I stopped by my old locker today to reminisce about my days as a student at ETH Zurich. To my amusement, I open the door to discover a neat and tidy space with my old pipe and family photos. People often recall me saying, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?" To be honest, I can’t recall whether or not these were my words, but I do know my mind was cluttered with more important matters – take a look at how I left my desk.
Back to the locker - I remember that after I received my university entrance diploma in Aarau, I joined the school for teachers in the mathematical and scientific fields at ETH Zurich, but back then, in 1896, I knew it as the Federal Polytechnical School. My future wife, Mileva Maric was the only woman registered. Brilliant in her own right, Mileva likely wasn’t given the credit she might have deserved for her support of my research. In any case, eventually we married and had two sons together.
I recall being disappointed that my courses at the "Poly" (that’s what we called it back then) didn’t take into account newer physics theories such as James Clerk Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetic fields. I found the curriculum less than exciting and attended only a few lecturers. Preferring to study at home, I absorbed myself in Heinrich Hertz’s paper on the basic equations of electrodynamics for moving bodies, which dealt with Maxwell’s theory.
During exam preparation, I sometimes relied on the lecture notes of my fellow students, particularly Marcel Grossmann. In the third academic year though, I had some difficulties with Jean Pernet’s "Physics practical course for beginners." The professor and the experiments were not particularly pleasing, so I didn’t attend much of the course. For this, the school management reprimanded me and issued a “1” for Pernet’s course - the lowest possible mark on a scale from 1 – 6. Despite the low mark, I eventually graduated in 1900.
While other graduates from my year took up their posts at the Polytechnic Institute, my reputation at the time did not afford me a position as a lecturer. Thankfully, my school friend Marcel recommended me for the patent office in Bern, which enabled me to think and, in 1907, I had the first crucial idea about the theory of general relativity.
A few years later, my academic reputation improved. I received offers from Utrecht, Leiden, Vienna and Berlin, but chose to return to ETH Zurich in 1912 as professor for theoretical physics. During the winter semester, I taught analytical mechanics and thermodynamics, and presented a physics seminar. In the summer semester, I read about continuum mechanics and the molecular theory of heat and held a seminar on physics. My mind was cluttered; however, with the problem of gravitation. Marcel and I attempted to solve it together. I made a break-through while still in Zurich, even though the ultimate formulation of my general theory of relativity would follow a few years later.
I invite you to visit my locker as well where you will learn more about my personal life, listen to a recording of my voice, and even find out why I didn’t wear socks when I visited the U.S. President at the Whitehouse.
About the author
Albert Einstein, a Nobel Laureate and likely most notable Alumnus has been posthumously recognized as one of ETH Zurich’s greatest ambassadors.
“Content of this blog refers directly to the ETH Zurich’s Einstein online archive. Original text can be found at this link.