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- 48 Alberto A. Martínez d Dating Albert Einstein B ait and switch—no I won’t talk about Einstein’s secret girlfriends or the brazen socialites who visited the married man to briefly say hello to his German wife, his cousin, gifting her some chocolates or pastries, only to then leave her there and take the celebrity away on a sailboat. Bummer.1 By dating, I mean instead the research process of figuring out when exactly something happened. Memorizing dates is not an important part of history. Still, sometimes when you’re trying to figure out when exactly something happened you discover that it didn’t even happen at all. The Internet is flooded with false quotations allegedly by Einstein, some even with false dates. This mythmaking process is formidable, but it leaves us asking: what really happened and when? In 1905, Einstein published the theory of relativity, which convinced physicists to change their ideas about the nature of time. Against the brilliant Isaac Newton and common sense, Einstein said that time is not independent of everything, but that it varies, for example, for a man sitting on a speeding train instead of standing on the ground. Back then, Einstein was not the gray-maned legendary genius. Instead, he was a plain underachiever. He had a four-year degree from a technical school to teach physics and math, but he failed to get a job as a schoolteacher. He had written to many professors, hoping to land a job as an assistant, but all either rejected or ignored him. He had lived alone in poverty while his family’s business collapsed in Italy. He had been rejected by the Swiss military service for having varicose veins and flat, sweaty feet. So a friend’s father helped Albert get an unassuming job: he became a lowest-rank employee at the Swiss patent office in Bern. He was a compulsive smoker and coffee drinker. Out of wedlock, he had a baby daughter whom apparently he never met. We know of her existence from letters, but she disappeared: we don’t know what happened to her. When his Serbian girlfriend moved to Bern, without dating albert einstein - 49 their daughter, they married without a ceremony. In his spare time, he worked on physics as an amateur, and he called himself “a heretic,” what some nowadays might call “a crank.” He and his wife had another baby, a son, in 1904. Somehow, that government bureaucrat in a cheap suit revolutionized physics. A hundred years later, another theoretical physicist, Michio Kaku, claimed to explain how Einstein did it. In a popular book, Kaku said that in 1905 Einstein had been riding a streetcar in Bern, looking back at a famous clock tower, which led him to imagine that if the streetcar raced away from the tower at the speed of light, then the clock on the tower would seem to have stopped, while a clock on the streetcar would still tick at the same rate. Allegedly, this led Einstein to the relativity of time. But actually, Kaku’s account is mistaken: there is no evidence that Einstein ever thought about a streetcar racing away from a clock tower at the speed of light.2 Looking west on Kramgasse Street in Bern, 1900. When Einstein conceived the relativity of time, in 1905, he lived on this street, on the left side in a building beyond the edge of this photograph. Some writers speculate that he was inspired by clock towers, trolley cars, and the train station. alberto a. martínez - 50 In 2003, a professor of the history of science at Harvard Univer­ sity had published a different explanation. He said that in May 1905, Einstein and his good friend Michele Besso were standing on a hill northeast of downtown Bern when Einstein excitedly explained that he could define a new concept of time by exchanging signals between two clock towers. But this story too is just fiction: there is no evidence that Einstein and Besso ever stood on any hill discussing anything about clock towers. And checking a Swiss map for that hill I noticed that there exists no such hill northeast of downtown Bern: instead, it’s to the south.3 And looking at Wikipedia right now—and who knows what it will say a year from now—it says about Einstein that “Much of his work at the patent office related to questions about transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization...


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