Albert threw the letter down on his desk and began pacing. “Fools!"
He was referring to professors Weber and Pernat of the Physics Department at the Polytechnic. They had declined to recommend him for a teaching position now that he had graduated. Albert had sought to locate Professor Meiss who had, at least at first, seemed to understand Albert’s passion for cutting-edge work. But he had become distant and then mysteriously disappeared.
As with most of his education, the general physics classes he took at the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School did not engage Albert. As a result, he had alienated mainly the professors there when he embarked on a course of independent study to learn firsthand from the masters. He wished he could have been taught by his idols, James Clerk Maxwell and Ludwig Boltzmann, the pioneers and founders of the kinetic theory of matter.
Albert had often skipped classes, studied the latest research, and then naively wondered why the school’s faculty turned him down when he sought a referral to teach. The fact was, his professors understood his genius, but would not tolerate his lack of respect for them or the traditional theories of physics that they taught.
After four years of study, by the end of October 1900, Albert was no longer a student, and he was jobless. He had churned out job applications and letters, and by 1901, had a truly impressive stack of rejection postcards. Albert began to wonder if anti-Semitism played a role in his inability to land a job. The jury was out on that.
Nearing desperation, Albert reached out to his school friend Michael Besso, who had wandered around for a while after graduating and then became an engineer in Italy. Of all the people Albert knew, aside from his fiancée, Besso was his closest friend. But, friendship or not, even he could not help.
Feeling thwarted at every turn, a ray of hope came through his former classmate and college friend Michael Grossman, with whom Albert would often ditch class and go to the cafes to debate “real” science. Michael had learned of an opportunity at the Swiss Patent Office. Michael’s father knew the director of there and offered to recommend Albert for the position. Although it was not anything close to what Albert had dreamt of as his first position after graduation, he was now at the point of entertaining any possibility. Albert hoped to hear soon whether he was accepted for the job.
* * *
The sun would not rise for another three hours, but Albert was awake. Dressed in his bathrobe and slippers, he was bleary-eyed from too much coffee and not enough sleep. Anxious about his cash running out and still without a job, he sat at the kitchen table piled high with notebooks that were crammed with math equations. In pursuit of an answer to his life’s predicament, he drew his twelve-jeweled compass from his bathrobe pocket.
As it often did, the compass triggered memories of the day when his father offered him not just a brass direction finder but also awakened him to the quest to discover the unforeseen forces of the universe. Albert brought the compass closer to his heart and closed his eyes. As Arka had taught him, he repeated the blessing to activate the compass.
Almost as soon as he completed the prayer, Albert heard a guitar playing and a man with a Scottish accent singing a Robert Burns poem, “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye.” As the music became more explicit , an image formed. Albert was shocked to see James Clerk Maxwell, who had studied and reported on electricity as early as 1855. Maxwell’s work on electromagnetism, kinetic theory, and thermodynamics won him every scientific honor of his time. His most significant discovery, though, followed his equations for electromagnetism, which were called the second grand unification in physics, following the first from Sir Isaac Newton.
A devout evangelical Presbyterian and elder in the Scottish Church, Maxwell completed his song, then said to Albert, “Aye, boy-o, what you seek is beyond math. What principles of the many disciplines that you have learned have you mastered? The Lord sees the universe in harmony. Find the unity in all.”
As the first light of dawn hit his eyes, Albert was startled awake from his reverie, the compass still gripped securely in his palm. Inspiration struck him like a physical blow, and he exclaimed, “Oh, I understand how to merge my work on capillarity to Boltzmann’s theory of gases!” Albert hurriedly put the compass back in his pocket and started scribbling away in his notebook.
* * *
As it turned out, the senior Grossman’s recommendation did the trick, and Albert was hired at the patent office. While he was relieved to have an income, science was still Albert’s first love. As a patent clerk, he analyzed technical designs and often collaborated with inventors by making recommendations on their experiments. Oddly, since Albert was fresh with contemporary theories and a new approach to step outside the box and formulate a new direction in physics, the Swiss Patent Office became the ideal laboratory for his experiments.
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