Mar 10, 2024

Albert Einstein’s Year in Prague

Einstein’s years in Prague are an important milestone in the life of this important researcher and philosopher.

In Prague, Albert Einstein found – according to his own writings – the necessary composure to give the basic thought of the general theory of relativity (1908) a more definite shape.

It was in Prague that Einstein came up with the idea of gravitational lensing, the concept that the pull of stars, planets and other astronomical objects would distort light rays. That idea — tool — is now central to modern astronomy, used to determine, for example, how much dark matter is hovering around clusters of galaxies.

Although Einstein had yet to conjure up a dynamical theory of space-time, it was his prediction of gravitational lensing that would demonstrate the theory’s chops in 1919, when physicist Arthur Eddington and his colleagues measured how light from stars in the Hyades cluster was deflected by the gravitational pull of the Sun during a solar eclipse.

Einstein came to Prague with his family – his wife Mileva and two sons, Hans Albert (7 years) and Eduard (1 year). Einstein was appointed a full professor at the German University where held lectures about mechanics and kinetic heat theory.

A new flat was built for Einstein and his family in Smichov. They lived in Lesnicka 7 at the left bank of the Vltava River. But Einstein spent most of his free time in the salon of Mrs. Bertha Fanta on the Old Town Square where a debating circle met regularly. Famous participants apart from Einstein here were writers Max Brod and Franz Kafka.

A plaque at the White Unicorn commemorates Einstein’s attendance at the Fanta’s literary and philosophy salon on the Old Town Square.

Two personal situations came to a head during the months in Prague. First, Einstein’s marriage to Mileva Marić, which had been strained for several years, continued to deteriorate.

Einstein moved mainly in a German professional environment and a Jewish cultural milieu in Prague. One example of that was his occasional participation in Berta Fanta’s culturally important, weekly salon that drew other prominent German-Jewish intellectuals and writers, such as Max Brod, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Hugo Bergman.

Mileva, a Serbian Catholic, had many friends in the less ethnically charged atmosphere of Zurich and she may have felt out of place in Prague, in part due to tensions between Czechs and Serbians. In any case, there is abundant evidence that Mileva was lonely and unhappy in Prague.

Albert and Mileva formally separated two years after they returned to Zurich, and the marriage ended in a bitter divorce in 1919.

The second situation was that Einstein began to connect more seriously with his Jewish identity. Having turned away from his religious upbringing in his teens, Einstein thought of himself in his Swiss years as someone with no religious affiliation.

But in Prague, he found himself in a rich and vibrant Jewish cultural space that included many prominent figures in the Zionist movement. Einstein never supported the establishment of a Jewish national state in Palestine, but within a few years of leaving Prague, he became a prominent supporter of cultural Zionism, as demonstrated by his 1921 trip to the US to raise money for the establishment of the Hebrew University.

During his 17-month lasting stay in Prague, Einstein wrote 11 scientific works, 5 of them on radiation mathematics and on quantum theory of the solids.

Albert Einstein in Prague

Saying goodbye to Prague

In the middle of the year 1912, Einstein quit his teaching profession at the German University of Prague. This resignation was officially permitted by emperor Franz Joseph I. Einstein received a nomination as a full professor to the Swiss Technical College (ETH) in Zurich.

The whole family, especially Mileva, was pleased about the return to Switzerland. The move from Prague to Zurich was on July 25 in 1912.

Soon afterward, namely at the end of 1913, the great scholar was elected to be a full member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Albert Einstein worked in Berlin from 1914 to 1932 and spent his last years in Princeton (USA).

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