The Formative Years II

"It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom."

Einstein's family had moved to Italy to try to establish a business, and he joined them for a glorious half year of freedom from work and anxiety. In 1895 he took the entrance examination for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology -- and he failed. He was advised to study at a Swiss school in Aarau; here his teachers were humane and his ideas were set free. His thoughts turned to the theory of electromagnetism formulated by James Clerk Maxwell, seldom taught even in universities at the turn of the century.

From a classroom essay Einstein wrote in French at the age of 16, explaining why he would like to study theoretical mathematics or physics: "Above all it is my individual disposition for abstract and mathematical thought, my lack of imagination and practical talent. My inclinations have also led me to this resolve. That is quite natural; one always likes to do things for which one has talent. And then there is a certain independence in the scientific profession which greatly pleases me."

Einstein graduated from the Aarau school and entered the Institute of Technology in Zurich. Around this time he recognized that physics was his true subject. Only there could he "seek out the paths that led to the depths." He also realized that he could never be an outstanding student. Fortunately his friend Marcel Grossmann had the conventional traits Einstein lacked. While Einstein worked in the library or the laboratory, Grossmann took excellent notes at the mathematics lectures, and gladly shared them with his friend before examinations. Einstein later wrote, "I would rather not speculate on what would have become of me without these notes."

Einstein grew familiar with the successes of past scientists who had tried to explain the world entirely through atoms or fluids, interacting like parts of a machine. But he learned that Maxwell's theory of electricity and magnetism was defying efforts to reduce it to mechanical processes. Through a new friend, the engineer Michele Besso, Einstein came to the writings of Ernst Mach -- a skeptical critic of accepted ideas in physics.


� 1996 - American Institute of Physics