Real Men of genius mock interviews aim to give an overview of the lives of great people so that the reader may consider using one or more of them as a model for his or her own ambitions.
Albert Einstein was one of the greatest geniuses (in fact “Einstein” and “genius” have come to mean almost the same thing) known to the world and his work gave us an understanding of the way the universe works.
Albert, I believe you were born in Germany on 14 March 1879 and lived for a while in Munich although at some time the family moved to Italy?
Yes. My father and uncle operated an electrical business in Munich but when that ran into trouble moved to Italy. I stayed for a while in Munich to finish my studies. There was too much rote learning and I believed that stunted creativity so when I was 15 I joined my family in Italy.
I believe you were quite an accomplished musician?
I was a violinist and enjoyed playing for relaxation. I loved Mozart.
What inspired you in your early years?
My father gave me a compass when I was just a small boy,
probably about five years’ old. I was
fascinated by the way the needle moved all on its own, and I felt there must be
something that made it move.
My Polish friend, Max, gave me a book about Euclid’s geometry that particularly inspired me, and I also liked to study Michelangelo’s pictures.
And I understand you wrote a few scientific papers while you were still a young teenager?
I wrote a paper on the relationship between electricity, magnetism and the ether before I was 16.
People say that you encouraged your imagination by playing mind games?
That’s quite correct; I did that a lot. In one of my daydreams I imagined riding on a sunbeam to the end of the universe and when I got to what I thought was the end of the universe I discovered I was back where I had started. It seemed to me, therefore, that the universe was curved and that it must be finite.
I explored the question of what would happen if I could follow a beam of light at the speed of light. I won’t bore you with the scientific detail, but it seems to me that despite the vast speed I wouldn’t have moved at all.
I think you moved to Switzerland to further your education?
I studied under Professor Hermann Minkowski in Zurich. He was particularly interested in the theory of numbers, space and time which were very much in tune with my own interests. Later I adopted Swiss nationality.
It is right, isn’t it, that you married and had children and moved to Berlin although your wife remained in Zurich with the children and, having lived separately for a few years, you divorced?
Yes. I then married my cousin, Elsa, with whom I had a relationship for a few years. We emigrated to the United States in 1933 but sadly Elsa suffered health problems and died at the end of 1936.
I think you lived in Princeton for 20 years or so and at some time took US citizenship?
That is correct. I had published my theory of general relativity but it took three years or so for others to be convinced that it was correct.
I think it was Hitler’s rise to power that prompted you to leave Germany, and by 1939 you were warning of the possibility of a German nuclear initiative?
Yes; I wrote to President Roosevelt about it.
In a sentence, what does your equation E=MC2 mean to the layman?
Simply, energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared. It demonstrates that a tiny amount of mass is equivalent to a massive amount of energy. The German scientists Hahn and Strassman used this theory to split the atom in 1938.
You were very much anti-war, weren’t you?
Absolutely. I had co-written a book with Sigmund Freud in 1933 entitled Why War? Indeed, after atomic bombs had caused the awful devastation and loss of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wanted international control of all atomic weapons.
It is reported that you were offered the presidency of the newly created state of Israel?
Yes, Ben-Gurion offered it to me in 1952 after Chaim Weizmann’s death. I was very moved by the offer but it wasn’t really for me. I didn’t have the natural aptitude for it. Anyway, politics are for the present and equations are for eternity. I was better suited for them.
You continued your work for world peace towards the end of your life, didn’t you?
Yes, and I also spent quite a lot of time sailing and playing my violin.
What would be your advice to parents who wish their children to be intelligent?
I have said before - and it is worth repeating - that if you wish your children to be intelligent you should read them fairy tales. And if you wish them to be more intelligent you should read them more fairy tales.
At the end of your life when you were offered surgery, it is said you declined because you felt it was tasteless to prolong life artificially?
Yes. I had trouble with my aorta around 1948 and it was surgically reinforced at the time. By 1955 I was experiencing internal bleeding because it had ruptured, but I felt it was time to go and I had done my share. I wanted to go elegantly. So I went on 18 April 1955 at the age of 76.
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