The Closest Friendships of Albert Einstein

Most biographies of Albert Einstein focus primarily on his work and philosophies, and do not provide much information about his close friendships, especially with Michelle Besso, an engineer, and Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich. The influence these two men had Einstein’s life, both personally and professionally, were profound and lasted throughout his lifetime.

Michele Angelo Besso (Born May 25,1873) was a Swiss/Italian engineer of Jewish/Italian descent. In 1896, Einstein and Besso met at a musical gathering in Zurich. At the time, both were studying electrical engineering there at the Federal Polytechnic Institute. Besso was six years older than Einstein, and they formed the closest relationship of Einstein’s life, as confidant in both his personal life and research. He once called Besso “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They both enjoyed playing the violin, and Einstein respected Besso’s intelligence.

Einstein and his closest friend, Michele Besso

Besso helped to get Einstein a job at the Swiss patent office where he worked. He is also credited with introducing Einstein to the works of Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist and philosopher who is noted for his contributions to physics and the study of shock waves. Mach was a prominent figure in his time for his position on logical positivism, and Einstein was drawn to his ideas through his criticism of Sir Isaac Newton. Mach greatly influenced Einstein’s approach, and later his theory of relativity.

After completing the statistical and light quanta papers in 1905, Einstein finally was able to put his mind fully to the problem of motion, something he had been thinking about for some time. As he later recalled, he “felt a great difficulty to resolve the question… I had wasted time almost a year in fruitless considerations…” Einstein’s turning point, personally and for modern physics, came from Besso, who had helped Einstein get a job at the Swiss patent office. He later related how this unexpected turn had come about in a lecture he gave in Kyoto in 1922. “That was a very beautiful day when I visited him (Besso) and began to talk with him as follows:  ‘I have recently had a question which was difficult for me to understand.  So I came here today to bring with me a battle on the question.’  Trying a lot of discussions with him, I could suddenly comprehend the matter.  Next day I visited him again and said to him without greeting “Thank you.  I’ve completely solved the problem.”

It had become clear to Einstein during his exchange with Besso that the correlation of time at different spatial locations is not absolutely defined, and there must be some form of communication between these locations. This concept, of two dimensions working at the same time (or parallel universes) came to be. Five weeks after his conversation Einstein completed “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which he presented the special theory of relativity.

From his letters to Heinrich Zangger we are able to conclude that Einstein held a great deal of trust in Zangger’s friendship, and sought out his advice on a number of things in his life. “I was originally supposed to become an engineer, but the thought of having to expend my creative energy on things that make practical everyday life even more refined, with a loathsome capital gain as the goal, was unbearable to me.” – 1918. In 1911, Zangger was instrumental in getting Einstein appointed to hold a chair of theoretical physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.  Later he wrote to Zangger, “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.”– May 20,1912.

Zangger, Besso and their families assisted with, and offered to be intermediaries for, Einstein and his first family during their five-year separation (coinciding with World War I) while the family lived in Zurich and Einstein stayed in Berlin. They both participated in decisions as to the care of Einstein’s mother, and he once wrote to Zangger, “My mother has died. . . . We are all completely exhausted. One feels in one’s bones the significance of blood ties.” – March 1920.

The friends both also took care of Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, and sons as they went through malnutrition, economical hard times, and physical and mental health problems. His youngest son, Edmund, was stricken with multiple physical ailments and ultimately was institutionalization for mental problems.

The pair also were support systems for Einstein as he courted his second wife, and cousin, Elsa Einstein, and wrote to his friend Besso, “The solitude and peace of mind are serving me quite well, not the least of which is due to the excellent and truly enjoyable relationship with my cousin; its stability will be guaranteed by the avoidance of marriage.” – February 12, 1915.

Scientific topics remained an important aspect of their exchanges in the following years, with Einstein reporting on progress in his work. Zangger invited Einstein to a conference he was organizing on the concept of probability. They shared their mutual dismay at the ravages of World War I, and addressed Einstein’s interventions on behalf of his friend Friedrich Adler, who was awaiting sentence in Vienna for the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Karl Stürgkh.

Einstein kept his friends informed of his work over the years, and worked with them to help other Jewish scientists get out of Germany prior to and during World War II. From personal accounts released from his family only recently we are able to get to know more about Einstein the man as he shared with his friends his political views, his attacks by other scientists over his theories, and his distaste for the publicity he received.

In 1954, nearly 50 years after their discussion in the patent office, Einstein wrote to Besso: “I consider it quite possible that physics cannot be based on the field principle, i.e., on continuous structures.  In that case, nothing remains of my entire castle in the air, gravitation theory included…”

On March 15, 1955, Michelangelo Besso died at his home in Geneva. In a letter to his friend’s family Einstein wrote, “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion” Einstein died only three weeks later, on April 18, 1955. Zaggner followed in 1957.

This is Ron White, two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker.

 

 

Sources:

Einstein – The Friendship of Three Singular Men, Einstein and His Swiss Friends Besso and Zangger:  http://www.jstor.org/pss/235463

Wikipedia – Michele Besso: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michele_Besso

Einstein – Quotes: http://einstein.biz/quotes

Einstein Paper Projects – http://www.einstein.caltech.edu/vol10_intro.htm

Reflections on Relativity – A Very Beautiful Day: http://www.mathpages.com/rr/s3-08/3-08.htm

Einstein, In His Own Words: ttp://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1211367,00.html

 

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One Response to “The Closest Friendships of Albert Einstein”

  1. […] a stubbornly persistent illusion” was written 3 weeks before his death and months after he’d expressed doubts about his whole life’s work including gravitation “based on the field […]

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