Friday, June 27, 2008 6/27/08-Albert "Lazy Dog" Einstein

In today's excerpt--young Albert Einstein:

"In the early 1900s, Einstein was a brilliant young scientist (26 in 1905) working independently of the usual academic community, who was obsessed with the idea of proving that atoms are real. [The existence of atoms was widely conjectured but not yet proven at this time.] ... This search was being carried out in the context of Einstein trying to obtain a PhD, which, by the beginning of the twentieth century was already being seen as the scientist's meal ticket, an essential requirement for anyone hoping to pursue a career in university research. Einstein had graduated from the Eidgenossische Technische Hochschule (ETH--the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) in Zurich in 1900, but although he had done well in his final examinations, his attitude had not endeared him to the professors at the ETH (one of his tutors, Hermann Minkowski, described young Albert as a 'lazy dog' who 'never bothered about mathematics at all'), and he was unable to get a job as one of their assistants, and equally unable to get a decent reference from them for a junior academic post.

"So he had a variety of short-term and part-time jobs before becoming a patent officer in Bern in 1902. He spent a lot of time working on scientific problems (not just in his spare time, but also at his desk when he should have been working on patent applications) and published several papers between 1900 and 1905. But his most important project was to obtain that PhD and reopen the doors to academia. The ETH did not award doctorates itself, but there was an arrangement whereby graduates from the ETH could submit a doctoral thesis to the University of Zurich for approval, and this is the path Einstein took. After an abortive attempt on a piece of work which he decided in the end not to submit, he was ready in 1905 with a paper that would prove entirely satisfactory to the examiners in Zurich, and was the first of two papers in which he established the reality of atoms and molecules beyond reasonable doubt."

John Gribbin, The Scientists, Random House, Copyright 2002 by John and Mary Gribbin, pp. 392-393.


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