The Formative Years I

"There was this huge world out there, independent of us human beings and standing before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partly accessible to our inspection and thought. The contemplation of that world beckoned like a liberation."

One story Einstein liked to tell about his childhood was of a "wonder" he saw when he was four or five years old: a magnetic compass. The needle's invariable northward swing, guided by an invisible force, profoundly impressed the child. The compass convinced him that there had to be "something behind things, something deeply hidden." Even as a small boy Einstein was self-sufficient and thoughtful. According to family legend he was a slow talker at first, pausing to consider what he would say. His sister remembered the concentration and perseverance with which he would build up houses of cards to many stories. The boy's thought was stimulated by his uncle, an engineer, and by a medical student who ate dinner once a week at the Einsteins'.

"At the age of 12, I experienced a wonder in a booklet dealing with Euclidean plane geometry, which came into my hands at the beginning of a school year. Here were assertions, as for example the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, which -- though by no means evident -- could nevertheless be proved with such certainty that any doubt appeared to be out of the question. This lucidity and certainty made an indescribable impression on me."

Although he got generally good grades (and was outstanding in mathematics), Einstein hated the academic high school he was sent to in Munich, where success depended on memorization and obedience to arbitrary authority. His real studies were done at home with books on mathematics, physics, and philosophy. A teacher suggested Einstein leave school, since his very presence destroyed the other students' respect for the teacher. The fifteen-year-old boy did quit school in mid-term to join his parents, who had moved to Italy.

Was Einstein's brain different?


� 1996 - American Institute of Physics