Today, a red plaque on the building’s facade proudly announces ‘Einstein-haus’. But, in 1905, there would have been nothing to distinguish this tiny flat from all the other similar blocks along Kamgrasse in Bern. Yet, behind the curtains, no ordinary home life was going on.
This is the home in which Einstein came up with his theory of relativity, turning the study of physics upside down. He might have been inspired by a clock just like this one, feverishly written equations on this table, lay down on the sofa when he was in a particularly tough spot, or even taken a break to watch people from his window seat.
The home has some original pieces from Einstein’s years here, as well as period pieces. It really is a tiny place, but the weightiness of what happened here makes a visit well worth it. Knowing that Einstein came up with his phenomenal work in such modest accommodation is also inspiring.
I visited when in Bern for a day, and combined this with the Einstein museum close by. Here things got even more interesting, as the museum is a treasure-trove of Einstein facts and memorabilia. It is housed in this beautiful castle but, inside, glass, mirror paneling and an abundance of light scream modernity. Such a juxtaposition of old and new sets the scene for Einstein, as he drew physics into modern times.
I could wax on about the interesting things I learnt here, but I’ll settle for some random facts instead;
- The back of Einstein’s head was unusually large when he was born, and the doctor had to reassure his mother, Mutti, that it would not affect his development. How could she have known that baby Einstein would actually follow quite an opposite path?
- Many inspirational memes point out that Einstein didn’t perform well in school. But this isn’t true. The widespread mistake stems from differences between the German and Swiss systems. In Germany, 6 was the worst possible mark and 1, the best mark. Whereas in Switzerland, the opposite applied. This is Einstein’s Swiss school leaving certificate.
- Before marrying his first wife, Milerva, the pair had an illegitimate lovechild called Lieserl. Milerva gave birth in secret, at her parents’ home in Serbia. No one else knew about their daughter and her existence only came to light after publication of a few of Einstein’s papers after his death. Although Milerva and Einstein went on to have other children, Leiserl never joined the family and no one knows what happened to her.
- Milerva was an important contributer to Einstein’s work. In fact his lecture notes are written in two hands, his and hers. She was the stronger mathematician, but put her career on hold to support Einstein.
- However fidelity was not Einstein’s forte. He seems to have been quite the player, marrying twice and having several affairs.
- We will never know Einstein’s last words. He died in a Princeton hospital, and spoke to the nurse on duty in German – his mother tongue and the language he felt most at home with, but a language which the nurse did not understand.
Bern is far from a city trapped in an Einstein warp. I visited in Christmas, when beautiful decorations abounded, and a little Christmas market, filled with mulled wine and beers, set the celebratory mood. The cherry on the cake was Bern’s famous Clock Tower (Zytglogge), whose hourly chimes include moving figures.
I also tried to visit the city’s central Bear pit, but the bears were nowhere to be seen. As it was December, they were likely hibernating, which I should have realized before starting the trek. But even scientists have blonde moments! I wonder if Einstein ever did.