Einstein’s day job

We like to think that our greatest geniuses, especially those who came up with universal theories, operated at a plane removed from a particular cultural (and workaday) context. But in fact, the specifics always seem to play a role.

It turns out that this business of the young Einstein’s immersion in questions of train time and clock accuracy was central to his entire development, and that of his theory. I doubt I am particularly unique in long having imagined Einstein’s day job at the Swiss patent office as something akin to Kafka’s, around the same time, in the railway (!) insurance bureaucracy over in Prague: mindless drudge work, something to help pay the bills while the real work of genius transpired late at night and around the margins. It turns out, though, that the central focus of Einstein’s work there at the patent office in Bern around the golden year of 1905-06 (perhaps not surprisingly so, Switzerland after all being famous for being the world’s center for clockmaking) were applications having to do with devices capable of ever more accurate timekeeping. … [W]hat with his job at the patent office, the young Einstein may have been the world authority on cutting-edge practice and thinking in these regards. He would have been thinking about simultaneity all day long: and at night he just kept on thinking.

from “Magritte Standard Time,” by Lawrence Weschler, The New Yorker, 16 November 1992 :: collected in Weschler’s Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences, McSweeney’s Books, 2007

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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