Bern honors famous former resident Einstein and his theories
September 22, 2005
"Does it seem ridiculous to me, this excitement over my theory about which people understand not a word? I am sure that it is the mystery of not understanding that so attracts people … if it has the color and attraction of mystery, people are delighted.”
So said Albert Einstein in a discussion with a journalist in 1921.
Now, to help understand some of those mysteries, the Historisches Museum in Bern is running an exhibit, “Albert Einstein 1879-1955” until April 17. Einstein wrote his special theory of relativity 100 years ago while living in Bern, and the city is celebrating the centennial.
Guided tours in English of the museum exhibit are offered daily at 1:30 p.m. and are included in the price of admission.
Sophie Thompson, a 31-year- old American who graduated from the University of Colorado but now lives in Bern, was my guide. We started our tour in the exhibit section dedicated to Einstein’s life. It includes displays that put his life in the context of world history.
Afterward we went to the section devoted to his work, including an interactive exhibit on the speed of light and a video explaining the theory of relativity in four lessons.
“It will take me six months to understand,” Thompson said. “I hope I will get there.”
There are also exhibits on the photoelectric effect, curved space, deflection of light and more.
At the speed-of-light exhibit, Thompson directed me to get on a bike and pretend I was Einstein who was late for work. An arcaded street of Bern appeared on a giant screen in front of me.
“You must go as fast as you can,” she directed. I pedaled as rapidly as I could and the shapes of the buildings soon blended together in a surrealistic fashion. I almost crashed into a wall. This illustrates that when you approach the speed of light, your vision is distorted, she explained.
Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, and lived with his family in Munich and Northern Italy before moving to Switzerland where he studied physics in Zurich.
While a student at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, he met his future wife, Mileva Maric, also a student.
“Einstein’s grades were in the middle,” said Thompson. “He just made it by. He played around a lot.”
Maric became pregnant and went to Hungary where she gave up the child, a girl whose whereabouts have never been known. She returned to Zurich and the couple married in 1903.
After graduating, Einstein could not find a job as a professor and took a job at the patent office in Bern. During his free time he wrote four papers, including the special theory of relativity in 1905.
During the Bern years, 1902-1909, he and friends founded the Olympia Academy. They met regularly for long discussions on philosophy and physics.
In 1908 Einstein earned a doctorate at the University of Bern. He moved to Zurich and then to Prague for six months, leaving his unhappy wife behind.
He returned to Zurich and teaching, but in 1914 received an offer from Berlin. The couple moved to the German capital, but soon separated. Einstein later married his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal.
Einstein completed his general relativity theory in 1916, and in 1921 was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.
During World War I, he was a pacifist and signed documents renouncing the war. By the ’20s the Nazi party and the persecution of Jews were on the rise. Einstein was a Jew, but did not practice his religion. Nonetheless, as the treatment of Jews worsened, he left Berlin in 1933 and moved to the United States, never to return to Europe.
Einstein became an American citizen and was a professor and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. He died in Princeton in 1955.