinary feeling for beauty.

I first met Albert Einstein in 1935, at the famous Institute for advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He had been among the first to be invited to the Institute, and was offered carte blanche as to salary. To the director’s dismay, Einstein asked for an impossible sum: it was far too small. The director had to plead with him to accept a larger salary.

I was in awe of Einstein, and hesitated before approaching him about some ideas I had been working on. When I finally knocked on his door, a gentle voice said, “Come” – with a rising inflection that made the single word both a welcome and a question. I entered his office and found him seated at a table, calculating and smoking his pipe. Dressed in ill-fitting clothes, his hair characteristically awry, he smiled a warm welcome. His utter naturalness at once set me at ease.

As I began to explain my ideas, he asked me to write the equations on the blackboard so he could see how they developed. Then came the staggering- and altogether endearing- request: “Please go slowly. I do not understand things quickly.” This from Einstein! He said it gently, and I laughed. From then on, all vestiges of fear were gone.
Einstein was born in 1879 in the German city of Ulm. He had been no infant prodigy; indeed, he was so late in learning to speak that his parents feared he was a dullard. In school, though his teachers saw no special talent in him, the signs were already there. He taught himself calculus, for example, and his teachers seemed a little afraid of him because he asked questions they could not answer. At the age of 16, he asked himself whether a light wave would seem stationary if one ran abreast of it. From that innocent question would arise, ten years later, his theory of relativity.

Einstein failed his entrance examination at the Swiss Federal polytechnic school, in Zurich, but was admitted a year later. There he went beyond his regular work to study the masterworks of physician on his own. Rejected when applied for academic positions, he ultimately found work, in 1902, as a patient examiner in Berne, and there in 1905 his genius burst into fabulous flower.

Berlin, Germany: Photo shows the noted scientist, Dr. Albert Einstein, director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics, addressing a group of fellow scientists in Harnackhaus, Berlin-Dahlem. The lecture concerned “space-ether”. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/Corbis

Among the extraordinary things he produced in that memorable year were his theory of relativity, with its famous outshoot, E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared), and his quantum theory of light. These two theories were not only revolutionary, but seemingly contradictory: the formal was intimately linked to the theory that light consist of waves, while the later said it consist somehow of particles. Yet this unknown young man boldly proposed both at once—and he was right in both cases, through how he could have been is far too complex a story to tell here.

Collaborating with Einstein was an uncomfortable experience. In 1937, the Polish physicist Leopold Infeld and I asked if we could work with him. He was pleased with the proposal, since he had an idea about gravitation waiting to be worked out in detail. Thus we got to know not merely the man and the friend, but also the professional.

The intensity and depth of this concentration were fantastic. When battling a recalcitrant problem, he worried it as an animal worries its prey. Often, when we found ourselves up against a seemingly insuperable difficulty, he would stand up, put his pipe on the table, and say in his quaint English, “I will a little tick”(he could not pronounce “th”). Then he would pace up and down, twirling a lock of his long, graying hair around his forefinger.

A dreamy, faraway and yet inward look would come over his face. There was no appearance of concentration, no furrowing of the brow—only a placid inner communication. The minutes would pass, and then suddenly Einstein would stop pacing as his face relaxed into a gentle smile. He had found the solution to the problem. Some times it was so simple that infeld and I could have kicked ourselves for no having thought of it. But the magic had been performed invisibly in the depths of Einstein’s mind, by a process we could not fathom.

When his wife died he was deeply shaken, nut insisted that now more than ever was the time to be working hard. I remember her going to his house to work with him during that said time. His face haggard and grief-lined, but he put forth a great effort to concentrate. To help him, I steered the discussion away from routine matters into more theoretical problems, and Einstein gradually became absorbed in the discussion. We kept it for some two hours, and at the end his eyes were no longer said. As I felt, he thanked me with moving sincerity. “ It was a fun,” he said. He had a moment of surcease from grief, and then groping words expressed a deep emotion.

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Although Einstein felt no need for religious rituals and belonged no formal religious group, he was the most deeply religious man I have known. He once said to me, “ideas come from God” and one could hear the capital “G” in the reverence with which he pronounced the word. On the marble fireplace in the mathematics building at Princeton University is carved, in the original German, what one might call his scientific credo: “God is subtle, but he is not malicious.” By this Einstein meant that scientist could expect to find their task difficult, but not hopeless: the universe was a universe of law, and God was not contusing us with deliberate paradoxes and contradictions.

Einstein was an accomplished amateur musician. We used to play duets, he on the violin, I at the piano One day he surprised me by saving Mozart was the greatest composer of all. Beethoven “created” his music, but the music of Mozart was of such purity and beauty one felt he had merely “found” it—that it had always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe, waiting to be revealed. It was this very Mozartean simplicity that most characterized Einstein methods. His 1905 theory of relativity, for example, was built on two simple assumptions. One is the so called principle of relativity, which means, roughly speaking, that we cannot tell whether we are at rest or moving smoothly. The other assumption is that the speed of light is the same no matter what the speed of the object that produced it. You can see how reasonable this is if you think of agitating a stick from a stationary pier, or from a rushing speed boat, the waves, once generated, or on their own, and their speed has nothing to do with that of the stick.

Each of these assumptions, by itself was so plausible as to seem primitively obvious. But together they were in such violent conflict that a lesser mad would have dropped one or the other and fled in panic. Einstein daringly kept both and by so doing her revolutionized physics. For he demonstrated they could after all, exist peacefully side by side, provided we gave up cherished beliefs about the nature of time.

Science is like a house of cards, with concepts like time and space at the lowest level. Tampering with time brought most of the house tumbling down, and it was this that made Einstein’s work so important—and controversial at a conference in Princeton in honor of his 70th birthday, one of the speakers, a Noble Prize winner, tried to convey the magical quality of Einstein’s achievements. Words failed him, and with a shrug of helplessness he pointed to his wristwatch, and said in tones of awed amazement, “It all cam from this” His very ineloquence made this the most eloquence tribute I have heard to Einstein’s genius.

Although frame had little effect on Einstein as a person, he could not escape it; he was, of course, instantly recognizable. One autumn Saturday, I was walking with him in Princeton discussing some technical matters. Parents and alumni were streaming excitedly to toward the stadium, there minds on the coming football game. As they approached us, they paused sudden recognition, and a momentary air of solemnity came over them as if they had been reminded of a different world. Yet Einstein seemed totally unaware of this effect and went on with this effect and went on with the discussion as though they were not there.

We think of Einstein as one concerned only with the deepest aspect of science. But he saw scientific principles in everyday things to which most of us would give barely a second thought. He once asked me if I had ever wondered why a man’s feet will sink into either dry or completely submerged sand, while sand that is merely damp provides a firm surface. When I could not answer, he offered a simple explanation.

It depends, he pointed out, on surface tension the elastic skin effect of a liquid surface. This is what holds a drop together, or causes to small raindrops on a windowpane to pull into one big drop the moment their surfaces touch.

When sand is damp, Einstein explained, there are tiny amount of water between grains. The surface tension of these tiny amounts of water pull all the grains together, and friction then makes them hard to budge. When the sand is dry, there is obviously no water between the grains. If the sand fully immersed, there is water between grains, but no water surface to pull them together.

This is not as important as relativity; yet there is not telling what seeming trifle will lead an Einstein to a major discovery. And the puzzle of the sand does give us an inkling of the power and elegance of his mind.

Einstein’s work, performed quietly with pencil and paper, seemed remote from the turmoil of everyday life: But his ideas were so revolutionary they caused violent controversy and irrational anger. Indeed, in order to be able to award a belated noble prize, the selection committee had to avoid mentioning relativity, and pretended the prize was awarded primarily for his work on the quantum theory.

Political events upset the serenity of his life even more. When the Nazi came to power in Germany, his theories were officially declared false because a Jew had formulated them. His property was confiscated, and it’s said a prizes was put on his head.

When scientist in the United States, fearful that the Nazis might develop a atomic bomb, sought to alert American authorities to the danger, they were scarcely heeded. In desperation, they drafted a letter which Einstein signed and sent directly to President Roosevelt. It was this act that led to the fateful decision to go all-out on the production of an atomic bomb—an endeavor in which Einstein took no active part. When he heard of the agony and destruction that his E=mc2 had wrought, he was dismayed beyond measure, and from then on there was a look of ineffable sadness in his eyes.

There was something elusively whimsical about Einstein. It is illustrated by my favorite anecdote about him. In his first year in Princeton on Christmas Eve, so the story goes, some children sang carols outside his house. Having finished, they knocked on his door and explained they were collecting money to buy Christmas presents. Einstein listened, then said, “Wait a moment.” He put his scarf and overcoat, and took his violin from its case. Then, joining the children as they went from door to door, he accomplished their singing of “Silent Night” on his violin.

How shall I sum up what it meant to have known Einstein and his works? Like the Noble Prize winner who pointed helplessly at his watch, I can find no adequate words. It was akin to the revelation of great art that lets one see what was formerly hidden. And when, for example, I walk on the sand of a lonely beach, I am reminded of his ceaseless search for cosmit implicitly—and the scene takes on a deeper, sadder beauty.

This article is an essay by Banesh Hoffman titled My Friend, Albert Einstein