Nobel Journeys: Albert Einstein

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Prize Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

Albert Einstein wasn’t at all surprised, at the age of 15, to be summoned to the office of his Greek teacher, Herr Degenhart, at the Luitpold Gymnasium in Munich. Albert was doing quite poorly in Greek. And history. And French. He was only performing well in the subjects he liked – math, science, and literature – those with more abstract ideas that challenged him to think. Albert found the rigid learning style at Luitpold suffocating; and he had no patience for rote memorization of grammatical rules or lists of dates. So he was fully prepared to endure yet another one of Degenhart’s stern reprimands about his grades.

What the teacher actually wanted to discuss came as a surprise.


It was Albert’s attitude. The way he sat in the back row and smirked was unacceptable, Herr Degenhart said. It undermined Herr Degenhart’s authority with Albert’s fellow students and what he was trying to teach them. Albert was disrespectful and disruptive in class – always questioning everything. And if he wasn’t willing to change his attitude immediately, he should consider withdrawing from Luitpold and finding another school.

Albert had a surprise of his own for Herr Degenhart. He dropped out of Gymnasium altogether.

He had been thinking about it for a while. He was very unhappy in Munich. His parents and sister had moved to Milan in Italy earlier that year, so that his father, Hermann, could launch yet another electricity business with his uncle Jakob. Albert was lonely. He was living on his own in a boarding house. Many of his teachers disliked him (an exception was Herr Reuss in literature), chiding him for his arrogance, uncooperativeness, restlessness, and overall disinterest. And he had no friends among his classmates. Everyone thought he was both strange looking – he had an usually large head – and strange acting – he spoke very slowly, and often rehearsed a sentence under his breath before speaking it aloud. (Hence his nickname Biedermeier, or Simple Simon.) It didn’t help that Albert refused to play sports. Nor would he practice marching and drilling for his upcoming mandatory military service at the age of 16. Albert hated the idea of war and guns, and the army embodied everything he disliked about Germanic culture, including its rigid school system: Take orders. Follow the rules. Don’t think. Simply accept whatever you’re told as fact.

The truth was, Albert had been plotting to make his escape from Luitpold several weeks before his meeting with Herr Degenhart. He had already enlisted the help of his family doctor to write a letter stating he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and in need of rest; he’d also gotten his math teacher, Herr Ducrue, to begrudgingly write a letter stating he was sufficiently ahead in that subject that it would do him no harm. So Albert simply submitted these letters to Luitpold’s school board, along with his formal request for an indefinite leave of absence. He bought a one-way train ticket to Milan. And on December 29, 1894, he left Germany with no intention of ever returning.

Needless to say, Albert’s family was quite surprised when he turned up at their doorstep in Milan with all his belongings. But he reassured them that he would one day return to school – after he took a little break from it all.

Albert adored Italy. In fact, one of the first things he did was travel around the country on his own by train, reading and writing as he made his way to whichever destination took his fancy next. He explored ancient ruins, visited museums, and hiked in the Alps. He also enjoyed interacting with the Italian people – the most civilized, in his opinion, he’d ever met – which prompted him to make use of his language skills in shops, cafes, and restaurants. Around this time, Albert began to engage in what he called “thought experiments.” He would also take journeys of the mind during which he would, for example, picture himself traveling along a beam of light – as if on a train – to imagine how it moved through space and time. He often recorded his thoughts.

During his stay in Italy, Albert came to the conclusion that he should not return to high school at all. He should sit the university entrance exams for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ), so that he could focus entirely on his beloved physics and mathematics. When he did just that, he scored brilliantly on those two subjects. Unfortunately, he failed the general part of the exam – languages and history – and was denied entrance. The ETHZ’s principal advised him to brush up on his weak subjects by completing Gymnasium in nearby Aarau, then retake the exam.

Reluctantly, Albert saw the wisdom of returning to school.

Little did he realize his year in Aarau would become one of his fondest memories. Partly this was thanks to the Wintelers – the family with whom he boarded. They were very kind to him, and he fell not-so- secretly in love with their daughter Marie. But Albert also had a great year at school. The Swiss educational system was much more to his taste. The atmosphere was relaxed, and the teachers were less formal. “This school has left an indelible impression on me,” Albert later wrote, “because of its liberal spirit and unaffected thoughtfulness of the teachers, who in no way relied on external authority.” He applied himself to his weakest subject and brought his grades up in every one – except French. Above all, Albert seemed to make friends much more easily by using the social skills he’d developed during his travels around Italy. His fellow classmates actually found him charming – if a little odd – and grew to appreciate his sarcastic wit. And at the end of the year, Albert passed the ETHZ entrance exams with flying colors, scoring 6 out of 6 in physics and math.

By then, Albert Einstein felt so strongly about never wanting to return to Germany – especially to complete military service – that he wrote a letter, with his parents’ help, to the German authorities renouncing his citizenship. His German passport was officially revoked on January 28, 1896. He was still too young to apply for Swiss citizenship, and he found himself officially without a country.

But young Albert did have a dream. He would become a citizen of the world and a globally renowned scientist. He continued to question the accepted facts of science throughout his life. And his journeys of the mind took him all over the universe – as well as through space and time.

Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom.

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