All Roads Lead from Prague

All Roads Lead from Prague
AP Photo/File

Even after his 1905 annus mirrabilis, when he published articles that laid the foundations for a new physics of special relativity, Albert Einstein could not secure an academic position for four years. In 1909, still working at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, he applied for a position of “extraordinary” (non-tenured) professor at the University of Zurich. The search committee placed Einstein second to his classmate, Friedrich Adler, the son of Victor Adler, a native of Prague who led the Austrian Social Democratic Party. The younger Adler recognized Einstein’s greatness. Upon learning that Einstein was placed behind him, he withdrew to dedicate himself to politics and journalism and allow Einstein to get the job. The next year, Einstein was invited to apply for a full, tenured professorship at the German University of Prague.

In his new book Einstein in Bohemia, Michael D. Gordin relays the story. The search committee placed Einstein first, and Gustav Jaumann, a local graduate who was teaching in Brno, second. The committee sent its recommendation to the Education Ministry in Vienna where the Minister, Karl von Stürgkh, reversed the order to appoint Jaumann. Von Stürgkh explained to the Emperor: When Jaumann leaves Brno for Prague, a young Viennese physicist will no doubt take his place in the Technical School in Brno; two German Austrians for the price of one Swiss. Einstein believed the ministerial reversal resulted from anti-Semitism. The issue, though, was not who Einstein was, but who he was not: an Austrian. Jaumann rejected the offer, in any case; apparently it was insufficiently generous. Von Stürgkh had to write to Einstein offering him the job, but requiring that he relinquish his Swiss citizenship to become a Habsburg subject. Einstein ignored the requirement, but had to swear allegiance to the Emperor as a civil servant by a confessional oath. On August 23, 1911, Einstein donned a civil servant’s uniform and swore allegiance as a member of the Mosaic religion.

An historian of science, Gordin challenges the prevailing view of Einstein’s sojourn in Prague (April 1911-July 1912) as a minor intermezzo, between the 1905 Bern Special Theory of Relativity and the 1916 Berlin General Theory. Though largely in an intellectual cul-de-sac, Einstein had some good ideas in Prague. He came to doubt that light speed is constant. He conjectured that if gravity curves light around massive bodies, it may be demonstrated during solar eclipses. Confirmation of his theory had to wait for Eddington’s mission in 1919, which made Einstein an international celebrity and a household name, but Gordin suggests that Einstein’s isolation in Prague gave him the freedom to study gravity, then still a marginal topic in mainstream physics.

Gordin’s book also provides a fascinating depiction of Central Europe’s cast of characters in the early 20th century, proving how the goddess of history kept using them in different roles, as narrative threads intertwine. Einstein’s classmate Friedrich Adler, for instance, went on in 1916 to assassinate von Stürgkh, who had since become Minister-President of Cisleithania, for suppressing parliamentary democracy. Einstein, among others, successfully appealed for Adler to be spared the death penalty.  This is but one example of how the intellectual milieu of Einstein’s Prague—populated by philosophers, politicians, scientists, and writers of all stripes—would influence Central Europe for decades to come.

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