During the autumn of 1907, Albert Einstein worked under pressure. He had been invited to deliver the definitive review of his theory of relativity to the Yearbook of Electronics and Radioactivity.
It was a tall order, to summarize such an important piece of work at such short notice, especially since he could do so only in his spare time. From 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Einstein could be found working at the Bern Federal Office for Intellectual Property in the newly built Postal and Telegraph Building, where he would meticulously pore over plans for newfangled electrical contraptions and figure out if there was any merit in them. Einstein’s boss had advised him, “When you pick up an application, think that everything the inventor says is wrong,” and he took his advice to heart. For much of the day, the notes and calculations for his own theories and discoveries had to be relegated to the second drawer of his desk, which he referred to as his “theoretical physics department.”
Einstein’s review would recap his triumphant marriage of the old mechanics of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton with the new electricity and magnetism of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. It would explain much of the weirdness that Einstein had uncovered a few years before, such as how clocks would run more slowly when moving, or how objects would shrink if they were speeding ahead. It would explain his strange and magical formula that showed how mass and energy were interchangeable, and that nothing could move faster than the speed of light. His review of his principle of relativity would describe how almost all of physics should be governed by a new common set of rules.
In 1905, over a period of just a few months, Einstein had written a string of papers that were already transforming physics. In that inspired burst he had pointed out that light behaves like bundles of energy, much like particles of matter. He had also shown that the jittery, chaotic paths of pollen and dust careening through a dish of water could arise from the turmoil of water molecules, vibrating and bouncing off one another. And he had tackled a problem that had been plaguing physicists for almost half a century: how the laws of physics seem to behave differently depending on how you look at them. He had brought them together with his principle of relativity.
All these discoveries were a staggering achievement, and Einstein had made them all while working as a lowly patent expert at the Swiss patent office in Bern, sifting through the scientific and technological developments of the day. In 1907, he was still there, having yet to move into the august academic world that seemed to elude him. In fact, for someone who had just rewritten some of the fundamental rules of physics, Einstein was thoroughly undistinguished. Throughout his unimpressive academic studies at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, Einstein skipped classes that didn’t interest him and antagonized the very people who could nurture his genius. One of his professors told him, “You are a very clever boy . . . But you have one great fault: you’ll never let yourself be told anything.” When Einstein’s supervisor prevented him from working on a topic of his own choice, Einstein handed in a lackluster final essay, lowering his grade to a point where he was unable to secure a post as an assistant at any of the universities to which he had applied.
From his graduation in 1900 until he finally landed his job in the patent office in 1902, Einstein’s career was a sequence of failures. To compound his frustration, the doctoral thesis he submitted to the University of Zurich in 1901 was rejected a year later. In his submission, Einstein
1. If a Person Falls Freely 1
2. The Most Valuable Discovery 12
3. Correct Mathematics, Abominable Physics 28
4. Collapsing Stars 47
5. Completely Cuckoo 66
6. Radio Days 85
7. Wheelerisms 100
8. Singularities 118
9. Unification Woes 137
10. Seeing Gravity 152
11. The Dark Universe 173
12. The End of Spacetime 193
13. A Spectacular Extrapolation 209
14. Something Is Going to Happen 223