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?
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
Albert 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.
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?
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
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 these related sites:
Albert Einstein - Biographical detail on the life of Albert Einstein on the official Nobel Prize site.
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.
- An extensive list of Einstein links, including his writings,
quotes, pictures, and more.
Pi Day Souvenirs - Can you guess why March 14 is called Pi day? Hmmm. It has something to do with 3.14, I'd say. Celebrate this day of mathematical fun that is also Albert Einstein's birthday!