Einstein in Prague – Philipp Frank’s Memories

At the occasion of the Einstein-in-Prague centenary the Czech Academy of Sciences organizes an international meeting in Prague, June 25 – 29, 2012: Relativity and Gravitation 100 Years after Einstein in Prague.

In his book Einstein: His Life and Times (Albert Einstein sein Leben und seine Zeit), Philipp Frank tells the story in what way Einstein was brought to Prague. See here

In 1908 Einstein left the Patent office to his first position in the University of Zürich. However, from the financial point of view, the position of an associate professor in the University of Zürich was not very shiny. His income was no larger than it had been at the Patent office, and he had to spend money for things from which he derived no pleasure for life, but which were only required to his position. He would sometimes say jokingly: “In the relativity theory I put well a clock at every point in space, but in reality I find it difficult to set up only one [clock] at one point”. Although Einstein loved the city of Zürich, he did not quite find time to do any decent research in the University of Zürich, because he was occupied with regular teaching, administrative duties, and financial problems. And indeed he was less occupied with gravitation, and concerned himself mainly with heavy administrative and teaching duties.

In Prague there were two universities, one Czech University and the other German University. In the fall of 1910 there occurred a vacancy in the teaching chair of theoretical physics in the German University. The position was offered to Einstein. The background to this appointment was typical in many ways. The decision was formally made by the Kaiser of Austria. He exerted the right to decide to the ministry of education. In the case of Einstein, however, the personal sympathies and antipathies of the Kaiser played a certain role in the decision.

In the ministry of education the man who was in charge of the selection was a physicist by the name Anton Lampa. Lampa’s philosophical Weltanschauung was for the most part influenced by Ernst Mach’s positivistic views, whose student he had been. Mach was the first rector of the German University in Prague. In addition, Lampa had high ambitions, and he tried to appear as a man who cares about ethical ideals, modern education ideas, and he wanted to advance freedom of teaching; but there was a big gap between his high ideals and his real scientific abilities. But it had always been his dream to climb to the realms of the extraordinary and the genius. Lampa knew he was not a genius. He was thus willing to accept the presence of more important people who could follow Mach. When he thought of candidates for the position to follow Mach’s tradition, he had in mind two physicists: Einstein (who never considered himself a genius) and Gustav Jaumann (who did consider himself a genius, an unrecognized or neglected genius). Einstein did not follow Mach’s condemnation of the Atom and his philosophical view in this respect. But he did create his theory of gravitation in Prauge, and he did follow the spirit of Mach, and this was not anticipated by Lampa and others.

At first the candidates were classified on the basis of their achievements. Einstein had greater achievements to his credit than Jaumann, and so Einstein was suggested first and Jaumann second.

When it comes to Einstein, history repeats itself: exactly like the case with Friedrich Adler and the position at the University of Zürich in 1908, Alfred Kleiner already had a candidate for the post – Friedrich Adler, Einstein’s friend from his student days in the Zürich Polytechnic. Kleiner persuaded Adler to accept the position; the faculty in Zürich was not eager to accept Einstein. They accepted Adler first, but finally Einstein got the job. In Prague the same story happened again…

The Ministry of Education first offered the position to the “neglected genius” the Austrian Jaumann. The Austrian government did not like to appoint foreigners and preferred Austrians. Jaumann, however, was too sensitive and his vanity led him to reject the offer. He told the minister, “If you have proposed Einstein before me, and believe that he has greater achievements then I do, then I will have nothing to do with a university that […] ignores the true merit”. The government thus had to overcome its aversion to foreigners and it offered the position to Einstein. Einstein was not so satisfied going to a foreign country, and his wife Mileva did not quite want to leave Zürich, but eventually he accepted the position.

Einstein was thus appointed to the German University of Prague (not a “great university”, as he said to his mother, and certainly not the center of research in physics). Indeed probably the main factor that persuaded Einstein to accept the position was that for the first time in his life he was to have a full professorship with adequate salary.

However, not everything went without any problems. Einstein had to confront his religious status. Imperial Austrian authorities could not accept someone who claimed to be konfessionslos (without religion), which he had signified on his citizenship a decade earlier. Einstein’s friends at the university who had proposed his appointment informed him of this circumstance. In order to avoid the difficulty, Einstein said he was of the Jewish religion, and in the questionnaire that he had to fill out he simply wrote his religion was “of Mosiac faith”, as Jewish was then called in Austria.

Einstein moved to Prague as a full professor in the spring, end of March 1911. Just before that in January 1911 Einstein received an invitation from Hendrik Antoon Lorentz for a lecture in Leyden. Einstein was extremely excited to meet Lorentz for the first time, and he travelled with Mileva to Leiden. Einstein had long conversations with Lorentz after his lecture.

When Einstein arrived in Prague he was certainly unlike the average professor at the German University. He was konfessionslos but became Mosiac, he was married to a slav wife, and was suddenly plunged into a milieu where nationality, race, and religion were burning issues. Einstein was certainly a little extraordinary among the average professors in the German University in Prague. Since he had been preceded by the reputation of being not an ordinary physicist but an extraordinary genius, everyone was curious to meet him.

In Prauge it was a custom for a newly arrived faculty member to visit all his colleagues. At first Einstein was ready to accept the advice of his friends (Lampa and the mathematician Georg Pick) and he had to make some forty visits. He started visiting each colleague and at the same time toured the old city of Prague.

Einstein was known to be cynical and had aversion to anything formal and to ceremonies, he was against the rules of bourgeois life and he preferred bohemian life; on the other hand, there were Einstein’s naturalness and hearty laughter, his friendly and at the same time dreamy look in his eyes; and also childish cheerfulness. Einstein soon began to find the visits rather a nuisance. Einstein felt that he wasted his time on boring conversations about trivial matters, and so he stopped the visits.

The professors whom he had not visited were offended. They thought he was capricious, when the true explanation was that these colleagues lived in urban areas of the city that did not interest Einstein, or their names were too far back in the faculty directory. It was pure coincidence. Instead of wasting time with formalities, in Prague, Einstein came back to work on the problem of gravitation. And this was typical for Einstein.

Einstein wrote his friend from the Patent Office Lucian Chavan in Bern: “I am having a good time here even though life is not so pleasant as in Switzerland. Apart from the fact that I am an alien, there is no water here that one can drink without it being boiled. The population for the most part speaks no German and is strongly anti-German. The students, too, are not so intelligent and industrious as in Switzerland, but I have a fine Institute with a magnificent library”.

Hardly six months after Einstein’s leave from Zürich and his friend and eternal lifesaver Marcal Grossman, through whose father Einstein had obtained the position in Bern, asked Einstein whether he would be interested in a post in the Zürich Polytechnic. Einstein was readily happy to exchange Prague for Zürich: “I am most certainly inclined, in principle, to accept a teaching position in theoretical physics at your Polytechnic”. Pierre Weiss from the Polytechnic approached two very important scientists for recommendations, ones whom Einstein met in the first Solvay congress in Brussels in 1911 – Marie Curie and Henri Poincaré. Lorentz hailed Einstein and so did Planck, and thus Einstein was elected to the office of Professor of theoretical Physics in the Zürich Polytechnic. On February 2nd 1912 Einstein informed Professor Stern, his historian friend from Zürich, “Two days ago (Halleluja!) I was called to the Zürich Polytechnic and have already handed in my official resignation here. Great joy felt by the old people and the two little bears”.

On his leave from Prague Einstein was already a celebrity. Newspapers started with speculations about the reason for his short stay in Prague, sixteen-months. The decline in Austria-Hungary was compared with the situation in Germany. But Einstein was going to Zürich not to Germany. There were also suggestions that because Einstein was a Jew he had been treated badly by the education authorities in Vienna and therefore did not wish to stay in Austria. Einstein sent a letter to the ministry of Vienna saying he had no cause for dissatisfaction in Prague. His decision to leave Prague was due solely to the fact that when he left Zürich he promised that he would be pleased to return there under acceptable conditions.


2 thoughts on “Einstein in Prague – Philipp Frank’s Memories

  1. he quit the patent office and the lectureship to take the position of —physics docent [40] at the University of Zurich.— He became a full professor at Karl-Ferdinand University in Prague in 1911. In 1914, he returned to Germany after being appointed director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (1914–1932) —from the wiki

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