ETH, UZH and Einstein’s Zürich

Few scientists transcend their academic domains and end up as intellectual and cultural icons of a generation, the most recent one perhaps was the recently departed Stephan Hawking.

The person before Hawking was undisputed however – Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein (Source)

His shaggy grey mane and playful face has come to represent the image of the passionate and slightly mad scientist to generations of people. No one, perhaps not even Stephen Hawking, has managed to replace that mental image of a scientist.

In fact anyone described as an Einstein or a future Einstein is seen as a genius of their times – the latest one being the Cuban-American Harvard Physics PhD candidate Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski. Maybe one day we will come to describe geniuses as the next Pasterski, but for now, Einstein is the gold standard.

Einstein was not born Swiss, he was born in the small German town of Ulm in southern Germany, but he made his career here, in Zurich. Ironically, while we describe youthful geniuses as Einsteins, Albert Einstein would not have been described by any experts of his day as a young genius. He was seen as a washout, a rebellious* young man who did well in ‘useless’ esoteric subjects like mathematics, physics and philosophy but not in the more ‘meaningful’ and practical subjects such as engineering. He entered the Zurich Polytechnic (today the ETH Zurich) at the age of 17 to read a mathematics and physics teaching diploma, not before failing the entrance exam and being told to prepare again after finishing high school.

The Zurich Polytechnical Institute of Einstein’s era did not have the stature it had today, it was considered a second rate teachers school and Einstein failed it on the first attempt. And he was accepted to obtain a diploma, a teaching certificate, not a degree. By the standards even of today (and here), Einstein would have been seem as a failure and would never have had the chance to build the career he ended up having, universities of yesteryear are even more unforgiving than today.

Imagine Einstein studying with this backdrop when he was still a young man

Being a teacher had already made him a failure at home, teachers did not make money not like engineers. After graduating in 1900 came the pain of not being able to find a job. For two years, Einstein struggled to find a job the teaching job for which he was trained. Einstein only obtained a job in 1902, a classic case of underemployment, at the patent office in Bern after family friends helped him pull strings. It was however at this Bern patent office that Einstein came into his own. Einstein’s job at the patent office required him to summarise complex terms into an understandable form and then evaluate the patent applications of devices such as a gravel sorter and electromechanical typewritter. These applications involved electrical transmission and were key to his conclusions about space and time.

While working at the Patent Office, Einstein enrolled at the University of Zurich to complete a PhD in Physics completing his PhD in 1905.

1905 was when everything changed. After graduating with his PhD, this unknown young man published 4 papers in a span of a year, a year that would come to be known as Annus Mirabilis. No one took note of his work, this was the Matthew Effect in reverse. No one cared about him; without having the backing or prestige behind his name, no one cared however brilliant he was.

It was when the German Physics great Max Planck took note of these papers that everything changed. Planck published these four papers in the most prestigious physics journal off the time, the German journal Annalen der Physik (today the most prestigious scientific journals are three American ones – Cell, Nature and Science).

Einstein’s career rise was meteoric from then on. From being unable to find a teaching position in a high school in 1900, and working in a patent office while doing a PhD, Einstein had become a lecturer in 1908. He was then appointed an Associated Professor at the University of Zurich in 1909, two years later he became a full professor at the Charles University in Prague (for measure it takes more than a decade for most people to go from lecturer to associate professor and sometimes another half decade before being made a tenured professor). He went higher and higher up the ladder becoming a tenured professor at ETH Zurich in 1912.

A few years later, having raised the profile of ETH, he was poached away from Zurich then reaching the pinnacle of Science in Europe – a position at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin with some of the greatest names in science of the day – Max Planck, Walther Nernst among them.

He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect” and yet his contributions to science were not over. His work has been the basis on which many scientific career today have been built, and are still being built. His European journey was cut short when he moved over to the United States in 1933 when Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, setting the tone for the movement of many brilliant foreign minds to the United States, something that carries on till this day.

Throughout his movements across central Europe Zurich continued to feature. It was Zurich that gave him his higher education, offered him the chance to complete his PhD, launched his academic career and finally accelerated his professional life. This was Einstein’s Zurich, a Zurich that had been extremely kind to him.

*Einstein was also rebellious as a sexually philanderous man (contrary to what a gentlemen of the era was supposed to be). Einstein it seems took many mistresses. He was no wall flower, or boring Sheldon Cooper that for sure.


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