“We live in a world in which courage is in less supply than genius.” — Peter Theil
Whenever we see or hear the name Albert Einstein, the word “genius” pops up in our minds. But what’s often overlooked is that his courage was far more prominent than his seemingly infinite genius, evidences of which are explained in the forthcoming words.
Born on March 14, 1879 in the small city of Ulm, Germany, Einstein was quite an intelligent person right from his childhood. During his school years, he often used to top his class, but his teachers complained of him as being disobedient to school rules and questioning well-established notions. One of the popular anecdotes illustrate that he once expressed disapproval of learning history to his teacher by saying there’s no point in learning history because historical facts can be “looked up”! Due to eccentric behaviours like these, one of his teachers quoted that “never will he get anywhere”. Due to his honest questioning of rules and practices followed by the schools he studied at, his classmates gave him the nickname “Beidermeier”, which is a German slang for someone who is brutally honest.
Einstein did indeed face hardship during the infancy of his career. He wasn’t able to find a teaching job after he finished his diploma for teaching physics and mathematics. He, therefore, settled as a technical assistant in the Swiss patent office. However, it was during this not-so-shiny job that he started to realise that Newtonian mechanics was no longer a precise tool to describe motion of very fast objects (ie, objects whose speed is comparable to the speed of light). He also realised that laws of Newtonian mechanics will not be able to unify the theories of classical mechanics and electromagnetism. He therefore started developing a new mechanism to describe the motion of such objects, and this mechanism was the infamous special theory of relativity. This theory began an exciting new phase in his life.
1905 was a special year for Einstein — a miracle year, or annus mirabilis. He published four pioneering papers — on photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and mass-energy equivalence. These were inspiring works from him, not only because he employed sheer hard work and genius (his wife said that Einstein used to stay locked in his room for days while developing the theory on special relativity), but because he showed tremendous courage. Note that by this time Newton’s theory of mechanics was already established for more than 200 years. Challenging such a widely accepted and established work was not a job of cowards. But Einstein did that without hesitation and didn’t back down after the obvious initial criticism and mockery that followed. Eventually however, academics started realising the insight behind his works and soon he was a star figure — a revered scientist whose name was in almost every household on the planet during that time. For his work on photoelectric effect, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics 15 years later, in 1921.
He became so popular in the United States, where he lived his later years, that people used to stop him in the streets to ask him about the special theory of relativity. The genius found a cool way to avoid them by saying
“Pardon me, sorry! Always I am mistaken for Professor Einstein.” — Albert Einstein
Einstein got a PhD the same year, and was now invited by several universities to teach. He taught at a handful of European universities for years to come, eventually setting at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. In 1916, he published yet another groundbreaking paper on general relativity, that extended Newton’s theory of gravitation. Another lesson to learn here is that he didn’t settle after his initial super-success.
During World War 2, Einstein, who was Jewish, immigrated to the United States from Germany, and settled at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton. Another instance of courage is illustrated when he was reluctant to leave his home country of Germany even though it was going through a Jewish genocide; it wasn’t until his wife forced him when they finally moved to the US.
While his theoretical contributions were definitely a paradigm shift, it’s important to realise that they had far-fetching manifestations beyond the theoretical boundaries of physics. For instance, the precision of GPS systems wouldn’t be possible without accounting for relativistic effects. Same goes for cathode-ray televisions, in which electrons travel at 30% the speed of light, and its important to account for relativistic effects during the design of televisions.
The Other Side
No human is perfect, and Einstein was no exception. It is speculated that he engaged in adultery during 1910’s, when he began an extramarital affair Elsa Einstein, who was both his first maternal and paternal cousin. He eventually divorced Mileva and married Elsa few years later. During the last years of his first marriage, it is speculated that he developed a very cold-hearted attitude towards his wife and one of their sons.
Although he did admit his wrongdoing and was vocal about it. He once quoted in a letter to a young scientist, “What I admire in your father is that, for his whole life, he stayed with only one woman. This is a project in which I grossly failed, twice.”
That being mentioned, Einstein’s goodwill and pioneering work far exceeded the things he got wrong. While in the United States, he was a vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, and often criticised the government for its failures to ensure justice to the poor and minorities, especially African Americans. This is yet another showcase of his courage — he didn’t hesitate to point out the wrongdoings of society, even when it was inconvenient and unpopular to do so. It is also believed that he even paid the college tuition fees of one of his students who couldn’t afford it.
This courageous genius died of a heart vessel burst on April 18, 1955, after 76 years of a mostly-inspiring life, leaving the world with a more profound understanding of the universe we live in.
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.”