[The following passage is from Thomas Levenson’s Einstein in Berlin, 2003. (I can’t recommend this book too highly. In addition to his main subject, Levenson provides very interesting background information on the First World War, the revenge of the right wing after the defeat, the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic, and the decadence of Berlin in the twenties.) Finding a job after graduation is often a problem, and Einstein was no exception. We tend to underestimate the importance of circumstances where subsequent fame is concerned, assuming genius will always find a way. But if Einstein hadn’t known someone who had connections—the old story when it comes to getting a decent job—what are the chances that Einstein would have been lost to history? Pretty good, I should think. This account of Einstein’s close call is linked to: ‘Our emotional energy is meant to flow in a certain direction, and if we impede that flow or try to redirect it unhappiness and dissatisfaction are sure to follow.’]
Einstein had been unemployed since graduation—and with the passage of time, his prospects seemed to grow only worse. He had expected to get a research assistant post, either at the Polytechnic itself or at any other physics-literate university. But rejection followed rejection from every professor who bothered to respond to his flood of letters and postcards, until, as he told Mileva, “soon I will have honoured all physicists from the North Sea to the southern tip of Italy with my offer.” He blamed the Polytechnic’s Weber, suspecting him of secret character assassination. He grew so bitter that when his former professor died in 1912, the nicest thing he could say was that “Weber’s death is a good thing for the ETH”—the name the university had been changed to.
He may have been right about Weber’s role in his plight; his academic decline in his last years there certainly left Weber with little reason to help him. But as Einstein came to grasp that he might actually be barred from an academic career altogether, he and his family grew more desperate. In a gesture that would probably have horrified Albert had he known, Hermann Einstein injected himself into the struggle in the spring of 1901, after his son had been jobless for almost a year. He wrote a letter to Wilhelm Ostwald, Leipzig’s professor of physical chemistry, that reveals both genuine paternal pride and sorrow at his inability to help him. Please forgive a father who is so bold as to turn to you, esteemed Herr Professor, in the interests of his son . . . All those in a position to judge the matter can assure you that he is extraordinarily studious and diligent and clings with great love to his science . . . He is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means.” Hermann asked Ostwald to write his son some words of encouragement, “so that he might recover his joy in living and working,” and added that if Ostwald could help Albert find a job, “my gratitude would know no bounds.”
The request was polite, humble, modest in its hopes, and ineffective. Ostwald did not reply. Einstein never seems to have learned of his father’s action. Rather, he simply gave up, forgoing for the time being any hope of reentering the Academy. Instead, he tried to get a job as a secondary school teacher. All he was able to find were short-term substitute positions, and he was finally reduced to tutoring two students in mathematics. He applied for a job with an insurance company—and was rejected. In the end, he abandoned any hope he may have had about remaining even on the periphery of science and turned instead to a classmate from the Polytechnic. Marcel Grossmann used family connections to line up Einstein’s famous job at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Einstein would later collaborate with Grossmann on some of the most important work of his career, but it was this early gesture that he valued above all. Decades later he wrote to his widow that “without Grossmann’s help I would not actually have died, but I would have suffered spiritual death.”
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