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Einstein's Job Search

On the Hill yesterday I popped into a used bookstore and purchased a copy of Barbara Tuchman's "The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam." Talk about a book that needs to be updated!

I also got "Virgin Land: The American West As Symbol and Myth," by Henry Nash Smith, which I plan to skim (focusing only on the symbol sections, as the myth part is of no interest), and "The Trees," by Conrad Richter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of historical fiction who, as it happens, was married to my grandfather Lyman Achenbach's sister, Harvena. So he's family.

Right now I'm reading an advance copy of Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein. My friend Walter is hoping that I'll double-check the physics equations. Looks good to me (though my own equations for the warping of spacetime indicate that the metric tensor should be subtracted from the Ricci tensor BEFORE being multiplied by the Ricci scalar).

It's a fun book. Inspiring, too. Einstein is such a loveable orthodoxy-buster (before he gets ornery and goes into his Dumb Period). Remember, in 1905 he's a complete nobody, a patent clerk in Bern, when he manages to rewrite the laws of physics in his spare time. His only tool is his mind. Einstein's greatest moments occur not in a laboratory or while scribbling equations, but while putting together thought experiments. He would take a long walk outside and let his mind ramble through the possibilities of nature. That's also how I get my best blog items. It looks like I'm just wandering aimlessly, but no, I'm revolutionizing journalism, in my own head.

Even after Einstein figured out special relativity and deduced the quantum nature of light, he still couldn't get a job. At one point he applied to the University of Bern, and included, in his application, 17 academic publications including his papers on Relativity and light quanta. No, the university said, you also need to write a brand new thesis. Einstein didn't do it and didn't get the job. A couple of years later, Max Planck recommended Einstein for a post in Prague, saying that his theory of relativity "has brought about a revolution in our physical picture of the world that can be compared only to that produced by Copernicus." Nice job rec, no? But the job had to be approved by some ministers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and they preferred some doofus named Gustav Jaumann, who was Austrian and wasn't Jewish. But Jaumann took umbrage that the faculty would even consider an upstart like Einstein, and took himself out of the running. Einstein got the post in Jan. 1911, nearly 6 full years after his "miracle year" of 1905.

Moral of the story being, it takes time for people to appreciate genius.

Keep hope alive.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 31, 2007; 8:04 AM ET
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