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Albert Einstein - Student in Zürich
por Hans Rudolf Ott
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH). Zürich
Hans Rudolf Ott

At first it might be of interest to know, why Einstein, born in Ulm and visiting schools in Munich, both in Germany, chose to go to Zürich in Switzerland for his academic studies.

When Einstein was 15 years old, his family moved from Munich in Germany to Milano in Italy. It was decided that Albert should stay in Munich in order to finish the Gymnasium and to pass the usual final exam, the Abitur, which guarantees the access to studies at a University. For various reasons he did not like this school at all and decided to follow his parents to Italy without having finished the curriculum of the Gymnasium. Although he left that school without a valid certification, he was attested to be exceptionally talented in mathematics. Upon leaving Germany, he also gave up his German citizenship and assumed the status of a person without nationality. His parents did not like this situation at all but, at the age of sixteen, Einstein promised that he would, by teaching himself to prepare for the entrance exam at the Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum, a federal institution later renamed to Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zürich. At this institution, even today, the admission to academic studies is possible without the valid certification of an Abitur. Passing the entrance exam is, however, considered to be more difficult than passing the final exam at an average Gymnasium.

In October 1895, much before having reached the regulatory minimum age of 18, Einstein actually passed the entrance exam with very good marks in mathematics and science-oriented topics but he did not so well in languages and history. At this point it should be noted that commonly, students enter ETH at the age of 19 and Einstein was only 16 ½ at that time. He actually did so well in mathematics and physics that his examiner, Prof. Weber, invited him to attend his lectures in physics for second year students in case he should stay in Zürich. Also the rector of ETH was obviously impressed by the performance of this youngster, but he recommended that Einstein should complete his general education by visiting the final year of a Swiss Gymnasium, with the firm promise to admit him to ETH the following year, still half a year earlier than allowed by regulations. This is why Einstein visited for one year the Kantonsschule Aarau where he passed the usual final exam in 1896. During this year he was the host of the family of one of his teachers at the Kantonsschule and from all available statements of Einstein in his later years, it appears that he enjoyed this time, both in this family and at the School, very much.

Einstein thus began his studies in Mathematics and Physics at the Polytechnikum (Poly is the familiar short term used by insiders), in October 1896. The curriculum of the relevant section VI of this institution was intended to provide the training for Gymnasium teachers specialized in Mathematics and Natural Sciences. While the first part of the studies was rather strictly organized, the second part left room for academic independence and the free choice of topics. Einstein completed the first part with little enthusiasm and considered himself as a rather average student. In particular, he did not take advantage of the presence of two extraordinary mathematicians, Alfred Hurwitz and Hermann Minkowski who provided lectures of extraordinary quality. Einstein’s interest was in Physics and he believed that as a physicist, he only needed to know the basic mathematical principles to be used in dealing with physical applications. With respect to his mathematical education, he relied very much on his new friend, Marcel Grossmann, later to become a professor for Mathematics at ETH. For the preparation of the intermediate exam after two years, in which the bulk of the examined topics were related to mathematics, Einstein used Grossmann’s meticulously written lecture notes and, together with his colleague, he worked rather hard towards this examination during the summer of 1898. Despite his own assessment of his abilities as a student, Einstein did very well and finished with the top result of his class; Grossmann was in second place. Grossmann was probably Einstein’s best friend at the Poly and he seems to have been convinced that Einstein would become one of the Greats in science.

During the second half of the studies (year 3 and 4), Einstein had mixed experiences with lab courses. While he liked and did rather well in the Electrotechnical Laboratory of H.F. Weber, his performance in the Physikalisches Praktikum für Anfänger must have been disastrous. He did not attend most of the time and, of course, got into trouble with J. Pernet, the professor who was teaching this course. In the end, Einstein got the minimum mark and was reprimanded by the director of the institute. While the experimental instrumentation at the Institute of Physics was of extremely high quality and thus allowed for a corresponding education at a level of the contemporary standard, the quality of the education in theoretical physics was much less up to date. None of the then new developments after Helmholtz were taught. This led Einstein to teach himself by reading the original works of Boltzmann and others and he also seems to have consulted original papers which appeared in the most recognized scientific journal of that time, the Annalen der Physik. Much of this is known from letters to his girlfriend Mileva Maric with whom he corresponded since the middle of 1897; their closer relation seems to have started only two years later in early 1899. In the fall of 1900, Einstein passed the final exam. He was no longer the best of his class but still did fairly well. It is to be noted that 3 of the 5 members of this class who took the exam, later became professors at ETH, including Einstein himself. He complained about the hardship in the preparation for this examination and claimed that he would abandon doing physics for at least a year after the exam. Nevertheless, in one of his letters during the week following the examination period, he mentioned to have taken up again, with great joy, his studies of various advanced books on theoretical physics. It is probably the most amazing fact of Einstein’s time as a student at the Polytechnikum, that he succeeded to bring himself up to date with, at that time, the most recent developments and all of the most important questions in physics by simply consulting the available literature. There is no doubt that he must have been a very hard worker in studies that were of interest to him. In this sense the seeds for the harvest in 1905 were sown already at that time.

A special friendship, which proved to be of great importance, started during Einstein’s days as a student in Zürich where he met Michele Besso. Besso was six years older than Einstein and had completed his education as a mechanical engineer at the Polytechnikum. He must have been very much interested in basic scientific questions and apparently, he was not only one of Einstein’s lifelong closest friends but also acted as a sounding board for Einstein’s ideas in the years to come. In this sense, he was one of the most important persons in Einstein’s life.

Einstein seems to have enjoyed his social life in Zürich and most of his contacts originated in his love for music and his abilities in playing the violine. He seems to have been a welcome partner in house-music parties, mostly initiated by ladies of various ages. His financial support was not extraordinary but sufficient to cover the necessary expenses. He was even able to create some reserves which he intended to invest for becoming a Swiss citizen. He applied for this change in nationality status already in 1899 but the entire procedure took some time and Einstein became a Swiss citizen only after having finished his studies, i.e., in early 1901.

After having completed his final exam in the summer of 1900, Einstein left Zürich immediately for some vacations in an alpine region south of Zürich. He expected to return later and he was sure that he would be offered a position as an assistant at ETH. These hopes proved to be too optimistic and during the next two years, Einstein was desparately looking for a suitable employment that would last longer than just a few weeks. He also tried to get a university position outside of Switzerland, mostly in Germany and Italy. None of his endeavours was successful. His financial resources were mostly provided by acting as a teacher for mathematics and physics at various places in the region north of Zürich. During that time he also tried to submit a doctoral thesis to the University of Zürich. At that time, the Polytechnikum was not allowed to grant doctoral degrees and therefore, he approached Prof. Kleiner, the professor for physics at the University. Kleiner was obviously not impressed by Einstein’s work and he finally convinced him to withdraw the document. It appears that in this case, the advice of the older person, although very much to the dislike of Einstein, was justified. Prof. Kleiner was instrumental again for the procedure that got Einstein the doctoral degree, again at the University of Zürich, in 1905. As is not so well known, the successful thesis on A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions, which also appeared in the Annalen der Physik, is Einstein’s most cited publication.

The salvation finally materialized in the summer of 1902. Encouraged by some contacts provided by the father of Grossmann, Einstein applied for a position at the Federal Patent Office in Berne at the end of 1901. He moved to Berne early in 1902 and survived by offering special teaching services in Mathematics and Physics which were advertised in a local newspaper. It was also there where he learned to have become a father. Mileva, his student friend at the Poly, gave birth to a daughter at the home of her parents in Novi Sad, not an easy thing for an unmarried women at that time. Einstein, still only 23 years old, finally received the position at the Swiss Patent Office in the summer of 1902, which in many respects was a decisive event in Einstein’s life.

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