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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Albert Einstein

To most of us Albert Einstein was a slightly eccentric professor of physics, whose appearance matched the stereotype and maybe even have created it. He was immensely important to science and even those of us who know little about physics will associate the theory of relativity with that name. We may also know he was great mathematician, a good violinist and a Jew who was forced to live in exile.
It’s not difficult to find information about Einstein. The difficulty is in working out what he would have seemed like to Clara and her family.
The Lehrs, the Loewenthal and the Edler women were all interested in science. Käthe, Clara’s daughter actually studied at Berlin University whilst Einstein was still there and we know she attended a few of his lectures. It is possible that Clara and sons Ernst and Rudi may have attended some of his public lectures.
He first comes into my version of Clara’s story in 1917 just as he is about to leave the university and go and work in Switzerland. At this time he was quite ill but this was also the year that he applied the theory of relativity to the whole universe. By 1920 there were anti-relativity protests which some now believe actually had an anti-sematic agenda.
Einstein’s ideas on relativity captured the imagination of many. We know that Käthe was particularly excited about these new ideas and wanted to complete her doctorate studying under Einstein. She didn’t, of course, because she married another of her lecturers, Hans Edler.      
Einstein had a reputation for being quite witty. Perhaps his most well-known quote is “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe”. Beware however, and here is a note about doing historical research: even using Google Scholar you can find pages and pages of unverified quotes, some coming from sites with an .ac URL. They may have not come from him. ASL provides the sources for the quotes at least. Two which Clara and Käthe may have come across in the early part of their story are:
"With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon."
--Einstein to Heinrich Zangger, December 24, 1919.
"It is not so important where one settles down. The best thing is to follow your instincts without too much reflection."
--Einstein to Max Born, March 3, 1920. AEA 8-146.
We build up our myth about the man with the help of whichever material we can find. My task here has been to understand which version of that myth Clara and her family believed.       

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