Ask people what Einstein did and they’ll say “Relativity.” (Ask them what relativity is and you’ll get an awkward silence. All most people understand about it is that you’re supposed to know it’s important.)
As Walter Isaacson said in his wonderful biography, Einstein “devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light, helped prove the existence of atoms, explained Brownian motion, upended the concept of space and time, and produced what would become science’s best known equation.”
His work was so impactful that everyone knew he would one day win a Nobel Prize—but he had achieved so much that people weren’t sure for which breathtaking accomplishment he would get it.
When he finally did win the prize in 1921, ironically, he didn’t get it for relativity theory.
And the bulk of the work he was celebrated for he accomplished in one year, 1905, when he was twenty-six years old. (Not bad for a guy who was rejected for military service because he had sweaty feet.)
Unlike Newton, Einstein was charming, committed to social justice, and had a family and children.
But similar to his reclusive predecessor, he lived in a world of ideas, in his own head.
Obviously, he was a genius, but his real superpower was the incredible time and focus he put into his work. Though surrounded by fame, friends, and family, he still lived a life that was often cerebrally detached, the better to explore his ideas.
This obviously paid off in terms of career success. It was a Faustian bargain, though. Einstein did not pay the price. His family did.
Isaacson said, “One of his strengths as a thinker, if not as a parent, was that he had the ability, and the inclination, to tune out all distractions, a category that to him sometimes included his children and family.”
When they demanded his attention, he doubled down on his work. This strained his family to the breaking point. Einstein said, “I treat my wife as an employee whom I cannot fire.”
And this was not merely a barb thrown out in the heat of anger. When his marriage began to break down he presented his wife with a contract that detailed what he expected of her if the relationship was to continue.
You will make sure
that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, you will forego my sitting at home with you;
my going out or traveling with you.
You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
you will stop talking to me if I request it;
you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behavior.
She reluctantly agreed, but unsurprisingly the marriage still fell apart due to his distance and the affairs he carried on with younger women, who did not make emotional demands of him.
While he was an attentive father when his boys were young, as the years passed Einstein would spend more and more time in his head. After his divorce, he saw his children rarely, focusing more on his work.
His son Eduard struggled with mental illness and attempted suicide, eventually dying in a psychiatric hospital. Einstein had not visited him for more than three decades. His other son, Hans Albert, is quoted as saying, “Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me.”
1. Source: Isaacson, Walter. "Einstein." New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007.