You've probably seen it before on coffee mugs, crocheted pillows, or personal journals. It's one of Albert Einstein's most famous quotes: "I have no special talent, but am only passionately curious."
Einstein wrote this self-effacing description on March 11, 1952 in a letter—seen below—to his biographer Carl Seelig. (The original German: Ich habe keine besondere Begabung, sondern bin nur leidenschaftlich neugierig.) The letter is one of some 200 priceless documents of Einstein's that are held in the library archives at ETH Zurich, the university where the scientist got his undergraduate degree in 1900.
As was directed in his will, Einstein's papers went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which holds tens of thousands of his documents. In conjunction with Caltech and Princeton University, Einstein's professional home for 20 years, Hebrew University has made some of these documents searchable (and some viewable) online.
The collection at ETH Zurich is composed of letters and postcards he wrote to friends and colleagues, which were either donated or acquired from private collections, along with university papers associated with his days as a student and teacher there. These papers give us an intimate look at some seminal moments of his famed life long before he became fixed in the public mind as a wild-haired genius.
Mental Floss got to see some of these documents firsthand at the ETH Zurich Library. They're almost never on display, but are kept in a vault under lock and key. You can, however, see much of the collection online.
We've chosen six documents to highlight. For insight about each, we spoke to Michael Gasser, the library's director of archives.
1. EINSTEIN GETS PERMISSION TO TAKE AN EXAM HE'S NOT QUALIFIED FOR … AND FAILS.
When Einstein was 16, his family moved from Munich, Germany to Milan, Italy to start a business, and he dropped out of school. "He was just living in Milan for a year," Gasser says. "He didn't go to school there, he studied at home."
He then decided he wanted to go to college at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich—now known as ETH Zurich. But he wasn't 18 and lacked a diploma; both were required by the university. A well-connected friend of the Einstein family, a banker named Gustav Maier, wrote a letter on his behalf to Albin Herzog, the university director, asking that Herzog let Einstein, whom Maier called a wunderkind, take the entrance exam anyway. His plea worked: In the September 25, 1985 reply to Maier, above, Herzog writes that despite his misgivings about a wunderkind, Einstein can take the exam.
Einstein picked up his pencil in October 1895—and failed. He did fine on the mathematics and natural sciences sections but was deemed "insufficient" on language and history. Back to high school Einstein went. He got his diploma a year later at a school in Aargau, near Zurich. There was one upside: While Einstein was still in high school, Friedrich Weber, a physics professor at the university, let Einstein attend his lectures.
2. EINSTEIN IS A NO-SHOW AT ONE OF HIS CLASSES … AND BOMBS IT.
Einstein did eventually get into Polytechnic/ETH Zurich, attending from 1896–1900. He did not impress his professors. "He was a strong-headed student in the sense that he attended some courses and skipped others. He was interested in some subjects and fields—especially [theoretical] physics—that were not taught at ETH Zurich at the time. He preferred to read papers at home," Gasser says. "This is clearly reflected in the student file he has. In his third term, he got the worst mark he could get in Switzerland: a 1, for a course on practical physics, from Jean Pernet. He was reprimanded by the head of the school."
Who wrote that thick black 1, above, is a mystery; Gasser says it likely wasn't Pernet himself but someone in the registrar's office. But whoever marked the grade seems to have had strong feelings about it. "It does look like an angry 1," Gasser says. "It stands out. It's not something you find often in such files."
There's also a remark about Einstein's scholastic habits written in his student file that Gasser says is hard to translate, but it essentially accuses him of "laziness."
3. EINSTEIN GRADUATES … BUT ISN'T OFFERED A JOB.
In Einstein's department, there were five students (above). Of the four who passed the final exams, Einstein had the lowest mark and was the only one who wasn't offered a job as an assistant teacher at ETH Zurich. The fifth student, and only woman, was his girlfriend (later wife) Mileva Maric, who failed.
When it came to cramming for tests, the diffident student Einstein often leaned on the meticulous notes kept by his classmate and close friend Marcel Grossman, who got the second highest exam score. After graduation, as Einstein struggled to find teaching work, Grossman, with the help of his father, hooked him up with a job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern in 1902. Grossman became a renowned mathematician. Einstein turned to his friend again when refining the math of one of his seminal works. "Grossman helped Einstein with some mathematical problems in the General Theory of Relativity," Gasser says.
Grossman died young, in 1936, after a slow and painful deterioration, likely from multiple sclerosis. "It was kind of a sad story," Gasser says. "Einstein kept in touch with some of his friends and former fellow students till the very end. He was a very loyal friend."
4. EINSTEIN PROPOSES "MODIFICATIONS" TO THE CURRENT THEORY OF SPACE-TIME … AND CALLS HIS FRIEND A "FROZEN WHALE."
"This is probably the most famous letter in all of ETH Zurich," Gasser says. It dates to May 15, 1905, when Einstein was employed at the Swiss patent office but in his spare time was plugging away at "very high-level work," including his doctoral thesis for the University of Zurich (which he dedicated to his pal Grossman). This letter is to mathematician Conrad Habicht, a close friend with whom he'd formed a small group called Akademie Olympia that discussed physics and philosophy over food and drink, usually in Einstein's Bern apartment. In the letter, Einstein is in high spirits, teasing Habicht about missing him on Easter, asking for Habicht's dissertation, and mentioning that he is working on four papers.
"Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us that I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege when I break it now with some inconsequential babble. But is this not always the fate of the exalted ones of the world? So what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul, or whatever else I would like to hurl at your head, filled as I am with 70% anger and 30% pity! You have only the latter 30% to thank for my not having sent you a can full of minced onions and garlic after you so cravenly did not show up at Easter.
"But why have you still not sent me your dissertation? Don’t you know that I am one of the 1.5 fellows who would read it with interest and pleasure, you wretched man? I promise you four papers in return. The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary, as you will see if you send me your work first. The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms …
"The third proves that bodies on the order of magnitude 1/1000 mm, suspended in liquids, must already perform an observable random motion that is produced by thermal motion. Such movement of suspended bodies has actually been observed by physiologists who call it Brownian molecular motion. The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is on the electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time."
What Einstein so casually refers to as a "rough draft" featuring a "modification" of the theory of space and time we know by a different name: the Theory of Special Relativity. He also got his Ph.D. in 1905, which would go down in history as Einstein's annus mirabilis, or miracle year.
5. EINSTEIN BECOMES A PROFESSOR … BUT HE'S NOT REALLY INTO TEACHING.
After 1905, Einstein became famous in his field virtually overnight, Gasser says. In 1909, the University of Zurich created a new professorship for theoretical physics, and Einstein was its inaugural professor. Other universities competed for him, including the German University of Prague.
Einstein was a good teacher. When his students at the University of Zurich learned that he was being lured away to Prague, they signed petitions to raise his salary, hoping to keep the rising star. "I think he had a good relationship with his students," Gasser says, but "he didn't want to invest much time in teaching."
After a couple years in Prague, he returned to Zurich in 1912 as a full professor at ETH. Above are some of the course offerings in the math and physics department for the winter term of 1912–1913. Einstein taught analytical mechanics, thermodynamics, and a seminar in physics. "It was seven hours per week," Gasser says. "That was a normal teaching load for the time."
But research remained his main interest. At the time he was working on the problem of gravitation; once again he collaborated with Grossman, now his fellow professor at ETH. This work would eventually play a role in his General Theory of Relativity.
When Berlin's Friedrich Wilhelm University offered him a professorship with no teaching obligations, Einstein couldn't resist, and in 1913 he left Zurich for Germany.
6. EINSTEIN WORKS OUT SOME EQUATIONS … AND MAKES SOME MISTAKES.
In 1915, Einstein published The Formal Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity. One of its earliest and most enthusiastic proponents was a geometry professor and former colleague of Einstein's at ETH Zurich named Hermann Weyl, who sought to express the theory using mathematical formulas different from Einstein's. The letter above, dating to November 23, 1916, is Einstein's take on a lecture Weyl gave in which he proposed these other formulas. Einstein says his ideas are interesting and plays around with the equations. "He’s working out the math as he’s writing," Gasser says. "It’s very technical."
For us non-geniuses, one appeal of this letter lies not in its far-reaching intellect but in its scribbles and crossouts. It's consoling, somehow, to know that even Einstein made mistakes.
That notion wouldn't be lost on him, Gasser says: "He doesn’t describe himself as a solitary genius. He really believed in cooperation and was actively seeking help at some stages. He relied on excellent mathematicians, and this letter really illustrates this."
Two years later, in 1918, Weyl published his seminal work Raum, Zeit, Materie (Space, Time, Matter), which explained general relativity in more elegant mathematical terms than Einstein himself ever had. Einstein was greatly impressed.