Albert Einstein as a graduate student.


Wanted to have a glimpse into the life of Albert Einstein as a graduate student. Since I am in my second year of Phd, thought it would be interesting. Reporting back on what I’ve found.


In January of 1905, he starts writing up his thesis. Incidentally, 6th January is also his second marriage anniversary. The young couple need money to buy a house after Einstein graduates. So he takes up a job at a patent office to earn some side money while he’s writing his dissertation. Which reminds me of a time my friend had to borrow cash while travelling from www.lå in Sweden when she spent too much. Anyway…

A month passes. It’s March now.

He turns 26 on March 14th, 1905. Celebrates his birthday by sending off a paper to a journal called Annalen der Physik. Was the paper related to his thesis? Nop. It was on the photoelectric effect. ( Landmark paper – forms basis of Quantum Mechanics. Awarded Nobel Prize for this in 1921. )

Another busy month passes. He’s super busy between writing his thesis, taking care of his son and working at the patent office.

Ah, but on April 30th, he submits his doctoral dissertation – A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. It describes a new way of counting and determining the size of atoms. (His thesis would be his most cited work)

Whew. Done with PhD. You’d think he would take a break. Nop. It’s his son’s birthday on May 14th. And to celebrate it, he sends off another paper (to the same journal he just published in a month ago – Annalen der Physik). Is the paper anywhere related to his PhD work? Nope. It’s on Brownian motion. (another landmark paper – proves atoms exist – which was still a debated topic at that time.)

Mid-May. Sitting around. He’s pretty much done with his PhD. Published two landmark papers already in two distinct areas of physics. Submitted his thesis. Lo and behold, conceives another idea.

June. (six weeks later) He sends the same journal he’s already published in twice in the last three months (Annalen der Physik) another paper. Again. Not even remotely related to his PhD. It’s his special relativity paper. Interestingly, it has no references to any other publications. (another landmark paper)

July. His doctorate is approved.

August. Sends his thesis to the same journal which has published his seminal work earlier this year.

September. Takes a break. Chills out. Travels to Siberia.

Late September. Back from break. Sends Annalen der Physik his fifth paper for the year where he extends on his special relativity theory. (Landmark paper – contains the now famous E=mc2 concept)

Oct, Nov.  Earns money by tutoring kids.

Dec. He’s back again.  Last paper of the year on Dec 19th,  where extends on his earlier Brownian motion paper.


Dang. It’s May already and I haven’t even done anything. Except grow a year older. Sigh.

It’s amazing to me how in a year of amazing outburst he contributed so much to science and practically changed the world. Apparently this year is now called as the annus mirabilis, or the miracle year.

Found this anecdote. Apparently Einstein’s theory on relativity is so complex, very few understood it at that time. It was rumored only three people in the world understood it. One being Sir Arthur Eddington. During one of Eddington’s lectures he was asked,  “Professor Eddington, you must be one of three persons in the world who understands general relativity.” Eddington paused, unable to answer. When the questioner urged him, “Don’t be modest, Eddington!” Eddington replied “On the contrary, I’m trying to think who the third person is.”


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6 Responses to “Albert Einstein as a graduate student.”

  1. Guest May 9, 2012 at 3:15 am #

    Nice article. The 1905 paper is on Special Relativity and Eddington’s (supposed) comment is with regard to General Relativity which only appeared in 1915. 

    • Saad Bhamla May 9, 2012 at 10:23 am #

      Ah. Thanks for the clarification. 

  2. Aditya May 10, 2012 at 2:41 am #

    Awesome! Very inspirational for me. I really need it at this point. -Aditya (Multi)

    • Saad Bhamla May 10, 2012 at 5:35 pm #

      I’m glad you found it useful multi 🙂 Hope things are well in grad school.

  3. Chandrasekhar May 18, 2012 at 4:44 am #

    Saad: The above article is interesting. I learnt some things that I didn’t know before. [I have more than a dozen Einstein books in my main bookshelf.] The General Theory of Relativity is a better accomplishment than the  miracle year papers, according to some authors. Also, e = mc**2 is the modern version of Einstein’s original equation, if I recall right.

    Of all the Einstein books and articles, I enjoy in particular the ones by the theoretical physicist Jeremy Bernstein. [He is also a mountain climber/adventurer.] When he joined Harvard, he didn’t have much science classes under his belt. His interests were mostly in jazz. He hears the story of only twelve people understanding Einstein. He takes a history of science course to satisfy his curiosity, which leads to a series of events culminating in him ending up as a theoretical physicist. His interactions with (his high school mate) Murray Gell-Mann are interesting too. Gell-Mann’s view on why he could see further than others (a takeoff on Newton’s ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ comment):

    “I can see further because I am surrounded by dwarfs” 🙂

    • Saad Bhamla May 19, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

      Yeah. I’m currently reading two books – Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the beaten track (Feynman’s letters) and Life & Legacy of G.I. Taylor. Reading about these people gives you an insight which one doesn’t usually get from the regular media. 

      I haven’t read anything by Gell-Mann or Jeremy, but i’ll keep an eye out. Thanks for sharing Shaker.