“YOU are a smart boy,” Albert Einstein’s physics professor told him one day, “but you have one great fault, you do not let yourself to be told anything.”
With such a negative assessment from the influential Professor Weber, it was not surprising that Einstein could not get even a lowly academic post in his alma mater.
In his physics class of five, his grade was in the fourth position and Mileva, his future wife, was the last in class.
Einstein always skipped classes. Luckily for him, he had his classmate Marcel Grossman who lent him his excellent set of notes, and that enabled him to pull through the intermediate exams in October 1898.
Grossman was excellent in mathematics (he became a professor of mathematics later on in life) and he was also the one who helped Einstein in mathematics as he was struggling to formulate the General Theory of Relativity.
Despite Einstein being seen as indolent, Grossman somehow had a good opinion and high regard for him. He took him home one day to meet his rich parents.
“This Einstein,” he told them, “will one day be a very great man,” as told by Manjit Kumar in his book Quantum.
Again it was Grossman who asked his father to pull strings to get a job for Einstein in the Swiss Patent Office.
The senior Grossman knew the director, Friedrich Haller, well. Prior to that, as a helicopter parent, Einstein’s father had taken it upon himself to write to one Professor Ostwald, pleading him to offer his son a job: “I can assure you that he is extraordinarily studious and diligent and clings with great love to his science.”
The heartfelt plea did not move Ostward; the letter was left unanswered.
When Einstein later came to know about the matter, he was angry. He felt frustrated and useless.
Ironically, when Einstein later became more famous and on the verge of getting a Nobel Prize, Ostward was among the many who nominated him for the prestigious prize.
With a job as a patent clerk, Einstein did not have to give tuition to high school students in mathematics and physics anymore.
He called himself a “patent slave” and his office “world monastery”. He called the drawer where he kept his manuscripts “Department of Theoretical Physics”. He seemed to have a name for everything.
The patent job to Einstein was an end to the annoying business of starving. His job entailed vetting the many patents, ranging from the so-called “barely variable” to the “fatally flawed”, according to Kumar in his book.
Haller had advised him to go through every patent application with a fine-toothed comb.
Einstein performed his task with aplomb. And he still had time to do work for his self-styled “Department of Theoretical Physics”.
One wonders if Haller knew anything about his “moonlighting”. When there was a vacancy for a higher grade post, Haller asked him to apply.
At this time, Einstein was on a tangent to a more satisfying career path. He did not want to be a patent clerk for life.
He did not disappoint his good friend Grossman. He did become a great man. I wonder how Grossman was so astute to make that prediction.
Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.