Friday, March 06, 2020

Einstein in Bohemia: a book

I've been meeting Michael Gordin, a historian of science (Prof at Princeton now) and a former fellow Fellow in the Society of Fellows (I still don't know a good Czech word for a "fellow" in this scholarly context so I jokingly translate it as a "comrade"), thrice a week for three years (we were in the same group of 8). He is a brilliant historian of science with numerous encyclopedias and their unpublished extensions concentrated inside his skull; and a great entertainer – at least for those of us who prefer a deeply intellectual kind of entertainment.

Previously, he wrote about six books, about Mendeleev (I know him as a focused expert on that guy), science before and after English, and other topics.

Weeks ago, he released "Einstein in Bohemia" about the famous physicist's 16-month-long stay in the Czech capital, the third most important city in Austria-Hungary, in 1911-12. Some very positive reviews may be found in Nature, Science, Community News, The Wall Street Journal, and Radio Prague, among other places. Michael is often praised for his amazing prose.



I hope that Michael knows it but Einstein has been to Prague in two periods, 1911-12 and 1922-23. Prague was already the Czechoslovak capital during the second visit. See also my old blog post Einstein liked the city of Prague, not so much the people of Prague.



At any rate, it's probably uncontroversial that the first, 1911-12 stay in Prague was more important because Einstein did most of the crucial things in science before 1916. Some of the reviews describe the book as a surprisingly deep and important story about a land you would never possibly care about, Bohemia, and a city you've never heard of, Prague.

I hope that most readers understand that it's silly. A very large fraction of the important events in the world history took place in Prague or because of other events in Prague – Thirty Years' War, Second World War, NATO, and many more. As far as physics goes, Einstein fully articulated the equivalence principle in Prague and also realized that his ideas led to the gravitational lensing which turned out to be the first truly new and direct experimental test of his theory of gravity. He was a professor at the German University in Prague that was largely separated from the Czech one.

His wife Mileva was miserable there. She may have been underestimated because she was Serbian and she was often left alone. During a trip from Prague to Berlin, Einstein began a relationship with that cousin of his whom he later married. Einstein saw the society of Prague as a caste system in which the Germans were the upper caste, the Jews were in the middle, and the Czech majority was the bottom. The Czechs disliked the German minority, he observed, and the community was half-barbaric but the Czechs were much more harmless than it seemed, he had pointed out. ;-)

But you should check some of the YouTube videos of Prague in 1912, when Einstein was there, to see that almost everyone was so amazingly elegant and rich-looking!



Einstein lived in Lesnická 1215 (do you see his bust there?) which was built in 1910 (a brand new building). The street was called Třebízského then, after a Czech Catholic priest and patriot (foresters trump Catholic priests today, it seems).

The following link is the building in the Viničná (Vineyardish) Street where he had an office – currently a building of the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the Charles University. But the concentration of interesting institutions in this area is huge. 250 meters to the East, you find the building of my Alma Mater, the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of the Charles University (Karlov, the oldest building where the new department was founded in the 1950s). 200 meters to the South, there is Albertov, also a part of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, where the students started the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In the very vicinity of Einstein's building, he could see a maternity hospital (Apolinářská St: a scary neogothic gem resembling Hogwarts in Harry Potter) and a mental asylum (with the Catherine Garden). There are several extra hospitals, Medical School buildings, Botanic Gardens, Emauzy the Monastery, museums of the human race, Earth's history, Czech police, and Antonín Dvořák, and some churches around.

It's close to downtown Prague but it's clearly not a typical area visited by foreign tourists. Correspondingly, the facades are often far from clean there etc.

Albert Einstein had enough room to focus on his thinking although he didn't have too many stimulating colleagues there. He largely avoided interactions with Germans – but also with the Czech intellectuals and with the Jews in the Josefov Jewish suburb. According to the reviews, Gordin discusses his encounters with Franz Kafka (which have no evidence to exist, Michael believes – but Michael, do you know that Max Brod says that on May 24th, 1911, Einstein gave a relativity talk to Fanta's group and Kafka was present? If I were remembering a bit, I could reconstruct that Wednesday talk by my late colleague for you LOL), the prehistory involving Ernst Mach – who had a similar job in Prague as Einstein but a decade or two earlier – and many other things that could persuade you that Prague was an important enough place where "things were happening" although it was often so exactly because important people went there because nothing seemed to be happening there LOL.

No spoilers about the book because I haven't read it yet.

Hat tip: Jorge P.





I am afraid that Michael's brilliant prose could paint Einstein's life in Prague as less lavish than it was. At least the life during next visits. Well, as this article sketches, Einstein didn't stop his famous physical relationships with assorted women.

He dated a young female professor of mathematics, Božena Zaklová, whom he met in 1921 in Prague while she was still a math student (so much for the claim that we didn't allow women to grow in mathematics a century ago). The second guy at the picture above – who was two meters tall and had some dark and Jewish physical characteristics, unlike the rest of his family LOL – is apparently Einstein's biological son, Luděk Zakl. He completed three STEM colleges, including the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of ours, and emigrated to West Germany in 1968. He learned that he was Einstein's son as a mature man – from a daughter of Elsa Einstein from the first marriage (the world is clearly small in these stories LOL). In 1972, when Luděk was 40 (and already a resident of West Germany), he got an official Czechoslovak birth certificate with Elsa Einstein and Albert Einstein as parents.

The story of Luděk Zakl's ancestry is weird indeed and I am not 100% sure whether I understand it correctly. But it seems that on April 14th, 1932, Elsa Einstein and Albert's huge fan, Prof Božena Zaklová, were both giving birth in the aforementioned "U Apolinářů" maternity hospital (this coincidence is strange and unlikely by itself but let me believe it). Elsa's baby survived, Božena's child died (yes, I can imagine that Božena was faking the whole pregnancy, it's my theory). But Elsa and Einstein returned to Germany without a baby while Zaklová brought an alive infant from the maternity hospital. How it's possible? Zaklová just took the baby of Albert Einstein and Elsa Einstein – this exchange of the two infants (a dead one and a survivor) must have been intentional, I believe. Juicy. Elsa Einstein didn't want the baby, an incest scandal, it seems, so for quite some time, she pretended the belly was a tumor full of water. Luděk Zakl was the last known child of Albert Einstein, at least the current state of research into Albert's contrived sexual adventures seems to imply that.

If you learn some Czech, you may watch some 10 hours worth of lectures about Einstein in Prague. Clearly, this hobby became a de facto important job of the group of general relativists in Prague – which is a part-time Albert Einstein cult. Some of those talks responded to the TV series Genius at National Geographic that was aired 2-3 years ago. See also a Prague Post article about Einstein in Prague, with some photographs etc. Café Louvre at the National Avenue was his favorite place to sit. And he was attending Ms Berta Fanta's saloon club at the White Unicorn House at Old Town Square 17 – that's as full-blown Prague downtown as you can get.

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