The making of a genius

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2011, 12:00am


Albert Einstein died 56 years ago today. The city will remember the great scientist with a series of events called 'Einstein in Hong Kong'.

He was the father of the seminal Theory of Relativity and has been an unrivalled icon of modern science. His face - a kindly grandpa with an unruly mop of white hair - has come to define our image of a genius. Yet few of us truly know enough about Einstein.

Young Post wanted to find out more about the German-born physicist so we talked to Hans-Rudolf Ott, president of the Albert Einstein Society. Ott notes that Einstein was an average student. At age 21 in 1902, he graduated with poor grades from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland. He wanted to become a professor, but no one would hire him. Einstein landed a lowly job instead at the Federal Office of Intellectual Property in Bern, where he examined applications for patents until 1909.

Yet he never turned his back on physics despite his punishing work schedule. In his spare time, he continued working on his ideas, and his office drawer - which he dubbed his 'department of theoretical physics' - filled up with notes.

Ott thinks Einstein profited from the situation because 'he was free from academic pressures and trends to develop his own ideas'. He adds: 'Einstein had a strongly developed intuition to realise what was important. Much of his inspiration came from reading literature and from identifying important questions.'

Einstein also cultivated a circle of friends called the 'Olympia Academy' to debate physics and philosophy. 'He had colleagues with whom he could have [honest] discussions,' Ott says. 'I believe it is important that he had this free exchange of ideas.'

Before Einstein came along, scientists had thought the world was divided into two realms: the realm of energy where fire crackled and wind raged and the realm of mass made up of living and inanimate things like animals and buildings.

In what has since been labelled 'the wonder year' of 1905, Einstein had a spark of inspiration: he showed how matter and energy were essentially the same. This was among the five notable discoveries he published within seven months.

Einstein called the patent office 'a worldly cloister where he hatched his most beautiful ideas'. The seven years there was the happiest and most prolific period in his life.

'I do not think he was a genius in the sense that he could do science without effort,' Ott says. 'He was very curious. He was able to think very deeply and he worked very hard ... to the limits of his capabilities and health.'

His shaky grasp of mathematics made it tough for Einstein to develop his General Theory of Relativity. So when he finally secured an academic post at ETH in 1909, he worked in tandem with mathematician Marcel Grossman.

'Einstein was mainly interested in physics and he believed mathematics was not essential,' Ott notes.

His General Theory of Relativity made testable predictions about how the world worked. In 1919, a British astrophysicist proved Einstein right by showing during an eclipse that the sun's gravitational field bent light travelling in space. Overnight, Ott says, Einstein 'became a pop star'.

'Einstein in Hong Kong' will feature exhibitions, public lectures and workshops. For more details, visit