Adventure in Thought
Modern theoretical physicists like to think of themselves as intellectual explorers, and the greatest of them have indeed discovered new and exotic physical worlds, both microscopic and macroscopic. Travel in these intellectually distant realms has proved hazardous because it takes the explorer far from the world of ordinary experience. Werner Heisenberg, one of the generation of theorists who found the way to the quantum realm, the strangest of all the physical worlds, likened the intellectual expeditions of modern physics to the voyage of Columbus. Heisenberg found Columbus's feat remarkable not because Columbus tried to reach the East by sailing west, nor because he handled his ships masterfully, but because he decided to “leave the known regions of the world and sail westward, far beyond the point from which his provisions could have got him back home again.” The man who ranks above all others as an intellectual Columbus is Albert Einstein. He took such expeditions far beyond “the safe anchorage of established doctrine” into treacherous, uncharted seas. Not only was he a pioneer in the quantum realm; he discovered and explored much of the territory of modern physics.
These great explorations were started, and to a large extent completed, when Einstein was in his twenties and working in a quiet corner of the scientific world, the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. Life in the patent office, as Einstein found it, was a “kind of salvation.” The work was interesting, and not demanding; without the pressures of an academic job, he was free to exploit his marvelous ability “to scent out that which was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things which clutter up the mind and divert it from the essential.”
Einstein had tried to place himself higher professionally, but his prospects after graduating from the Zurich Polytechnic Institute (since 1911 known as the Swiss Technical University or ETH) were not brilliant. He had disliked and opposed most of his formal education. The teachers in his Munich gymnasium said