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. 

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

These 8 MasterClass Courses Will Get You Out of Your Netflix Funk

Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Chef Gordon Ramsay is just one of the professionals lending their knowledge to a MasterClass course.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Although binge-watching Netflix is always a great way to kill a few hours, you might want to shake it up and do something a little more substantial with your free time. That’s where MasterClass comes in. A subscription package that features over 80 virtual courses in a wide range of subjects, MasterClass can help you explore exciting new subjects or improve your knowledge in an area you’re already familiar with. And all the classes are taught by highly recognizable experts in their fields, so you can be confident that the lessons you’re learning are solid (that Martin Scorsese probably knows a thing or two about filmmaking, after all).

The courses themselves are broken up into individual lessons that are only around 10 minutes long, so fitting them into your schedule is as easy as becoming a professional chess player (or it will be, once you’ve finished the course). MasterClass is priced at $15 a month for unlimited classes or at $90 per course, and you can sign up here.

So whether you want to become the next great young adult novelist or an expert bartender, MasterClass has something for everyone. Check out a few highlights from the course list.

1. Cooking with Gordon Ramsay

Gordon Ramsay, known for his sharp demeanor and high expectations in the kitchen, is an international chef, restaurateur, and television host who’s nothing short of legendary. And in his MasterClass series, he’ll teach you to become a legend, too. This series features the softer side of Ramsay, who teaches you knife techniques, seasoning tricks, kitchen layout, and much more. And, for anyone ready to level up, he also offers Cooking II: Restaurant Recipes in the Kitchen.

Sign up here.

2. Mixology with Lynnette Marrero & Ryan Chetiyawardana

If you’re ready to become an award-winning bartender—or just make a decent martini at home—look no further than this 17-lesson course with master mixologists Lynnette Marrero and Ryan Chetiyawardana. You’ll not only learn to craft the perfect cocktail, but also how to safely incorporate raw eggs into drinks, make complementary drink “seasonings,” and discover the best liquor to pair with food (who knew that whiskey and blue cheese were a match made in heaven?). A good drink has the power to bring people together, and after this course, you’ll be the go-to guru for any dinner party.

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3. Writing for Young Adults With R.L. Stine

After you’re through with R.L. Stine’s class on writing for young adults, you may just become the next sultan of the Scholastic Book Fair. According to his website, Stine has written over 330 books over the course of his career, and he’s provided thrills and chills to millions of readers with his beloved Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Now, he’ll teach you some of his favorite tricks of the trade, like why you should always start with the ending (so you can focus on fooling your reader for the entire book) and how writing from personal experience makes for a more sincere scare. This masterclass will help you perfect the art of scary storytelling and overcome any fears you might have about putting your own experiences on the page.

Sign up here.

4. Conservation with Dr. Jane Goodall

Dr. Jane Goodall is best known for her groundbreaking work with chimpanzees and gorillas, but she’s more than just a scientist—she’s an environmental activist and conservationist who wants to ensure that animal habitats are preserved for years to come. In this course, Dr. Goodall will share some of the conservation lessons she’s learned as a scientist, identify the central problems facing our planet today, and share effective methods for creating change. As she says, one of the best ways to confront environmental issues is by “telling stories, meeting with people, listening to them, and then finding a way to reach the heart.” This course will show you how.

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5. Chess with Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster and world chess champion, will help you dust off your old chessboard and learn to play the game like it’s an art form. This 29-lesson class starts with the basics and gets more complex the further you get into the course. Using the tactics he’s curated throughout his career, Kasparov will show you how to approach chess with a strategist's mindset, including the basics of openings, interference plans, and endgames. This class even features other “students” so you’re not just studying the techniques, but seeing how they play out in real time, too.

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One of comedy’s greatest names—and one of film’s most beloved actors—is Steve Martin. The star of film classics such as Father of the Bride and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Martin will teach you how to find your comedic voice, develop your persona, and work a crowd so that you’ll never get booed off the stage. And he’ll share his comedic process, which involves more writing and editing than it does practicing in the mirror. This is the perfect class for anyone looking to practice their improv skills or sign up for their first open mic night.

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7. Space Exploration with Chris Hadfield

Make your childhood dreams come true with this course from retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, who’s flown two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station during his 21 years as an astronaut. And in his course, he’ll teach you the intricacies of space exploration, from learning how rockets work to preparing your body for liftoff. Even if you're not planning on leaving the atmosphere (or your couch) anytime soon, this class teaches you what it's like to be an astronaut. And as Hadfield talks about his unique journey to the stars, there's the chance to learn plenty of life and career lessons that you can apply on Earth.

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8. Adventure Photography with Jimmy Chin

Even if your biggest adventure is going on a walk in your local park, award-winning adventure photographer Jimmy Chin (the face behind documentaries such as Free Solo and Meru) will still teach you how to turn your photographs into works of art. Chin’s class acts as part photography course and part adventure guide, teaching you every step from choosing the right location to editing the final product. You’ll learn how to plan shoots, pack the right gear, and even find clients if you want to go professional. Whether you want to make photography a career or just take the perfect photo of your dog at golden hour, this masterclass will get you feeling comfortable behind the camera and bring some more adventure into your everyday life.

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