Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein

By Abraham Pais | Go to book overview
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Herr Professor Einstein

10a. From Bern to Zürich

Soon after December 1907 Einstein began his academic career.

His first step, then a common one, was to apply for a Privatdozentship. This was not a faculty position and no salary was provided by a university or any other official body. To be Privatdozent meant only to have the right to teach at the university where one was appointed. The only remuneration was a small fee paid by each course attendant. It used to be said often in those times that a university career could be contemplated only if one was independently wealthy or married to a well-to-do person. Neither applied to Einstein. That is perhaps why nothing had come of his earlier intent to seek such a post [E1].

In 1907 he decided nevertheless to apply while retaining his position at the patent office. On June 17 he sent a letter to the cantonal authorities in Bern enclosing copies of his PhD thesis, of seventeen published papers (including, of course, the harvest of 1905), and a curriculum vitae. Several faculty members spoke in favor of the application when the matter came up for discussion.* But rules are rules. For whatever reason, Einstein had omitted to follow the requirement to send along with his application a Habilitationsschrift, a not hitherto published scientific article. Accordingly, the request was denied until such time as Herr Einstein saw fit to produce such a document [F1]. Einstein procrastinated. In January 1908 he wrote to Grossmann, asking him the best way to apply for a vacant high school position: 'Can I visit there to give an oral demonstration of my laudable personality as teacher and citizen? Wouldn't I probably make a bad impression (no Swiss-German, Semitic looks, etc.)? Would it make sense if I were to extol my scientific papers on that occasion?' [E1a]. Perhaps he never applied, perhaps he was rejected. At any rate, early in 1908 he finally produced his Habilitationsschrift and on February 28 a letter was drawn up informing young Doctor Einstein that his application had been accepted and that he had been granted the venta docendi, the right to teach [F2]. Einstein was for the first time a member of the academic community.

His main job at the patent office forced him to lecture at odd hours. In the summer semester of 1908 he taught the kinetic theory of heat on Saturday and

The professor of experimental physics was opposed to the idea, however [E1a].


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Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein
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