When youthful and frisky, Albert Einstein would refer to himself as “the valiant Swabian,” quoting the poem by Ludwig Uhland: “But the valiant Swabian is not afraid.” Albert—the name Abraham had been considered by his unreligious parents but was rejected as “too Jewish”—was born in Ulm, in March of 1879, not long after Swabia joined the new German Reich; he was the first child and only son of a mathematics-minded but financially inept father and a strong-willed, musically gifted woman of some inherited means. A daughter, Maria, was born to the couple two and a half years later; when shown his infant sister, Albert took a look and said, “Yes, but where are the wheels?” Though this showed an investigative turn of mind, the boy was slow to talk, and the family maid dubbed him der Depperte
—“the dopey one.”
As the boy progressed through the schools of Munich, where his father had found employment in his brother Jakob’s gas-and-electrical-supply company, Albert’s teachers, though giving him generally high marks, noted his resistance to authority and Germanic discipline, even in its milder Bavarian form. As early as the age of four or five, while sick in bed, he had had a revelatory encounter with the invisible forces of nature: his father brought him a compass, and, as he later remembered it, he was so excited as he examined it that he trembled and grew cold. The child drew the momentous conclusion that “something deeply hidden had to be behind things.” That intimation was to carry him to some of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, and to a subsequent persistent but unsuccessful search for a theory that would unite all the known laws of nature, and to a global fame impossible to imagine befalling any mere intellectual now.
Walter Isaacson’s thorough, comprehensive, affectionate new biography, “Einstein: His Life and Universe” (Simon & Schuster; $32), relates how, in 1931, during the fifty-one-year-old scientist’s second visit to America, he and his second wife, Elsa, attended, in California, a séance at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Upton Sinclair. He must have allowed a little skepticism to creep into his polite conversation, for “Mrs. Sinclair challenged his views on science and spirituality.” His own wife overheard and indignantly intervened, telling their hostess, “You know, my husband has the greatest mind in the world.” Mrs. Sinclair didn’t dispute the assertion, replying, “Yes, I know, but surely he doesn’t know everything.” On the same excursion, Einstein, at his own request, met Charlie Chaplin, who, as they arrived at the première of “City Lights,” said, of the applauding public, “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.” For more info see