The Secret Life of Einstein

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He may have been a genius and leading light in the world of physics, but Einstein was a dismal failure at relationships. He left behind a trail of broken marriages and affairs in pursuit of his first love - science.

Gareth Huw Davies

"My sweet little witch without you my life is no life," simpered this century's most colossal intellect, the man who changed our understanding of space, time and how the universe works, whose ideas led to the development of TV and the laser. "You absolutely must come to see me. I promise you an outing the like of which you have never seen."

The year was 1900 and 21-year- old Albert Einstein was seeking the answer to a stupendous question: what would it be like to ride a beam of light? But at that moment he had the more conventional pursuits of a young man in mind. When fellow student Mileva Maric arrived at the lakeside love nest in Como, Italy, she found her "dear, naughty little sweet-heart waiting with pounding heart and open arms". They were both to pay dearly for that weekend of passion. It might even have delayed his ferociously brilliant theory of relativity.

The image we have of Einstein is of a twinkly- eyed, droopy-moustached old eccentric. But by the time be achieved universal renown, unknown to an admiring world, he had clocked up two failed marriages, at least one affair and had fathered an illegitimate child. His recently released letters reveal a human being not so unlike many lesser mortals. The man who predicted how the gravitational force of the sun bent a star's a light was prey to all the normal earthly desires and, by the end of his life, had confessed himself an emotional failure.

Within weeks of the tryst in Como, Einstein faced the biggest dilemma of his life. Desperate for work, having ruled himself out of a post at his old university by his maverick method of learning only what he chose - in one physics practical he recorded the lowest possible mark - he had just landed the promise of steady employment in the Swiss patent office in Bern. Then he heard that Mileva was pregnant.

"When it comes to close relationships I failed twice,disgracefully...marriages are dangerous"

Relative values : Albert Einstein with first wife Mileva and baby son (right) and with second wife and cousin Elsa (above).

In 1902 Switzerland, the revelation that Einstein was a father out of wedlock would have cost him the job. He should have heeded his mother. "You'll be in a pretty mess if she has a baby," she warned. The letters show how ruthlessly he hid the indiscretion. Mileva could not even be seen in the same town as him. She went back to her parents and gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl. For a time, Einstein played the doting father, showing a tenderness that he was to jettison in favour of his towering scientific agenda. "I love her," he wrote to Mileva. "Does she cry?"

Einstein a go go....
Einstein declared in 1905 that the faster one moves, the slower time passes. Sounds iffy? In 1971, American scientists proved his theory by taking an atomic clock (used for its extreme accuracy) around the world in a plane and comparing their clock with others that remained on the earth - it had lost time. And in Monday's Horizon (BBC2), one of those scientists, Professor Jo Hafele, relives the experiment, travelling from London to Washington on a 747. Bingo! His clock registers 40 billionths of second less than those earthbound.
The rest of Horizon's The Time Lords documentary extrapolates the theory to ask whether time travel is genuinely possible, with contributions from, among others, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan and a man who built a negative-energy machine "for fun".
The physics of the argument are naturally highly complicated and, during his stopover in London Hafele kindly attempts to explain using cigarette butts and an ashtray to represent aeroplanes and the earth.
But lets cut to the crux: is time travel possible? "Send one 20-year-old twin into space he'd have to travel at almost the speed of light, on a trip that lasted ten years, to reach the earthbound twin, who would be 30. The travelling twin would be 21 when he came back, having aged only a year. That's theoretically possible," says Hafele, "but to build the rocket required is not economically possible .It's way off in the future."
Suppose Einstein was destined to die in a year. If you sent him off into space and he returned after ten earth years, would he still be alive? Hafele pauses: "Yes. But he'd die as soon as he landed." At least he'd understand the irony.

But he never saw his daughter. Foster parents were found for Lieserl and she is believed to have died of smallpox as a baby. Robert Schulmann, of the Boston-based academic group the Einstein Papers Project, recently travelled to Serbia to try to discover what became of her, but could find no trace. Two years later, Einstein married Mileva but abandoning Lieserl had been devastating. From now on he locked away his emotions: "My essence is what I think, not what I feel."

"He wanted sex without complications," says Schulmann. "His pursuit of ladies was one where the sense of obligation was at a minimum, but the pursuit of pleasure was maintained - The pursuit of the greatest priority - physics - was never in question."
In 1905, aged 26, Einstein scaled the Everest of science when he expounded his theory of relativity. The Swiss job had been ideal in affording him the freedom to think, and the answer came to him in a flash one sunny day as he was out walking with a friend.

As Europe lionised her husband, Mileva was left increasingly lonely at home. "I only hope fame will not exert a detrimental influence on his human side," she wrote. I'm starved of love. I almost believe wicked science is guilty."
"When one thinks seriously day and night one can't engage easily in loving chatter," responded Einstein. But he, too, paid a huge emotional price. He hardly saw his two sons.

Mileva named his work as co-respondent in their divorce, but soon there was another woman Einstein's cousin Elsa."I love you," he wrote to her '"I would be so happy to walk a few steps at your side-without my wife, who is very jealous I treat her as an employee whom I cannot sack."
Working out the theory of gravity took six years and brought him near to death from nervous exhaustion. It wasn't until 1917 that his predictions were verified and he achieved world fame, winning the Nobel prize for physics four years later. In 1919 he divorced Mileva and married Elsa, who had helped nurse him back to health but, though she provided him with loving support, he subsequently had an affair with a younger woman.

Despite his academic success, Einstein's last letters reveal his sense of emotional failure. "I can love humanity, but when it comes to close relationships, I'm a horse for single harness. I failed twice, rather disgracefully." As for marriage: "An unsuccessful attempt to make something lasting out of an incident. All marriages are dangerous."
The world knew nothing of this as Einstein lived in placid exile in the USA after leaving Germany in 1933. He died in 1955. His personal papers were not released for academic study until the late eighties. This week's Horizon: Einstein is the first complete study of his life, taking in that hitherto unpublished material.

"We don't intend scurrilously to topple a great figure," says co-producer Peter Jones "I strongly believe you have to understand the human being first to understand the scientist. Periods of tremendous concentration exclude other things, and this is true of many great intellects. Could Einstein have had a settled emotional life and been a great scientist? We leave that to the viewer to decide"

The idiots' guide to Einstein's special theory of relativity

  • It's the most important theory of the 20th century. It identifies that light always travels at the same speed (186,000 miles per second - the fastest velocity in the universe).
  • Speed is relative - it only tells you how last something is moving relative to something else. As a train goes by at right angles to us, its speed can be measured. But imagine moving towards an oncoming train at the same speed - it would seem to be moving twice as fast. Light, however, doesn't behave in the same way: its speed is constant, regardless of the speed of its source or observer.
Spaceman...oh how I wish I was a ...
  • Time passes differently, depending on whether you are moving or still. The faster you move, the slower your clock ticks compared with that of someone stationary. If a clock was in a spaceship that was travelling at the speed of light (if that were possible), the clock would stop.
  • Relativity also gave us one of the world's best- known equations: E = mc2. It predicts the energy (E) released from a mass (m), or object, when it is annihilated. C is the speed of light. Einstein's theory prompted man to split the atom, ultimately resulting in the creation of the atomic bomb and the nuclear age.
  • Einstein's thinking radically changed our understanding of the universe, causing revolutions in particle physics, the idea of black holes, and the thinking behind Big Bang.
  • And just when you thought you were beginning to understand, last month Dr Alphonsus Kelly of University College, Dublin, challenged the very heart of Einstein's theory: he believes the speed of light is not constant. But deconstructing a genius isn't easy, and Dr Kelly has yet to convince the sceptical academic world.

Stop the clocks

Relativity was not just Einstein's monster. P D Smith enjoys an absorbing study which rewrites the equation

Einstein's Clocks,
Poincaré's Maps

Peter Galison
£14.99 (plus £2.25 p&p per order)
from 0870 8001122

NOWADAYS WE take time too much for granted. In 1880, a public clock in Geneva needed three faces to show the time in Geneva, Paris and Bern. The challenge for scientists and engineers was to find a reliable way of standardising time across cities and countries by connecting clocks to a central "mother clock". In Paris an ingenious city-wide system of clocks was regulated by compressed air piped beneath pavements. Heath Robinson would have been proud of it, but by the end of the century electricity offered an easier way of undying time. According to the historian of science Peter Galison, synchronising clocks remained an urgent issue in the 20th century: "Time coordination in the Central Europe of 1902-05 was not merely an arcane thought experiment; rather; it critically concerned the clock industry the military and the railroads," as well as being a symbol "of the interconnected, sped-up world of modernity."
It was this practical problem that provided Albert Einstein with a crucial clue to the complexities of relativity. In May 1905, after a day of intense discussion with his favourite "sounding-board" Michele Besso, Einstein finally found the answer he had spent nine years searching for. The key lay in "an analysis of the concept of time". Pointing out two far-flung clock towers, Einstein explained: "Time cannot be absolutely defined, and there is an inseparable relation between time and signal velocity."
Galison's book explores notions of simultaneity in order to explain the origins of relativity. As well as Einstein, he brings a less familiar figure into the relativity equation: Henri Poincaré, the extraordinary French mathematician, philosopher and physicist "who produced, quite independently of Einstein, a detailed mathematical physics incorporating the relativity principle". From the 1890s Poincaré worked at the Bureau of Longitude. There the new global network of telegraph cables was used to map the globe by sending time signals to the four corners of the world. But time is a harsh master and Poincaré has been relegated to a footnote in the history of relativity By bringing nim out of Einstein's shadow, Galison argues that Einstein's theory was part of a widespread material and intellectual concern with the cultures of time. One of the far-reaching implications of relativity is that our sense of simultaneity is an illusion.
Einstein: universal timekeeping led to the theory of relativity

There is no such thing as a universal "now". Einstein rejected Newton's notion of a "universally audible tick-tock". In his work as a patent officer in 1905, Einstein examined proposals for cutting-edge electrotechnology, including synchronised clocks.
According to Galison, to talk about simultaneity at the beginning of the 20th century was to ask how to coordinate clocks. For both Einstein and Poincare the answer was to use an electric signal, and deduct the time taken for the signal to travel between the clocks. It was an idea with "breathtkang consequences for concepts of time and space, for the new relativity theory for modern physics" and for "our very model of secure scientific knowledge". The problem of coordinating clocks helped Einstein see that Newton's absolute time was wrong: his theological concept had no place in a technological and secular age. Galison is right to argue that the history of relativity is about more than one man and that it's an idea rooted in practical concerns, in time-keeping and mapmaking, as well as the higher abstractions of philosophy and physics. He makes few concessions to the non-specialist reader; but this impressive study is absorbing, original and full of insights into the revolutionaries of time.
PD Smith's illustrated biography of Einstein is published by Hans.
[Indepedent Magazine prior to 27Sep 2003]





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