At the dawn of the annus mirabilis, Einstein was married to a Christian schoolmate, held a Swiss passport that labeled him konfessionslos (without religious denomination), and was famously underemployed as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Religion was a thoroughly irrelevant part of his life; the traditional academic environment was a fast-fading memory; and, at work, he had yet to scratch the surface of his intellectual capacity. Separated from any mainstream community or meaningful outlet for his creativity, Einstein developed his great theories of that miraculous year almost completely on his own.

Ironically, his lot in life was due, in part, to the very skepticism and stubbornness that helped make him the scientist he was. While Einstein gravitated toward the cutting edge of physics, his professors had wanted to focus on the tried and true theories of the past. Choosing to reject the "authoritative" view, Einstein studied on his own time and alienated his college professor Heinrich Friedrich Weber in the process. "You are a smart boy, Einstein, a very smart boy," Weber once told him. "But you have one great fault: You do not let yourself be told anything." He estranged Weber to such a degree that Einstein couldn't get a decent job recommendation after college.

Still, Einstein managed to produce three Nobel Prize-caliber theories in 1905, each of which bucked tradition in its own way. He published a total of five papers that year, introducing three different concepts. The first, presented in two papers, offered a method of measuring the discrete size of atoms and predicting how they'd move, despite the randomness of Brownian motion. While most scientists already believed that atoms were the fundamental building blocks of the universe, Einstein's paper, which practically offered a hands-on way to quantify them, is credited with quieting the naysayers once and for all. The second theory, an explanation of the photoelectric effect, was the product of an experiment that aimed light at metal plates to induce electricity. The amount of energy that came out the other side was inconsistent with what a wave should have produced, but Einstein found the results made sense if he postulated instead that light came in discrete energy packets, now known as "photons." With this theory, Einstein himself thought he was pushing the envelope, writing to his friend Conrad Habicht that his paper on this topic was going to be "very revolutionary." Finally, there was the special theory of relativity, which showed that while the speed of light may be absolute, time and space contracted. An adjunct to this idea, explained in a paper just two pages long, introduced the equation E = mc², which stated that energy and mass were two sides of the same coin.


What is interesting about these three theories is not just that Einstein overturned convention to reinterpret the nature of matter, light, time, and space-it's also that he didn't hesitate to publish, within his own work, what seemed like contradictions. The photoelectric effect turned the concept of light on its head, describing streaming billiard balls of energy, as opposed to the lovely wave everyone accepted. But in formulating special relativity, Einstein happily used that wave theory, beginning with Maxwell's original formulas. In one paper, the assumption that light was made of particles-light "quanta," as Einstein originally called them-successfully solved a problem, so Einstein used it; in the other, that hypothesis wasn't needed and therefore wasn't mentioned. The theories were presented to the public within months of each other, and Einstein believed firmly in the correctness of both. He never apologized for what anyone could see was a contradiction. Einstein's problem, after all, was never with contradictions-it was with accepting that which wasn't solidly grounded in reasonable assumptions.

Satisfactorily interpreting the contradiction, however, would take much of the next decade. Many people were content to let Einstein's photon version of light exist merely as a mathematical construct that helped solve the photoelectric puzzle, without believing in it as a physical reality. But Einstein insisted his light quanta truly existed, and not just as a pretty, theoretical model. Experiments soon proved him right, but they also introduced a fantastic problem: Experiments designed to show light was a wave consistently showed it was a wave, while those meant to show light was made of particles did indeed show it to be made of particles. It wasn't long before the entire physics community accepted what Einstein had instinctively recognized from the beginning: Both facts were true. Light is simultaneously a wave and a set of particles, and it's perfectly acceptable to conceptualize it as whichever one is more useful for the task at hand.

At the same time the world was coming to terms with the schizophrenic nature of light, Einstein was reconsidering his views on Judaism. After spending so much time ignoring his religion, he suddenly found he could no longer remain detached. When he moved to Czechoslovakia in 1911 to take a job at the University of Prague, the Austro- Hungarian Empire required all of its residents to be identified with a defined religion. In a letter to his friend Heinrich Zangger, Einstein explained how, "Dressed in a most picturesque uniform, I took the solemn oath of office in front of the Viceroy of Bohemia yesterday, putting to use my Jewish `faith,' which I put on again for this purpose. It was a comical scene."

But the comical scene quickly ceased to be a joke. In Prague, Einstein learned an important lesson: His Jewish heritage would mark him as different in European eyes, no matter how he perceived himself. The community there was rigidly divided. Christians spent time with Christians; Jews kept to themselves. Not accustomed to being pigeonholed and unable to relate to the observant Jews in the city, Einstein fell in with an intellectual Jewish crowd that included novelist Franz Kafka. The group met regularly at a salon to discuss philosophy and listen to music, and, while not overly religious, his new companions lured Einstein back to what we would now call "cultural Judaism." Later in life, Einstein said that being defined by non-Jews did more to make him a Jew than the Jewish community did. In a letter to Israeli politician Abba Eban, he wrote, "My relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world."

But embracing his heritage did not change Einstein's attitude about organized religion. He saw no contradiction in donning the cloak of Judaism without once again becoming observant- a possibility enabled by the very nature of Judaism, a religion that emphasizes not just memorization, but also analysis and understanding. In Judaism, it isn't enough to learn something by rote; one must find a personal relationship to the ideas and tenets-a mandate that also could be interpreted as tacit permission to pick and choose which parts to embrace.

For Jews in Europe, assimilation was common, as was a stay-quiet-and-bear-it attitude about anti-Semitism, which was certainly on the rise in Germany when Einstein moved back in 1914 to take a job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Perhaps the Prague experience made a difference, perhaps it was his suspicion of authority, or perhaps it was because his fame made him an early target, but Einstein spoke out against the growing anti- Semitism of the country long before others did.

Einstein's deepening relationship with Zionism
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