Albert Einstein

From mediocre student to Nobel Prize winner

  • History

When the ETH Zurich student Albert Einstein reported to his practical physics course professor in March 1899, he had a feeling something bad was going to happen. In the previous few months, the 20-year-old had hardly attended any classes. Instead of carrying out monotonous lab work, Einstein had decided he would rather study the masters of theoretical physics by himself. He soon got his comeuppance: because of his poor work ethic, Jean Pernet failed him with a 1, the lowest possible grade. But Einstein did not seem overly bothered by this. When the professor asked why he didn’t want to study medicine, law or philology instead, he simply replied: “Because I don’t have a talent for them, Herr Professor. Why shouldn’t I at least try physics?”

The fact that in 2021 we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s Nobel Prize is in no small part down to the self-assurance that he demonstrated as a young man. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his services to theoretical physics, and in particular for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. For ETH Zurich today, Einstein is part of the furniture. He is ETH Zurich’s most famous alumnus, featured extensively on the university’s website and even the subject of a dedicated Einstein tour. Many of his documents are kept in the ETH Zurich University Archives, there is an Einstein bust on the Hönggerberg Campus, a café on the Polyterrasse bears his name, and soon visitors will even be able to have a chat with an Einstein avatar.

“A vagabond and loner”

Albert Einstein began studying at ETH Zurich, which at the time was known as the Zurich Polytechnic, in October 1896. At just 17 years of age, he was one of the youngest students there. He studied there for four years, focusing on physics and mathematics but also taking courses in literature and history. Time and time again, he had to be content with being awarded mediocre marks, because – as he recalled in 1955 in his memories of ETH Zurich – to be a good student “you must be able to grasp things easily; you must be willing to concentrate your energies on everything you are told in lectures; you must enjoy writing down everything presented in the lectures in an orderly fashion and working on it conscientiously. Regretfully, I realised that I fundamentally lacked all these qualities.” What the young Einstein, who described himself as “a vagabond and loner”, did have, however, was an insatiable enthusiasm for the physical theories and problems of his time.

Einstein, Albert and colleagues in the ETH Zurich physics laboratory.
Einstein, Albert and colleagues in the ETH Zurich physics laboratory.
From left to right: 1. Karl Ferdinand Herzfeld, 2. Otto Stern, 3. Albert Einstein, 4. Fräulein Frankamp, 5. Auguste Piccard, 6. Paul Ehrenfest, 7. René Fortrat, 8. Fräulein Bruins, 9. Miss Girgorjeff,10. Gabriel Foëx, 11. Wolfers (laboratory assistant).
(Image: ETH Library, Zurich)

Since little on these topics was taught at ETH Zurich at that time – Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and Boltzmann’s theory of thermodynamics, for example, were both absent from the syllabus – Einstein studied them independently instead. “Even at a very young age, Einstein had a profound thirst for knowledge. He felt the need to get to the bottom of things that were not understood at the time, and he challenged the existing paradigms of physics in a radical way,” says Hans Rudolf Ott, emeritus professor of physics at ETH Zurich. The fact that Einstein managed to graduate at the age of 21, despite his lack of enthusiasm for the curriculum, was in part down to his friend, mathematics student Marcel Grossmann. As Einstein often skipped classes, he relied on Grossmann’s meticulous lecture notes to help him through his studies. But this wasn’t enough to secure him a good mark at the end of his degree. With an average of 4.91, Einstein was second from bottom in his class and he was the only student not to be offered a role as a research assistant.

Polytechnic = love²

Mileva Marić, who was later to become Einstein’s wife, was the only woman enrolled at the Polytechnic in the same year. “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a successful conclusion. When I look at other people, then I truly realise what you are!”, wrote Albert Einstein to his wife-to-be in 1901.

To what extent she actually contributed to Einstein’s research on his world-famous theory of relativity is unclear, but one thing is for sure: had Einstein not studied at ETH Zurich, it is unlikely that he would ever have met his first wife. The two physicists first set eyes on each other in a lecture they attended while at the Polytechnic, from 1896 to 1900. In contrast to Einstein’s rather poor grades, Mileva’s were very good, until her final examination, when she twice failed to secure enough points to graduate. Whether this was down to the fact that Mileva was one of the few women studying the subject is a matter of debate to this day. Suffice to say that her gender may well have played a part.

Einstein and Mileva’s marriage ultimately ended under sad circumstances. With a Nobel prize in prospect, Einstein filed for divorce, promising Mileva the prize money. Einstein stayed in Berlin with his cousin and future second wife Elsa, and Mileva returned to Zurich with the children. She did not consent to a divorce until 1918. Their divorce was granted by Zurich District Court on 14 February 1919 on the grounds of “natural incompatibility”. Ignoring the two-year marriage ban imposed on him by the divorce decree issued by the court, Einstein married his cousin Elsa in Berlin on 2 June 1919. Shortly before he died, Einstein wrote to the son of his deceased friend Michele Besso: “But what I most admired about him [Besso] is the fact that he managed to live for many years not just in peace, but in lasting harmony with a woman – an undertaking in which, to my eternal shame, I failed on two occasions.” 1

Albert Einstein and his wife-to-be Mileva Marić met at ETH Zurich. (Image: ETH Library, Zurich)
Einstein with his first wife in Kać, Serbia, in 1905.
(Image: ETH Library, Zurich)
Mileva and Albert Einstein in the garden with their young son Hans Albert. Postcard, 1904/05.
(Image: ETH Library, Zurich)

Elsa and Albert Einstein on the gangway of the Red Star Line steamship SS Belgenland before their voyage from Antwerp to the USA in December 1930. (Image: ETH Library, Zurich)

Annus mirabilis in Bern

After graduating from ETH Zurich, Einstein took on various odd jobs to keep money coming in, including working as a tutor in Bern. It wasn’t until June 1902 that he found a position as a technical expert at the patent office in Bern, on the recommendation of Grossmann’s father. There, far removed from academia and by working in his free time, Einstein published no fewer than 33 works in the period up to 1909. These included his most important papers on the special theory of relativity and the light-quantum hypothesis, for which he would later win the Nobel Prize. It was these publications, several of which turned the world of classical physics on its head, that finally opened up the possibility of a university career for him, after numerous disappointments and setbacks. After two years as a professor at the University of Zurich and one year in Prague, in 1912, at the age of 33, Einstein returned to his alma mater, ETH Zurich, as a professor of theoretical physics. His reaction when the long-awaited call from Zurich finally came was typical: “Hallelujah!” he wrote from Prague to his friend, ETH Zurich history professor Alfred Stern.

Zurich’s contribution to the theory of relativity

“Grossmann, you have to help me or I’ll go mad.” This is how Einstein is said to have greeted his erstwhile saviour from his student days the first time they met up after he arrived in Zurich. During his time in Bern and Prague, Einstein had already formulated the key physical concepts for his general theory of relativity. What he was missing was the right way to express it mathematically. At this critical moment, Einstein’s lack of interest in higher mathematics threatened to be his undoing. Thankfully, however, Grossmann was once again there to lend a hand to the desperate Einstein. Over nine months of intense concentration under enormous pressure, the two men produced a first draft of the general theory of relativity and gravitation, which was published in 1913. It was very similar to the later final version. The equations that Einstein wrote down in his Zurich notebook were more or less correct, but he would only realise their full significance three years later when working as a professor in Berlin. In the end, he left ETH Zurich after only a year and a half, unable to resist the opportunity to work at the highly regarded Prussian Academy of Sciences. Even the generous offer of a double professorship at the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich in 1918 was not enough to tempt him back to Switzerland.

The sculptress Gina Plunguian modelling Einstein’s bust,1947. (Image: ETH Library, Zurich)
Honorary degree presentation, 5 November 1930. Group photograph marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Polytechnic, in 1930. This newspaper cutting shows the guests of honour on stage at the Stadttheater in Zurich: Albert Einstein, Musi, Schulthess, Meyer, Rohn and Pilet.
(Image: ETH Library, Zurich)

GPS, lasers and solar cells

Albert Einstein died in April 1955 at the age of 76 in Princeton, USA, where he had pursued his research career after 1933. But his revolutionary findings live on in our everyday lives and scientific research. For example, it is hard to imagine a world without GPS today. It was Einstein who, in his general theory of relativity, anticipated that clocks would run more slowly on board satellites than on Earth. If we didn’t take these time differences into account, location data would be out by several kilometres every day. Furthermore, Einstein’s light-quantum hypothesis and his work on Planck’s theory of radiation set out key principles that would come to be crucial in the development of the now omnipresent laser technology and the generation of electricity using solar cells.

Einstein’s research lives on

“Today’s physics is inconceivable without Einstein. The general theory of relativity is central to our understanding of the world and the cosmos,” says Lavinia Heisenberg, a professor at ETH Zurich’s Institute for Theoretical Physics. Further confirmation of Einstein’s theory has been forthcoming in recent years, firstly through the discovery of evidence of gravitational waves, which opens up the possibility of new findings regarding the creation of the universe and how it is changing. Secondly, last year an international research team succeeded in making a black hole visible for the first time. Einstein predicted this phenomenon mathematically, although he did not personally believe that black holes existed. Furthermore, cosmologists like Lavinia Heisenberg are still working today on questions that go back to Einstein. For example, scientists are still not sure whether the theory of relativity also applies to the very small units found in quantum physics. And when it comes to research on the early universe and black holes, Einstein’s theory leads to singularities which remain unresolved. “These problems will continue to occupy us for many years. Like Newton before him, Einstein isn’t going to drop off the radar any time soon,” says Heisenberg. As it turns out, it was very fortunate, back in 1899, that the mediocre student decided to give physics a try after all. And not just for ETH Zurich.

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