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Where Einstein's genius bloomed Add to ...

Albert Einstein was 22 when he arrived in Bern, Switzerland, in 1902 - unemployed, travelling on foot, and carrying little more than the clothes on his back. Within three years, however, he would become a husband and a father, and - oh, yes - develop a radical new picture of space and time that would change the world forever.

With 2005 marking both the 100th anniversary of the theory of relativity and the 50th anniversary of the scientist's death, Bern is experiencing an influx of Einstein-minded visitors.

Einstein wasn't born here - that honour goes to the southern German city of Ulm, about 270 kilometres away. Nor did he remain in Bern for very long - in less than a decade, with his genius bringing increased fame, academic positions would draw him to Zurich, Prague and Berlin, before the rise of nazism forced him to leave Europe for good.

But it was here in the picturesque Swiss capital that the ambitious young physicist got his first real job - an entry-level position examining patent applications in a government office. And it was here that Einstein had his first great insights into the nature of the universe.

Unlike the modern metropolises of Geneva and Zurich, Bern has kept one foot squarely in the medieval world. In the nearly thousand-year span of Bern's history, the century that has passed since Einstein's time is a mere blip. Arcades line the narrow streets of the Aldstadt, or old city, dotted every few yards with colourful fountains, many of them dating to the 16th century. Visitors who climb the Gothic spire of the city's cathedral - at 100 metres in height, one of the tallest in Switzerland - are rewarded with sweeping views of red-tile roofs, church spires, and the churning, blue waters of the Aare river.

Walking along Bern's cobbled streets, past sculptures and façades that have changed little in the past century, it is easy to imagine Einstein's daily life. We can picture him leaving the patent office, perhaps whistling a Mozart tune, and strolling leisurely to his modest but comfortable home.

That apartment, at Kramgasse 49, stands in the middle of a row of plain, low-rise residential buildings in the heart of the old city, midway between the cathedral and the magnificent 13th-century clock tower. In the autumn of 1903, the young Einstein was earning enough money to rent a suite of third-floor rooms here - a site now designated as Einstein House. It has been a museum since 1979, and since then nearly a quarter-million visitors from more than 150 countries have toured its rooms, restored to reflect the style of the period.

The apartment, reached by a steep, narrow staircase, consisted of just two rooms, though one of them had two large windows looking out onto Kramgasse. (The museum is somewhat larger, having absorbed several adjacent rooms; it is also in the process of expanding into the floor above.) The living room has just a few touches of elegance: stucco ceilings, floral wallpaper and decorative flourishes on the trim atop each wall. The wooden floorboards are still original; Einstein's furniture is long gone, but the museum is constantly acquiring period pieces. A replica of the scientist's stand-up wooden desk from the patent office is on display, along with his doctoral thesis and even his high-school report cards (which show that he wasn't a bad student after all, contrary to popular myth). On the walls are dozens of historical photographs.

There are pictures of Einstein, of course; his wife Mileva Maric, a former classmate from his university days in Zurich; and their two children, Hans Albert and Eduard. There are also photos of his patent office colleague and life-long friend Michele Besso, and the man who helped him land the job, Marcel Grossman. Another photo shows Einstein with two of his closest intellectual partners, Conrad Habicht and Maurice Solovine, with whom he formed a club nicknamed the "Olympic Academy."

All of these young thinkers - his wife and the four men - were invaluable "sounding boards" as Einstein mulled over the physics problems of the day, his thoughts slowly evolving toward the breakthrough of relativity.

The job at the patent office and the move to 49 Kramgasse marked the first real security Einstein had known. It gave him the confidence to finally ask Mileva to marry him, and it was here that their first son, Hans Albert, was born. Einstein's salary - 3,500 francs a year - was not much, but it was enough to cover the rent and the family's most basic needs.

"Einstein was so happy and so proud that he could, for the first time in his young life, rent an apartment like that," says Ruth Aegler, a tour guide at the museum. "Only 60 square metres. That's not much, but for him it was absolutely luxury."

By day, Einstein pored over the hundreds of applications that passed across his desk. But his true passion was not gadgetry but the underlying theory, the machinery of the cosmos itself. In these cramped rooms, he scribbled the formulas that would become the first part of his theory of relativity, known as special relativity.

And he did it largely in a few precious hours of free time each day. "That young man worked eight hours a day, six days a week," Aegler says. "He came home in the evening about 6 o'clock; first he took his baby on his knees, then he took his violin and played for his family, for the children waiting downstairs on the street. And after dinner - and it was always a very modest dinner, because they didn't have much money - his friends came for long discussions, past midnight." And from those discussions - swirling conversations about physics and philosophy, fuelled by cigarettes and Turkish coffee - came the seeds of special relativity.

In his first relativity paper Einstein recognized that the speed of light was a universal constant, while space and time were as flexible as rubber.Few of today's visitors to Einstein House, however, are professional scientists. Instead, they come drawn by Einstein's universal appeal as a man of enormous compassion as well as otherworldly intellect, a kind of secular saint for the scientific age.

 

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