Rupert Baker visits the Einstein House museum in Bern, Switzerland, where Einstein worked on the papers published in his 'miracle year' of 1905.
The newest contribution to my recurring ‘Fellows I met on holiday’ blog strand is a little late this year – I got back from Switzerland in early September to find my colleagues had obligingly grabbed all the weekly slots for the next month or so.
The featured Royal Society Fellow – or, more accurately, Foreign Member – is worth the wait, I hope. With all due respect to previous subjects such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Pennant, scientific reputations don’t come much bigger than that of Albert Einstein, and I was hugely excited to get the chance to visit the apartment in Bern where he lived with his family in his ‘miracle year’ of 1905.
A mea culpa first – nearly everything cultural in Switzerland is closed on Mondays, and as we arrived in Bern late on a Sunday and left for Lausanne on Tuesday morning, I didn’t get to visit (and report on) the Einstein Museum. I should have planned that better – maybe next time. Luckily, though, the Einstein House at number 49 Kramgasse bucks the usual Swiss trend and is open every day, so after coffee in the Einstein-themed café on the ground floor and a look at the commemorative plaque on the wall, we trooped up two narrow flights of stairs and paid our admission fee.
The first thing you notice about the Einstein ‘house’ is that it’s tiny. The reception desk and gift shop are located in what used to be the main bedroom, and the former bathroom and kitchen areas, shared with the apartment at the back of the second floor, are out of bounds. The (excellent) third floor display and film screening rooms were a later add-on to the museum, and would have been occupied by another family in the early 1900s. This just leaves the Einsteins’ living room, shown here with its view over geranium-filled window boxes to the cobbled Kramgasse below, and a small annex with a baby’s cot and a few curios from the life of the great physicist. Yes, of course there’s a tobacco pipe.
Albert Einstein first moved to Bern in early 1902, at the age of 22, to take up the post of assistant examiner at the Swiss Patent Office. He married fellow physicist Mileva MariÄ‡ in January 1903, and when his job was made permanent, the financial security this provided enabled the couple to upgrade to the Kramgasse apartment. Here, Albert turned his attention to completing his doctoral thesis and to working on a series of problems in physics – all in his spare time, fitted around a 48-hour working week at the patent office.
Life got even busier, and the apartment even more crowded, in May 1904. This was when the new occupant of the cot in the living room annex, Hans Albert Einstein, was born. Nonetheless, the physics work continued, bearing bountiful fruit the following year when four papers by Einstein were published in the journal Annalen der Physik, Covering the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2), the papers introduced a whole new perspective on the fundamental concepts of space, time, mass and energy, and the year 1905 has since come to be known as Einstein’s annus mirabilis.
On my return to work after our Swiss holiday, I made a point of going straight to the journal collection in the Royal Society Library stacks, reverently picking the 1905 Annalen der Physik volumes off the shelves and turning to Einstein’s work. My German stretches as far as buying coffee and museum tickets, and the papers are rather beyond me – it’s just good to know they’re there!
Back in Switzerland, we bumped into Einstein one more time, in the bathroom of Charlie Chaplin’s house in Corsier-sur-Vevey overlooking Lac Leman, now open as the Chaplin’s World museum and also well worth a look. The physicist and the ‘Little Tramp’ reportedly became fast friends on Einstein’s trip to the United States in 1930-1931.
And looping right back to Bern, to conclude the story of our visit to 49 Kramgasse, it ended (as these things usually do) with an exit via the gift shop. I left clutching an E = mc2 fridge magnet to add to our home collection, and ask you not to judge me too harshly – there were far tackier souvenirs in the street kiosks outside, as you can see below. I should have bought one for our archives, shouldn’t I?