In many parts of the country March is synonymous with college basketball. In Princeton it’s synonymous with Albert Einstein, whose birthday the town fetes every year with its Pi Day festivities, taking place this year on Saturday, March 14 — the physicist’s 141st birthday.
But Princeton University history professor Michael D. Gordin invites people to examine a period of Einstein’s life before he became Princeton’s most famous resident. His new biography, Einstein in Bohemia, published in February by the Princeton University Press, covers Einstein’s life in Prague in 1911 and 1912.
Gordin will discusses his book at the Princeton Public Library on Wednesday, March 11 at 7 p.m.
For 16 months between 1911 and 1912, Einstein taught theoretical physics at Charles University in Prague, in what was at the time the Bohemia region of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. This region is now part of the Czech Republic. A lot of historians gloss over this brief period, but in his new book, Gordin argues that it was actually an important moment in the trajectory of his life.
He believes that the brief period Einstein spent in Prague made a lasting impact on him. A lot of significant things happened for him during those 16 months: It was the place where his marriage failed, where he first began to think about his Jewish identity, and where he took the first steps towards general relativity. It was also where he formed lasting friendships with novelist Max Brod, Zionist intellectual Hugo Bergmann, physicist Philipp Frank, and other important figures.
Born in Ulm Germany, in 1879, Einstein spent the first few decades of his life moving back and forth between various cities in Switzerland, Italy, and the current Czech Republic (then part of the Austria and Germany), before settling in Princeton in 1933. Many books have been written about how his life was affected by the time he spent in each place.
There are at least five other books titled “Einstein in X Location,” but no one ever thought his brief period in Prague was that important. “He was in the right place at the right time. The circumstances of the interwar period helped him to get so famous,” Gordin says.
In his introduction, Gordin depicts Prague as an “important node” in a number of historic moments before and after Einstein’s time there: in the Middle Ages it was home to an important reform movement in the Catholic Church; and the Thirty Years War started there in 1618 with the defenestration of two emissaries. “A flashpoint of nationalist mobilization in the middle of the nineteenth century, by the dawn of the next it had become one of the most brilliant centers of literature, painting, and architecture, a rival to Paris and Vienna,” he writes.
And for 16 months before World War I, Einstein called Prague home. “There are some reasons why that time period is special,” Gordin says. “It’s the first full professor job he had, the first tenured position that he got was the one in Prague. He got it when he was just over 30 years old. So he was just over 32 when he arrived. That’s really young for a professor in that day. So it’s kind of an extraordinary position to have that job, and also Prague is where he first began in earnest to work on his theory of relativity, which is the thing that’s the most associated with Einstein today.”
Einstein thought Prague was going to be his home for the foreseeable future. He didn’t know that he would leave after only 16 months.
So why haven’t more biographers paid attention to this period of Einstein’s life?
One reason, as Gordin points out, is the simple fact that Einstein’s time in Prague was so brief.
“We have a tendency when we look back at the past and see that someone spent a short period of time in a place, we sort of assume that they knew when they got there, that they were about to leave. Einstein thought Prague was going to be his home for the foreseeable future. He doesn’t know that he’s leaving in 16 months,” says Gordin. “So if we look at his time there that way — I think past historians have just assumed that he was always ready to get out, so they thought it wasn’t important to pay attention to it. But if you look at it from his point of view then, it was a big move to a completely different environment, and so I think that’s a reason to take it seriously.”
In 1912, Einstein was offered a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and he decided to take it. Part of the reason was because his family was not happy living in Prague.
“Another part of the reason was that he always liked Zurich, which is where he moved from, and the job in Zurich wasn’t that good, but he gets a job offer from other places. He tells the Zurich people that, and they’re like, let’s see if we can get you a really good job now. So then they try to hire him back and they succeed.
“So he goes back to Zurich because the family really wanted to, and he decided that there were colleagues there that would be better for him to work with. So that’s really why he leaves, but it’s because an opportunity emerged which hadn’t existed before,” Gordin says.
Gordin is Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts at Princeton University. He specializes in the history of modern science. He has written six other books about the history of atomic weapons, fall of the Soviet Union, and the history of English language use in scientific literature. He lives in Princeton with his wife, Erika Milam, who is also a professor of history at Princeton.
Born in New Jersey, Gordin lived there until the age of four. His parents moved to the U.K. and then to Israel for the next several years because his father, who worked in chemical engineering in the oil industry, had been transferred. He moved back to New Jersey at age 10. His mother taught kindergarten. He is the middle child of three sons.
As a child, Gordin was always interested in science and thought he wanted to be a physicist. “I grew up in a household with a father who was heavily involved in chemistry, and I just was very excited about the sciences,” he says. “But I was also really, really interested in history, and it was the thing I enjoyed reading about the most. And I just assumed that I would do the science thing and the history thing would be a hobby.”
He studied history at Harvard University, assuming he would end up becoming a lawyer or working in business. He realized that his passions of science and history could be a career. “It wasn’t until very late in college that I realized that maybe I should think about becoming a professor so that I can teach and read and research and dedicated myself toward that path. I was sort of very slow to realize that it was possible.”
Harvard has an entire department devoted to the history of science. “A lot of other people who work on the history of science come from history departments where they are much bigger departments where there is just a specialist or two in them who talk about the atomic bomb or Darwin or genetics, and I had the benefit of studying with a bunch of people who kind of only focused on the sciences,” Gordin says. “When I got to college and I heard that it was possible to do the history, but of science topics, which I had never even thought of before; that kind of opened up a whole new way of being. So I got interested. The fundamental interest was an interest in how we understand the natural world, and I was interested in how that changed over time. I’m not a scientist, so I can’t do the science stuff, but I spend a lot of time thinking and reading and engaging with their work, but from a historical point of view.”
He earned both an undergraduate and a graduate degree in the history of science at Harvard. He says it’s a “small academic field and there are very few places that grant PhDs in the history of science.”
Gordin enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages. Since he started teaching at Princeton in 2003, he has taken many sabbaticals to further his research and has traveled extensively. “I especially like traveling to places outside of where English is so I can learn new languages or see different kinds of cultures,” he says. He says he speaks German, Russian, French, Spanish, Czech, and Esperanto, pretty well. He also knows some Hebrew.
a lot of Einstein material hasn’t been translated. The amount of Einstein material that is translated into English is actually quite small.
Another reason people haven’t paid much attention to Einstein’s stint in Prague is because of a language barrier. Some of the material about him from that time is in Czech. Very few non Czechs know how to read the language, and almost no historians of science who work on Einstein know how to read it. Einstein spoke and wrote in several languages, but not Czech. “His German was perfect. His French and his English were both weak, and that was about it. So people who work on Einstein know those languages, and they stop there,” Gordin says.
The Czech language is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers. “The grammar has some quite intricate rules, and those, when you’re slowed down and reading, are not a problem, but sometimes in a fast conversation it’s hard to follow,” he says. The language uses the Western alphabet, but with accents and a v-shaped symbol called a hacek over many letters.
Another reason the language is difficult is because of how consonants are stressed. Czech gets by with fewer vowels than English, German, or Russian. Many words contain consonant clusters that can be confusing for non-native speakers. “A famous example of this is the word for throat is krk. And the word for finger is prst. That’s quite hard to hear when it comes fast,” he says.
Translating historical documents is a lot of work. Much of the information on Einstein is in German, and researchers don’t always feel the need to put in the effort. “People who know German and English aren’t interested in translating because they can read the German. I think it’s just also that there’s a huge amount of stuff out there, and people have to decide what they’re going to focus on.” Knowing so many languages put Gordin in a unique position to be able to do the work.
“Ever since I found out a long time ago from a biography of Einstein that he spent some time in Prague, I always thought, ‘that’s weird. I wonder what that was like.’ And I always thought there would be books about this but there aren’t. There’s only one or two articles. There’s only one article in English. There’s only one or two articles outside of English and that’s it.” Gordin spent a lot of time studying Czech to be able to do research this book. “I started out as someone who worked on Russia, and if you know Russian it helps you in learning Czech. Czech is in many ways kind of more complicated. It’s different. It’s kind of like if you know Italian you could probably figure out some stuff with Spanish. It gives you a leg up,” he says.
There’s a lot of Einstein material that hasn’t been translated. Most of it is in German. The amount of Einstein material that is translated into English is actually quite small. Even for Einstein, which means that for everybody else, it’s even smaller.
Gordin traveled to Germany and the Czech Republic to gather material several times, most recently in September of 2019. His longest trip took place in 2015. Certain Einstein documents, specifically related to Prague, can only be found there. “The stuff that’s related to Einstein is in Einstein’s archive, which exists in two places. It’s in Jerusalem, but copies of a lot of it are in Princeton. So it’s possible to do a lot of the research in Princeton’s library,” he says.
Much of the Czech language material Gordin was interested in were administrative records from Charles University. This includes information about the courses that Einstein taught, his hiring, and his leaving. There are also people Einstein met in Prague whose papers happen to only be in Europe. Those documents were not in Einstein’s papers because he didn’t have access to them. “When he was teaching in Prague, not only was it a city that was bilingual, he was teaching at a German language university in Prague. But the entire city was in Austria because the Austrian Empire was ruling. So some of the material is in Vienna and some of the material is in Prague,” Gordin says.
Personal correspondence is also one of Gordin’s favorite sources. “It’s one of my favorite ways of finding out about people. In an age before email this is just how people did things. They just wrote long letters to each other all the time. And those long letters are really revealing,” he says.
Most of the material in the book was translated from German. “There’s lots of the German stuff that’s not translated. Or if it is translated, I think it’s translated badly, so I redid it,” Gordin says. “I would say about 80 percent of the sources in the book are German. About another 10 percent are Czech. And those have to do with newspaper accounts of his time there and quite interestingly a couple of his students who had taken classes with him in 1911 and 1912, in the 1960s and ‘70s, Czech historians found them and interviewed them,” he says. Those interviews are only available in Czech.
“And then there’s a lot of sources by other historians. So you need to follow kind of all those different strands,” he says. Most of the material in the book is in German because when Einstein was in Prague, the city was bilingual. It was German and Czech speaking. It’s not until really after World War II that the German population in what is now the Czech Republic was expelled and the city became basically only Czech speaking. And a lot of the book is about that too, about how Prague was both a German city and a Czech city and how that changes over time,” says Gordin.
One goal of the book is to challenge the common perception of Einstein. “People usually, when they have an image of Einstein, they have an image of old Einstein who has crazy hair and who isn’t wearing socks and looks kind of disheveled like the absent-minded professor. That’s just not what he looked like in Europe. He used to wear suits. They were perfectly well done. He didn’t wear mismatched socks. He looked a lot more conventional up until the late 1920s-early 1930s,” Gordin says.
“This image is why people think of him as a bohemian, by that meaning of the term, but when he was actually living in Bohemia, he wasn’t very bohemian,” Gordin says. “A lot of Czechs don’t like that term ‘bohemian’ because they live in Bohemia, but most Czechs aren’t like that. So the image of bohemianness, like slovenly and freewheeling and so on, is not a very good description of actual Bohemia – or a good description of Einstein when he lived there.”
In fact, the term bohemian, in this sense, isn’t even related to the people of Bohemia. The term bohemianism emerged in France in the early 19th century, when artists and creators began to concentrate in the lower-rent, lower class, Romani neighborhoods. “Bohémien” was a common term for the Romani people of France, who were mistakenly thought to have reached France in the 15th century via Bohemia.
“Some of what you find when you follow him in Prague is not the Einstein that people expected. Like he does different kinds of things and people usually like to conserve their myths. They like to look at them the way they hear them,” Gordin says.