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He told them he planned to renounce his German citizenship and take refuge in Switzerland, where he would train to become a physics teacher. His father was horrified, not because Einstein wanted to move to Switzerland, but because his son was clearly obsessed with physics — 'philosophical nonsense', as he called it.
Einstein Senior was a practical man, and he wanted his son to be practical too. Go to Switzerland by all means, but for heaven's sake study a worthwhile subject like engineering! Einstein ignored his father's advice. He knew exactly what he wanted to do. This was not, strictly speaking, a university, because it could not award doctoral degrees. Its primary aim was to train students to become teachers. As a federal establishment, however, it was at least as prestigious as Zurich University, and it had a particularly strong reputation in the sciences.
When he took the entrance examination in September , Einstein passed it with flying colours; his average grade was higher than that of any other candidate that year. The following month he was ready to start his studies.
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At 17, he was at least a year younger than most of the other undergraduates. One might imagine, given that Einstein was finally at an institution of his own choosing, that he would be happy with the quality of the teaching he received. But this was not the case. He was just as critical of the staff of the polytechnic as he had been of his schoolteachers in Munich.
The problem for Einstein was that he had already read more than his teachers about physics.
He knew all about the latest ideas and developments, and he wanted a chance to discuss them in class. He was well aware, for example, that thirty years earlier the work of James Clerk Maxwell had put the subject of electromagnetism on the same rigorous mathematical footing that Newton had applied to classical physics in the seventeenth century.
Yet Maxwell's equations were never mentioned in Einstein's physics lectures. The head of physics at the polytechnic was year-old Heinrich Weber, who taught the same curriculum he had learned as a young man. For Einstein and his fellow students, Weber's lectures were more like lessons in history than science. Weber's correct title, as far as his students were concerned, was 'Herr Professor', but Einstein habitually addressed him as plain 'Herr Weber'.
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This calculated insult did nothing to endear him to the man who would one day need to be called on for employment references. The situation with mathematics was not dissimilar. Einstein liked his mathematics professor, a man named Hermann Minkowski, but felt the topics he taught were almost completely irrelevant. He had loved the mathematics he learnt at school — simple algebra and Euclidean geometry — because the concepts seemed so pure and logical to him; as a budding physicist, he could see how those concepts could be applied to the real world.
But the more advanced mathematics that were taught by Minkowski, things like tensor calculus and higher dimensional spaces, seemed completely pointless. Minkowski later described Einstein as 'a lazy dog who never bothered about mathematics at all'. They were both wrong. Hermann Minkowski is remembered today for a discovery that could have been Einstein's, if only he had paid attention in lectures. When Einstein first developed the theory of special relativity in , he did so using rather convoluted algebra.
Minkowski noticed that Einstein's equations could take a much simpler form if they were expressed in terms of four-dimensional non-Euclidean geometry: 'Minkowski spacetime' as it is now called. Without that insight — and without other mathematical techniques he had dismissed as irrelevant, such as tensor calculus — Einstein would never have gone on to crack the problem of general relativity.
From earliest childhood and throughout his education, Einstein held strong opinions about what was worth learning and what was not. In most cases his judgement seems to have been accurate, at least as far as his chosen career was concerned. But his neglect of higher mathematics was a regrettable exception, as he admitted later in life: 'It was not clear to me as a student that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods. There were ten other physics students in Einstein's year, and one of them was female.
Her name was Mileva Maric. She was from Serbia, which at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Mileva was three years older than Einstein, but they were quickly attracted to each other. She was as passionate about physics as he was and had fought just as hard to get into the polytechnic — one of the few places of higher education that accepted students of both sexes. She was intelligent, rebellious and moody, just like him. Physically, though, she was less impressive. A pen- picture written by another student described her in the following terms: 'very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly.
Einstein and Mileva became close. They skipped classes — both feeling they could learn more effectively on their own — and spent as much time as they could together.
Before long they were talking about marriage. The correspondence between the two became increasingly urgent.