On October 22, 1905, two weeks after he’d sent his father (but not his mother!) the issue of the Annalen der Physik containing his article “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which laid out for the first time the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein received in return a letter not from his father but from his mother, Louise Einstein née Rosenberg, the daughter of a prosperous grain trader from Württemberg, who explained to her son, a little bit bashfully but with a distinct note of reproof, that she, too, was interested in his intellectual life—all the more so because his intellectual life was his life. There is simply no partaking in my son’s life if I cannot partake in his intellectual life, she wrote, such is the nature of my brilliant but pensive son, my inward-oriented, eternally brain-dwelling son! And so, she wrote, even though the article had not been sent to her, she’d snatched it up—“Please do not reproach me for this!”—as soon as his father was finished with it and set about studying it herself. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to make heads or tails of it. Despite her deep, her profoundly deep aching to understand, she wrote, the fact remained that she did not speak the physico-mathematical language in which her husband and son were fluent. “Please, Albert, explain it to me more simply! Put it in terms so simple that even the daughter of a Württemberg corn merchant can understand it!”
The next letter from Einstein’s mother is dated November 9, 1905. (Einstein’s side of the correspondence has been lost.) Louise thanks her son for rendering certain mathematical terms in plain German, but claims that he has still “vastly overestimated [her]! Maxwell, Hertz, magnetic fields, simultaneity? Please, Albert, please, I beg you, make it simpler, simpler. You cannot imagine how desperately I wish to join you and your father in the realm of ideas! Please, make it simple enough for a corn merchant’s daughter.”
In a letter dated November 20, 1905, she wrote: “Clocks, light beams? Simpler, Albert, simpler—corn merchant’s daughter simple.”
December 11, 1905: “Albert, I beg of you: give me relativity for corn merchant’s daughters.”
To the end of her life, Einstein’s mother implored him to put his infamous theory in a form that even she—as she always put it—could understand; by one account, her final words, whispered with great difficulty into his ear, were: “Simpler, Albert, simpler.” Strangely, however, evidence has emerged, in the form of a diary kept by Albert’s sister, Lieserl, to suggest that Louise Einstein understood her son’s ideas far better than she let on. Lieserl reports a scene from Christmas 1907 in which she happened upon her mother explaining her brother’s theory of relativity to their aunt “much more lucidly, much more cogently than Albert himself had ever explained it.” But Louise cut short her explanation the instant her husband and son walked into the room. “He (pointing at my father) and he (pointing at my brother) are frolicking in a Platonic realm of pure ideas,” Louise Einstein told her sister, as Lieserl recorded, “while I am standing in a Württemberg corn field. I’m up to my ears in corn.”
Herself an accomplished pianist, Einstein’s mother notoriously rejected her son’s first wife, Mileva Marić, a Serbian physicist, on the grounds (supposedly) that Mileva was unmusical, but Einstein soon understood this to mean that she was unJewish. His mother, despite being an extremely assimilated and practically atheistic Jew, would protest: “She grew up in an unmusical household,” by which she meant of course an unJewish (Eastern Orthodox) household. Or she would say: “Look at her face. There is not an ounce of musicality in it.” Or: “She possesses an unmusical nose.” Or: “Her father is an unmusical person. Her mother is a totally unmusical person. Just look at their faces and noses. They do not believe in the piano.” Mortified by his mother’s provincialism, Einstein let Mileva continue to believe that the objection truly was to her unfamiliarity with music, so she, desperate for Louise’s approval, embarked in secret on singing lessons from a renowned soprano in Zurich. During their next visit to Einstein’s parents, when Louise sat down at the piano and Einstein picked up his violin and they launched, as always, into Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen,” Mileva leapt to her feet and, to their utter astonishment, sang the entire song with perfect pitch and remarkable passion. When the song ended Einstein’s mother rose from the piano bench and embraced her. “My child!” she cried, as Einstein’s eyes glistened. But that same evening she yanked her son aside and hissed with a strange new ferocity: “That singing Christian will destroy your life.”
Huge Misshapen Head
According to Einstein family lore, Einstein’s mother recoiled in horror from what she described as her newborn son’s “huge misshapen head” the moment Albert was placed in her arms on March 14, 1879, at the family residence in Ulm. A series of neurologists were summoned, first from Ulm, then from Stuttgart, then from Munich, and finally from as far as Berlin. Not one of them, however, saw anything out of the ordinary about the size or shape of little Einstein’s head.
“Madam,” each told her, “the cranium of the infant is always proportionally—”
“Am I going mad?” she would cry, gazing at the heavens. “I must be going mad! May I show you precisely where his head is misshapen, and where it is huge?”
“Of course, Madam.”
She would indicate the front of Albert’s head, then the back, then the right side, then the left side, and then all around the top, and then all around everywhere. “It is misshapen here, here, here, here, all around here, and all around here.” Then she would indicate the same places once again, in the same order. “And it is huge here, here, here, here, all around here, and all around here.”
In the evenings, after the latest doctor had left, while she wept over Albert’s crib, her husband would try to comfort her. “You see it, Hermann, don’t you?” she would say, smothering Albert’s head in kisses. “The hugeness? The misshapeness?”
“It is perhaps a little big,” he would say, “perhaps a little uneven.”
“Is it too much to say Hermann that we have generated a being who must now go through life with a horrible problematical gourd for a head?” And then, according to lore, a prediction: “A head that will produce no thoughts!”
This last line is trotted out for comic effect in every single biography churned out by the Einstein Industry—a flourishing homegrown American industry whose current CEO is Walter Isaacson and whose aim, of course, is to mollify and motivate the American worker—the cheerful implication being that the brilliant physicist would go on to prove his mother’s prophecy ludicrously inaccurate. The truth is much sadder. Einstein’s mother remained convinced for the rest of her life that her son’s head, for which she felt a crushing amount of guilt, was self-evidently huge and plainly misshapen, and that it produced no thoughts, only theories. To her sister, after the photoelectric effect paper: “Poor Albert has come up with some sort of physical theory. A theory, unfortunately: not a thought.” After the paper on Brownian motion: “Another theory has fallen out of our poor son’s huge and horribly deformed head. Is it wrong of me to hold out hope that he might one day produce a thought? I cannot even speak to Hermann about this anymore.” After special relativity: “Some days I think I have gone mad with bottomless love and bottomless hope and bottomless guilt, awaiting the day our adorable Albert, whose problems are no fault of his own, communicates a thought to us, or to anyone. Meanwhile another theory has fallen out of his gourd.” A decade later, after general relativity: “If Hermann were still with us, he would say, Louise, that is a thought! That is a thought! That is a thought! That is a thought! Alas, it is a theory.”
Einstein’s second wife, Elsa Löwenthal, recalls in her memoirs that a moment before he went on stage in Stockholm to receive the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, his by then very frail mother approached him holding a comb in her by then extremely arthritic hands. “There is nothing we can do about your head, Albert,” she said, kissing that head. “There is nothing I or anyone with the exception perhaps of God can do about your great big darling deformed head. But there is something we can do about your hair.”
If and Only If
A few years later, while withering away from abdominal cancer in the Sanatorium Rosenau, Einstein’s mother sent word to her son—who was then in Berlin attempting not very successfully to determine, through the most intense possible contemplation of his ten general relativity equations, whether the cosmos was temporally infinite and spatially finite, temporally finite and spatially infinite, temporally and spatially finite, or temporally and spatially infinite, contemplation that required, as Löwenthal later recalled in her memoirs, and as his children would later recall as well, vast quantities of utter household silence—that she wished to be beside him in her final days, to die near him, in his house at Haberlandstrasse 5, perhaps on the trundle bed in his study, but if and only if it wouldn’t interfere with his scientific work. She wouldn’t dream of interfering with his exceptionally important work, she said, that is absolutely the last thing she wanted to do! If it would interfere with his work whatsoever then she’d much prefer to die alone in her strangely spartan room at the Sanatorium Rosenau in the care of these gruff yet probably ultimately well-intentioned nurses. But if—and only if!—her presence wouldn’t interfere with his work, then she had to admit her slight preference would be to be with him in Berlin, perhaps on the trundle bed in his study, in which she would lie extremely quietly, without making a peep, just as Albert after nightmares had once been able to lie between her and Hermann without making a peep, no-peeps being Hermann’s strict condition for his joining them in what was, after all, not his own bed. She had always assured her husband that Albert would not make a peep, and she had always been so proud of Albert when, in fact, he had not made a peep. Now it was her turn to lie in the trundle bed in his study without making a single peep—if, and only if, such an arrangement wouldn’t be detrimental to her son’s intellectual labor. Please be honest, after all I am perfectly comfortable here! She had to admit, she added in a postscript, that she had become afraid of death, and of what, if anything, came after death, and of what it would mean for nothing at all to come after death. She was, she wrote, frightened.
Einstein’s response has, once again, been lost. But Louise Einstein died on May 22, 1924, in Einstein’s house at Haberlandstrasse 5, shortly before he published a major paper concluding that the cosmos was temporally infinite but spatially finite. In later years he would call this paper the greatest scientific blunder of his career.
Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first book, Inherited Disorders: Stories, Parables & Problems, is out this month. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and n+1, among other places. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.