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A universal – and personal – revolution born in Prague, in the beginnings of XX century

As if stirred up by excitement, he was walking all muffled up and at a brisk pace under the zinc spears, the first illuminated windows, and the slow-flowing Vltava, bathed in the bluish light of the early morning.

Behind the window of a comfortable apartment in Smíchov, a darker skinned and motionless woman follows him with her gaze as he drifts away on the still wet pavement of the night. Bitterness enfolds her, for the husband who is as much brilliant as distant and foreign. A painful distancing, with a son still in the swaddle, and all the ambitions of her lifetime sacrificed just to be at his side. She is Mileva Marić, and the man who walks briskly towards the Institute of Theoretical Physics that he is leading, is the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, Albert Einstein. Here is a real episode dated April 1911: it is then that in a still imperial Prague, Einstein lives and works as a professor of physics at the University Karl-Ferdinand, the name of Charles University in those days. He will stay there for sixteen months. A little-known parenthesis, in a life that has been analyzed and talked about in each of its folds. A brief moment, but a decisive one. Some refer to it as a breakthrough period. Back then, as a full professor he was holding regular lessons on mechanics, molecular physics and thermodynamics. But it is precisely in the golden city that Einstein matures decisive aspects of his thought and research: he publishes eleven studies, six of which refer to the theory of general relativity which will be completed a few years later, in 1916. In addition to courses for students and researchers, this genius-to-be holds lectures open to the public in overcrowded halls. In that time, the world of science was already adulating him, knowing his name since few years: as early as 1905 he started traveling and holding lectures all over Europe. The arrival to Prague from the University of Zürich – Switzerland was the cradle of his academic career – what follows is a troubled selection process, several administrative blocks, the aversion of his wife, and eventually the final offer and the transfer.

A new city and a new country that drive him to face new identity issues. In Switzerland, the scientist had always declared himself without religion, non-binary, but the laws and the etiquette of the Austro-Hungarian Empire do not allow such a choice, as a non-religious man could not take an oath of allegiance to the emperor.

Therefore, reluctant and perplexed, Einstein is forced to declare himself of a “mosaic” religion. This was the name of the Jewish faith in the empire. Without wanting to do so, it is precisely in Prague that the scientist faces for the first time the unequivocal creation of an origin that will mark his personal destiny for the rest of his life. A curious and not accidental fact is that Einstein’s Judaism is discovered in a city that created an intimate and ancestral relationship with this culture and community. These still little-known aspects of the scientist’s life are brought to light by a new recently released volume: a book by Michael Gordin, Einstein in Bohemia, published by Princeton University Press. A thorough research, a precise reconstruction of these months that marked the destiny of the relativity man. We know by now that, despite the short time spent in Prague, Albert Einstein found himself immersed in an intellectually lively and effervescent city. This is Prague at the beginning of the century, where an overwhelming minority of German population imposes its cultural and economic dominance on a majority of Czechs. The one in which the town intelligentsia fills the cafes, lounges and theaters with discussions, smoke and music. And for him, who in addition to being a tireless worker appreciated social life and meetings, this environment is a surprise and an opportunity: outside the physics institute, and its excellent library that he praises, Einstein attends the philosophical-literary debates in the salon of the intellectual and writer Bertha Fanta. German-speaking intellectuals were gathering there, a place that included Franz Kafka, Max Brod and the Zionist philosopher and activist Hugo Bergmann among the regulars. Among piano notes, and intense debates, Einstein gains quickly a place of his own. He meets people, makes friends: nothing prevents us to think that he had passionate discussions with the author of the Metamorphosis. We don’t have proofs, but it is highly probable, possible. It is in these circles that Einstein discovers the ideas of Zionism and Freud’s works. As well as in the shining halls of the Cafe Louvre, elegant and airy in its liberty style, a privileged meeting place for the Jewish intellectuals of the time. We also know that during his stay in Prague, Einstein was invited to Brussels to the legendary Solvay Congress in 1911, where he met for the first-time scientists of the caliber of Madame Curie and Poincaré.

However, the brilliance of Einstein’s scientific genius, of his intense Praguian life between lectures, pilgrimages, and salons is inversely proportional to the harmony of his union with his wife Mileva. She doesn’t take part in these social activities and finds herself almost excluded from her husband’s life. During this time, the two spouses are increasingly distant, and it is precisely during this tense situation that Einstein meets his cousin Elsa Einstein, while visiting Berlin, in 1912. A simpler and more reassuring woman than Mileva, whose faded ambition and strong character will be one of the causes of the separation. Something starts building up between Elsa and Albert. Once back in Prague, the professor takes his paper and pen and reveals her his feelings: “I must have someone to love, otherwise life is miserable. And that someone is you”. The scientist’s new love life has its roots under Prague Castle. And when in 1912, Einstein stopped teaching at the German University of Prague for a chair at the Federal Polytechnic School in Zürich, the family situation was on the verge of breaking. Back in Switzerland, in addition to science, Einstein thinks of Elsa: then begins a troubled period that ends up with an inevitable divorce. A new family and professional life begin: Prague with its halls in the physics institute, its salons, and the imaginary loves, is now behind, but remains the sign of a fleeting and intense parenthesis, a strong affection that the scientist will have for this city and country. He will return here after the independence of Czechoslovakia and will always have a special admiration for the first president Tomáš G. Masaryk. Even later on, while he was already a world-renowned scientist, he always carefully followed the troubled fate of Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. Einstein and Prague is the story of an intense and evanescent relationship, a season of crisis in the original meaning of the word: a decisive turn that turns a page and celebrates a new path.

by Edoardo Malvenuti