The World’s Most Famous Patent Examiner

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2007, 551 pages, $32.

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, he was not only the most famous physicist of all time, he was also perhaps the most famous person of his own time. That says a lot for a century that produced many outsized figures from Joseph Stalin to Winston Churchill. Those men, like Einstein, changed the world. But Einstein also changed the way we look at, and think about, the world. His theories in various aspects of physics led to the development of lasers and the atomic bomb, but his theories of quanta, relativity and the space time continuum changed the way we understand the universe and our place in it.

Albert Einstein died at the age of 76, and in his long and eventful life he was not only the world’s preeminent physicist, but also a noted peace activist (due in no small measure to his horror at the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his feeling that he was complicit by urging FDR to develop the atomic bomb), Zionist, and ladies man (with two marriages and innumerable affairs). This new biography, by Walter Isaacson, covers this life in copious and loving detail. But Isaacson spends considerable time on Einstein’s theories, describing not only what he discovered, but how he developed his theories.

Much of Einstein’s fame derives from five brief papers he published when he was an obscure patent examiner in Bern, Switzerland. Most historians assume that the years that Einstein spent as an examiner were wasted, little more than a way-station on his way to greatness, and a means to make money while engaged in more worthy intellectual pursuits in his free time. But according to Isaacson, Einstein’s work at the patent office provided an important practical grounding that directly contributed to his theoretical work.

Einstein took the job as an examiner because he was unable to find work as a teacher after graduating in 1900. His grades in college had been mixed: good in physics but mediocre in math. (The story that he failed math is a myth.) But he frequently clashed with his professors—due in no small part to his irascible nature and unvarnished contempt for authority—and graduated fourth in his class of five students.

While working at the patent office, Einstein spent many evenings with a group of like-minded friends, reading and discussing philosophy. Einstein was particularly influenced by David Hume and Ernst Mach. Hume believed that the only reliable knowledge was that perceived directly by the senses. From Mach, Einstein learned that “concepts have meaning only if we can point to objects to which they refer….”

In 1905, Einstein published five groundbreaking papers that ultimately changed physics. The first paper proposed that light came not only in waves but also in packets of energy that Einstein labeled quanta. The second paper, which was also submitted as Einstein’s doctoral dissertation, determined the number of molecules in a specified volume of matter. The third paper explained Brownian motion, the odd (and at the time unexplained) movement of visible particles in an otherwise stable environment such as water. Einstein proved that the molecules were essentially bouncing around even when the environment (gas or liquid) appeared stable. This proof, when taken in conjunction with the second paper, proved that all matter is made up of atoms, a point that seems obvious today, but was widely disputed at the time.

The fourth paper set forth Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Relativity is a counterintuitive theory, which makes it difficult to describe and even harder to comprehend, but Isaacson makes it understandable. The simple explanation for special relativity is that all of the laws of physics are the same for all observers moving at a constant velocity relative to each other. Relativity, along with quanta, disproved the then dominant “ether” theory of the void of space.

The fifth paper, which was merely a three page addendum to the special relativity paper, noted that since the speed of light is the only true constant in the Universe, mass and energy must be related. As Einstein explained in a letter to a friend: “light carries mass with it. …. [t]he relativity principle, together with Maxwell’s equations [proving that the speed of light is constant] requires that mass be a direct measure of the energy contained in a body.” He described this concept with the simple equation: E=mc2.

Isaacson attributes a number of factors to the development of Einstein’s theories. Chief among them was the fact that Einstein thought largely in pictures. This probably hindered his mathematical studies, but it allowed him to visualize theoretical problems (including patents), and helped him develop the thought experiments that underlay most of his theories. A second important factor was his disdain for authority, which compelled him to question existing ideas, including long established physical theories. Another important factor was his understanding of the philosophies of Hume and Mach. But a significant factor was Einstein’s work at a patent examiner.

Dealing with patents grounded Einstein’s thoughts in tangible things and not the more speculative world of academia. He spent his days working with real world problems, so it is not surprising that he explained his theories with real world examples: balls dropped in moving trains, riding endless elevators, moving observers watching stationary clocks, etc.

Einstein himself credited his time at the patent office with contributing to his theories, stating that there was “a definite connection between the knowledge acquired at the patent office and the theoretical results” of his papers. In particular, working at the patent office “stimulated me to see the physical ramifications of theoretical concepts.”

Working as a patent examiner also freed Einstein from some of the drawbacks of academia. According to Einstein, “an academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality.” Isaacson claims that had Einstein “been consigned to the job of an assistant to a professor, he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions.”

Even after publishing these five groundbreaking papers, Einstein was unable to secure an academic position for another four years. He remained at the patent office and continued to write papers in theoretical physics, publishing six papers in 1906, and ten in 1907.

It would be a stretch to say that any of Einstein’s great theories were a product of his job as a patent examiner. But it is beyond dispute that his experience working with patent applications played an important role in his understanding of the world, and in his description of the theories that changed it.