6 Priceless Documents That Reveal Key Moments Early in Einstein's Career

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

einstein letter to seelig 1952
ETH Zurich

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.

letter about einstein from hertog to maier
ETH Zurich

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's failing grade
ETH Zurich

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.

einstein's failing grade
ETH Zurich

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."

einstein letter to harbicht
ETH Zurich

"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.

"Dear Habicht,

"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.

classes einstein taught at ETH zurich
ETH Zurich

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.

einstein letter to weyl 1916
ETH Zurich

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. 

Sorry, Plant Parents: Study Shows Houseplants Don’t Improve Air Quality

sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images
sagarmanis/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes accepted wisdom needs a more thorough vetting process. Case in point: If you’ve ever heard that owning plants can improve indoor air quality in your home or office and act as a kind of organic air purifier or cleaner, you may be disappointed to learn that there’s not a whole lot of science to back that theory up. In fact, plants will do virtually nothing for you in that respect.

This botanic bummer comes from Drexel University researchers, who just published a study in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. Examining 30 years of previous findings, Michael Waring, an associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering, found only scant evidence that plants do anything to filter contaminants from indoor air.

Many of these studies were limited, the study says, by unrealistic conditions. Plants would often be placed in a sealed chamber, with a single volatile organic compound (VOC) introduced to contaminate the air inside. While the VOCs decreased over a period of hours or days, Waring found that the studies placed little emphasis on measuring the clean air delivery rate (CADR), or how effectively an air purifier can “clean” the space. When Waring converted the studies' results to CADR, the plants's ability to filter contaminants was much weaker than simply introducing fresh air to disperse VOCs. (Additionally, no one is likely to live in a sealed chamber.)

The notion of plants as natural air filters likely stemmed from a NASA experiment in 1989 which argued that plants could remove certain compounds from the air. As with the other studies, it took place in a sealed environment, which made the results difficult to translate to a real-world environment.

Plants can clean air, but their efficiency is so minimal that Waring believes it would take between 10 and 1000 of them per square meter of floor space to have the same effect as simply opening a window or turning on the HVAC system to create an air exchange. Enjoy all the plants you like for their beauty, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect them to help you breathe any easier.

10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. Marie Curie's parents were teachers.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted that all their children—including their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. Marie Curie had to seek out alternative education for women.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 Maria moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. Marie Curie is the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic: With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person to win the award twice. And she remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. Marie Curie added two elements to the Periodic Table.

The second Nobel Prize Marie Curie received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for ray and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. Nobel Prize-winning ran in Marie Curie's family.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. Marie Curie did her most important work in a shed.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie Curie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea of the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products […] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. Marie Curie offered to donate her medals to the war effort.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. Marie Curie developed a portable X-ray to treat soldiers.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Marie's desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. Marie Curie founded centers for medical research.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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