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Einstein's Compass
This gift may have launched the genius of Albert Einstein

By: John Shepler

What is it that triggers a spark of genius? Is there some encouragement given at the right time that starts the process or helps it along, or does genius simply find its expression despite all odds?

Albert Einstein on cover of News Review as a postcard. Get your copy now.Young Albert was a quiet boy. "Perhaps too quiet", thought Hermann and Pauline Einstein. He spoke hardly at all until age 3. They might have thought him slow, but there was something else evident. When he did speak, he'd say the most unusual things. At age 2, Pauline promised him a surprise. Albert was elated, thinking she was bringing him some new fascinating toy. But when his mother presented him with his new baby sister Maja, all Albert could do is stare quizzically. Finally he responded, "where are the wheels?"

When he was 5 years old and sick in bed, Hermann Einstein brought Albert a device that did stir his intellect. It was the first time he had seen a magnetic compass. He lay there shaking and twisting the odd contraption, certain he could fool it into pointing off in a new direction. But try as he might, the compass needle would always find its way back to pointing in the direction of magnetic north. "A wonder," he thought. The invisible force that guided the compass needle was evidence to Albert that there was more to our world that meets the eye. There was "something behind things, something deeply hidden."

So began Albert Einstein's journey down a road of exploration that he would follow the rest of his life. "I have no special gift," he would say, "I am only passionately curious."

His curiosity tugged at him constantly. He liked to wander the neighborhood, and his mother encouraged, rather than stifled, his explorations. Even as a young child he was allowed his freedom. He wasn't social and wasn't pushed to be so. He wasn't athletic, and that was OK too.

One advantage Albert Einstein's developing mind enjoyed was the opportunity to interact with adults in an intellectual way. His uncle, an engineer, would come to the house, and Albert would join in the discussions. His thinking was also stimulated by a medical student who came over once a week for dinner and lively banter.

CompassAlbert Einstein was more than just curious though. He had a patience and determination that kept him at things longer than most. Other children would build houses of card up to 4 stories tall before the cards would teeter and the whole structure would come tumbling down. Maja watched in wonder as her brother Albert methodically built his card buildings to 14 stories. Later he would say, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."

At age 12, Albert Einstein came upon a set of ideas that impressed him as "holy." It was a booklet on Euclidean plane geometry. The concept that one could prove with certainty theorems of angles and lines that were in no way obvious made an "indescribable impression" on the young student. He adopted mathematics as the tool he would use to pursue his curiosity and prove what he would discover about the behavior of the universe.

He was convinced that beauty lies in the simplistic. "When the solution is simple," he said, "God is answering." Perhaps this insight was the real empowerment of his genius. Albert Einstein looked for the beauty of simplicity in the apparent complexity of nature and saw truths that eluded others. While the expression of his mathematics might be accessible to only a few proficient in the science, Albert could condense the essence of his thoughts so anyone could understand.

The Quotable Einstein by Albert Einstein, Alice Calaprice. This book introduces readers to Einstein's many sides, by turns irascible and benign, warmly humorous and coldly dismissive, one who was at first bemused by the fame the world bestowed on him but who came to abhor the glare of publicity. There is something here to please everyone--and something to offend everyone. The book includes his ideas arranged by theme, a family chronology, and a selected bibliography. Illustrated.For instance, his theories of relativity revolutionized science and unseated the laws of Newton that were believed to be a complete description of nature for hundreds of years. Yet when pressed for an example that people could relate to, he come up with this: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. THAT's relativity."

Albert Einstein's wealth of new ideas peaked while he was still a young man of 26, working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office and pursuing mathematics and science on his own. In 1905 he wrote 3 fundamental papers on the nature of light, a proof of atoms, the special theory of relativity and the famous equation of atomic power: E=mc2. For the next 20 years, the curiosity that was sparked by wanting to know what controlled the compass needle and his persistence to keep pushing for the simple answers led him to connect space and time and find a new state of matter. What was his ultimate quest?

"I want to know how God created this world....I want to know His thoughts; the rest are details."

Special Note: Albert Einstein's birthday, March 14, is also known as Pi Day. Discover the amazing world of Pi in this article: Slice of Pi, Anyone?

 

Find t-shirts, hats and party supplies to celebrate the great American total solar eclipse on August 21 here!

Books of Interest:

Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian. The first full-scale biography of the most renowned name in science to be written since those who closely guarded his privacy have died. Based on 20 years of research and interviews with intimate friends and associates willing to discuss Einstein as never before, this riveting book details his childhood and youth. Contains extensive material on his adult life never published before to reveal the crux of Einstein's personality and private life in a way few others have. Includes rare photographs.

Albert Einstein, Young Thinker by Marie Hammontree, Robert Doremus. Intended for young readers aged 8 to 12, this highly rated paperbook also explores what Einstein was like as a child. It starts with his famous compass and goes through his retirement years in Princeton.Has illustrations,paintings, documents and photographs from the Smithsonian and the National Gallery. (Thanks to Maria Smith at Irondale Community School for suggesting this book)

Albert Einstein: A Biography by Albrecht Folsing, Ewald Osers (Translator). By the time of his death, Albert Einstein had achieved virtual sainthood. His name and face had become international symbols of supreme wisdom and benignity. Folsing brings Einstein's "genius" into relief, displaying how his achievements suffuse daily life. Both an engaging portrait and a distillation of scientific thought, Albert Einstein: A Biography is a searching and balanced work.

The Quotable Einstein by Albert Einstein, Alice Calaprice. This book introduces readers to Einstein's many sides, by turns irascible and benign, warmly humorous and coldly dismissive, one who was at first bemused by the fame the world bestowed on him but who came to abhor the glare of publicity. There is something here to please everyone--and something to offend everyone. The book includes his ideas arranged by theme, a family chronology, and a selected bibliography. Illustrated.

Also visit Books-A-Million for an excellent selection of new books, magazines, e-books, audio books and more at low, low prices. Who is Books-A-Million?

 

Also visit these related sites:

Albert Einstein Art Gifts - Get a copy of the postcard shown above or other Einstein themed items from the Gigapacket Zazzle store.

Albert Einstein Archives - The repository of the personal papers of Albert Einstein.

Einstein-Image and Impact - The American Institute of Physics offers pictures and descriptions of Einstein's life from the formative years through his great works, public concerns and philosophies.

Einstein Revealed - From the program aired on PBS, this site tries to answer the question: "How Smart Was He?"

Einstein Online - An extensive list of Einstein links, including his writings, quotes, pictures, and more.

PhysLINK.com - The Ultimate Physics & Astronomy Reference & Education Online Source.

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First Published: March 7, 1999 as part of A Positive Light

 

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