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Regular version of the site

Einstein in Prague: The Genius, The City, and The Time

Interview with Michael Gordin by Jan Surman

Wikimedia Commons

In his new book Michael Gordin, Princeton University Professor and Poletayev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities Chief Research Fellow, deals with Albert Einstein, taking Einstein’s brief period as a professor at the German Charles-Ferdinand-University in Prague (April 1911-July 1912) as a point of departure to discuss Prague, Bohemia, Habsburg intellectual life, and of course Einstein and his work before World War I and then traces of Bohemia in his later life.

When Einstein was in Prague, Charles-Ferdinand-University existed as two parallel institutions, a Czech one and a German one. The cultural conflict was intense, and had an impact also on private lives — Einstein was at the German university, but his wife, Mileva Marić, was Serbian. In the Habsburg Empire, Einstein had to declare as a Jew, which brought about reflections about his identity. Prague resounded also later in his life — be it through his fascination with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, whom Einstein nominated twice for a Nobel Peace Prize, support for scholars emigrating from the country after 1938, to being entwined into recollections of scholars. Gordin’s book is thus not only an inquiry into Einstein and his life, but also into ways his brief period in Prague was remembered and mythologized.

Michael Gordin,
Professor of Princeton University,
Chief Research Fellow
of Poletayev Institute for Theoretical
and Historical Studies in the Humanities

JS: Dear Michael, thank you for finding time to discuss your new book, Einstein in Bohemia, with us. It is, notwithstanding the title, not a history of slightly more than a year in Albert Einstein’s life that he spent in Prague, but covers much more than that. But before we will delve into some of the many topics it covers, I wanted to ask you to summarize it shortly for those who have not read it (yet).

MG: The book is a dual study of Albert Einstein and Prague, starting from the place where the two of them interacted, which are the 16 months that Albert Einstein was a full professor of theoretical physics at the German University in Prague. I start with that interaction, those 16 months, and then look at, in the first three chapters, how he got there; what research he did while he was there (which is principally general relativity); and then at how he lived in the city and why he left. That is a relatively brief period and there are many reasons why most of the Einstein literature skips over this period or treats it very briefly.

The rest of the book looks at the effects that the Prague stay had in many other contexts, either in Prague after Einstein leaves, or in Einstein after he leaves Prague: ways in which his social networks, ideas he had while he was there, contacts and so on, continue to multiply over the rest of his life until he died in 1955 and then, to some degree, beyond. So the book is both about 1911 to 1912 and about 1911 to 1979, the centenary of Einstein's birth, looking at the interactions between this one scientist and the relativity theory associated with him, and the city of Prague as an intellectual and, especially, natural scientific center within the context of Europe at the time.

Myths of Einstein in/and Prague

JS: While reading a book I was very surprised that, basically, the period of Einstein in Prague is as brief in the book as it is in real life and then there's a lot of discussion about the myth of Einstein in Prague because real or imagined happenings from his stay in Bohemia apparently get mentioned over and over, by many people under different circumstances. You discuss the Czech/Soviet philosopher, Arnošt/Ernest Kolman, who wrote in his Die verirrte Generation (1979) that he went to Einstein’s lectures, but mistakes the years, contents of the lectures, etc., which shows that he clearly was not there but wants us to believe that he was.

There are many other examples you mention in your book where Einstein and Prague are coming together in memoirs, or Einstein’s biographies, in a way they could not or did not come together in reality. So, to which extent is this book actually an exercise in the history of science against various versions of writing about the sciences’ past, about how historians of science can deal with myths, which in your example surround Einstein, Prague, and also Einstein in Prague?

MG: That's a great question. The original idea for the book was to be basically what the first three chapters are: a detailed study of Einstein in Prague in a fairly conventional sense. So he arrives, he does the work, and he leaves, while I would look at all of the many details. That proved to be not workable for two main reasons: one, even though Einstein is very well-documented — much better documented than almost any other scientists of his generation or even generations before or since his — we cannot track what he did every single day while he was there. We can do this, I would say, for his Berlin period, where there is a lot more correspondence and there is a much more intensive engagement of Einstein with the public sphere. In the case of Prague there is less of that. So I thought that for the reason of lack of evidence, it will be harder to do.

The second reason is — it is kind of boring to do that story because Einstein does not do a lot while he is in Prague that would be interesting to other people. If I did that, the book would have a lot more details about gravity, but not in the very illuminating way, and more on the circumstances in which Einstein was working while he was in Prague. But then it would not have what I like about the book now, which is that much of the book is about myth and how myth gets perpetuated and a lot of it is also about memory: how people remember things in certain ways which sometimes turn into myth and sometimes do not.

But there are also a lot of stories that are actually adjacent to Einstein and Prague such as the debate about the philosophy of science (chapter 4 of the book) that would appear in neither a myth story nor in a detailed history of science story about Einstein, but is its own interesting history of philosophy of science that is very clearly related to the circumstances of both Prague and Einstein's presence in it, but falls in neither of those categories. So, I think the book starts out being a conventional history, turns towards the end into being more of an exercise in understanding how myths get built and how memories work and, in the middle, is kind of a crossover between the two.

JS: While I am not an Einstein expert, like probably many of us, I was influenced by the idea of Einstein as a pop culture person: always social, friendly, amicable, always laughing, and so on. In the first part of the book, it becomes very obvious that in Prague he is none one of the above, he is not this social person such as we are used to think of him.

MG: He was not a friendly, open, person — the English word I would use is that he was not a gregarious person. He was not warm in the way that people associate with the older Einstein. What you are reacting to is a difference between the younger Einstein and the older Einstein. Much of the physics that people focus on is in the younger period, but that is when he was not very interested in politics and not very open to or visible in popular culture. When he was older, the physics gets much harder to talk about, and is generally not accepted today by scientists. But his popular image is very warm, friendly, etc., all of those things. In the period I am writing about he was not the Einstein people usually think of. So, yes, there is a weird discontinuity between those aspects. But I would not say he is not social, because one thing he did in Prague was to go to the salon run by Berta Fanta and he did that because he wanted to play music and that was something you could only do socially. If you play the violin and you want to hear chamber music, you need other people. So he did have a social network. He was not completely unsocial, but he was not public in the way that the later Einstein, who met with Charlie Chaplin and had a very glamorous public life.

Berta Fanta’s salon was a famous literary and philosophical meeting place, with bi-weekly meetings taking place from around 1907. It is considered one of the most significant places on Prague’s intellectual map before World War I, with famous literati, scholars, and philosophers frequenting it regularly.

JS: At the same time when I was reading your book, I read an article about Einstein and his masculinity, discussing Albert’s alleged joint work with his wife Mileva, and the lack of credit to her in Albert’s writings. The author of the article even said that even for the early twentieth century, the way Einstein treated Mileva was not really that typical. You confirm this also in your book, writing, for instance, that he didn’t take her to many of the social and also private meetings, that she was most of the time at home, etc.

MG: This question of Einstein's relationship to Mileva Marić, his wife of Hungarian-Serbian origin, is a much-discussed issue in the broader press. Historians of science have achieved consensus on this topic a long time ago with a lot of good evidence.

First, she was very promising as a natural scientist and well-educated. She did not, however, complete her exams at the university, yet Einstein was clearly in love with her. She didn't do that well at the end of her education in physics, and she was older than him and she had a limp. These are all things that would make you think that Einstein would not be drawn to her. At first, in their love letters, they talk about how they are going to collaborate and do science together. That never proved to be the case once they are actually married.

That seems to me, typical of a sort of bürgerliche existence at that time period. She was supposed to take care of the family, he was supposed to do the job and there really wasn't much discussion of the science that you can see after that point.

There's a bunch of reasons why I think her sociality in Prague is particularly difficult. There's a newborn baby, who had colic. This younger son Edward was sick a lot, and she was at home dealing with this young family. Secondly, she was Slavic and so he couldn’t take her to visit his professorial colleagues, because she was treated terribly by the wives of the professors — the German professors’ German wives look down on this Slavic woman. I spent some time in the book talking about the way German male and Slavic female is coded in Prague in this period. And she suffered because of that. I think his treatment of her at the time they were in Prague was, probably, roughly typical; his treatment of her later is much much worse.

He handles the divorce in a rather brutal way, which starts in 1914 and ends in 1918. He is very condescending and brutal about what access she has to him and how the divorce would go. Even before starting with the woman who becomes the second Ms. Einstein, he had a number of liaisons and affairs, and he continued to have those throughout the second marriage.

His relationship towards women is not good on a micro-level, on an interpersonal level, towards the women in his life. His entire life was structured around women making his life easier for him. They prepare the house, they take care of the daily things, they let him do his science. And even after his second wife died in 1936, there was a team of women — his wife's daughter from her first marriage, his secretary — who keep him organized.

But his relationship towards female students (he had very few students, some of them women) was very supportive, and his relationship towards the most famous woman in the science of that period, or ever, Marie Skłodowska-Curie, was very strong. He was very supportive of her, even when she is being tarnished in the French press for a love affair she had after she was widowed. So, Einstein's relationship with women is one of the areas where a modern observer looks at that and says, that was not what you'd expect, you'd expect him to be kinder, more gentle, more open. In general, his behavior towards women is not very good.

After the death of Pierre Curie, Marie had a brief affair with physicist Paul Langevin, which, because Marie was 5 years senior and Langevin was married, caused a scandal in the French press.

This is in contrast to his behavior towards, say, African-Americans when he moved to the United States, which was extremely supportive and very engaged in issues of civil rights. So, it is a puzzle with Einstein, how his politics on a kind of external level were very progressive, yet his behavior on an internal level was sometimes very old-fashioned or even reactionary.

JS: And I think also that this idea that he should be better in his private relations to women, comes exactly from this Einstein as a pop figure: the funny grandfather who is riding around on bikes and smiles all the time. Here we have a different moment: there is a time where you pose to the camera, but also we should remember that there is a person who is not captured by the camera and there is the time before you even get in front of the camera.

MG: Right, exactly! And it is before he gets in front of the camera that is really the topic of the book. In the Prague period you don't have much evidence of how he will be when he becomes famous. This happened in 1919, after the discovery of the bending of starlight during an eclipse expedition. That's the thing that makes Einstein famous. Why he became famous is still weird and poorly understood: historians have theories about why it happened, but it has never happened before and it has never happened since. Anyway, while he was in Prague you don’t see that he would actually be very good as a public persona. He photographs very well, he is very photogenic, he can speak in sound bites that work really well in newspapers and on the radio — he has a very good media personality. He would have been great at Twitter and Instagram (property of Meta, which has been recognised as an extremist organisation in Russia). But you don't see evidence of that in the younger Einstein. The older Einstein is famous not just as the warm grandfatherly figure, but he also spoke out prominently for nuclear disarmament, he was a pacifist, he had a lot of political beliefs that we associate with equality and lack of hierarchy and those weren't always in evidence in his personal life.

Writing the history of science of Central Europe

JS: In the book you also reflect a lot about Einstein’s biographies and biographers, how they also have interests in shedding a certain light on him informed by their own experience.

MG: Almost every biography of Einstein is in a sense the child of one particular biography, by Philipp Frank, which I spend a lot of time talking about, who lived in Prague much longer than Einstein did (from 1912 to 1938). Frank was Einstein's successor and, after leaving in 1938 to go on a lecture tour of the United States and then staying abroad because of the Munich agreement and the occupation of Czechoslovakia, he wrote a biography of Einstein. Because he knew Einstein personally, this biography is basically the template of all later biographies. And because he spent so much time in Prague, the part about Prague is the part that everybody leaves the same: they just take his part about Prague and then repeat it, because they assume that “Frank would know.” He knew Einstein and he knew Prague, yet that section of Frank’s biography is very unreliable. The whole biography is unreliable but that part is especially unreliable. And so, all the biographies perpetuate the same mistakes as time goes on without being corrected. 

This is a problem with the Einstein literature in general, in that there are two forms of this literature. There are biographies, which exist in every language, but English and German are the dominant languages for both kinds of literature. And there is this second literature, which consists of specialist studies of individual moments or episodes. These latter works come up with new findings, but they are rarely incorporated into the biographies. So we end up with kind of two kinds of literature: one of which is getting increasingly accurate, detailed, in-depth and the other, which is, in many cases, repetitive and just tells you the biography in the same way over again. The goal is eventually for someone to take all these specialist studies and rethink how to write an Einstein biography. But I don't know who that person will be.

JS: While you say that German and English are dominant in Einstein research, I find it very striking that you quote a lot of Czech literature extensively and it is a kind of, I wouldn’t say correction of the narrative, but an addition to the narrative.

MG: I started learning Czech before I even had this project in mind. I find it stunning that so little attention is given in any history of science to literature that is written in languages that are not the «big ones». And the «big ones» are basically English, French and German in that context. So very little is taken from Russian. Histories of Russian science are sometimes written by people who don’t know the language and so have no idea of what they are leaving out. The same with Prague. Most of the stuff that’s available about Einstein and Pague is by people who don’t read any Czech so all they have are the German sources. My book is also mostly based on German sources, but the Czech material does change what you see. We have interviews, done much later, with former students of Einstein’s who were Czech speakers, who gave interviews in Czech about what the experience was like and I quote some of these. That is completely unknown to the non-Czech-speaking population because no one has bothered to render them into German or English. There are many articles written in the Czech popular literature about Einstein and Prague but they are unknown outside of that language. One of the things I hope to do with the book is to encourage people to expand the base of sources that we can use. Not just primary sources but also the secondary literature, with very good scholarship done by professional historians that needs to be taken account of.

Actually, one of the things that frustrates me most in Einstein literature is that there is an awful lot of very good Einstein's scholarship done in Russian, especially during the Soviet period around the theory of gravity. People in the West don’t know it because they don’t read Russian. Some of that is incorporated into this book in an attempt to make it available.

JS: For me another facet of a decentralising agenda is the way you build your narrative. It is concentrated on Einstein, but at the same time it brings a lot of additional materials about figures and developments which are outside of the main history of science narrative. Readers will learn about scholars as different as Gustav Jaumann, or Arnošt/Ernest Kolman. It starts in the middle of the Habsburg XIXth century with the interesting scholarship happening there, and ends in the 1970s and the interesting scholarship being done in the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia. So basically even if your reader is compelled to read the book because of Einstein, s/he learns a lot about Eastern Europe, about Central Europe, and about the Habsburg Empire. So it is a very globally local monograph.

Gustav Jaumann was an Austrian physicist, working mostly at the Polytechnic in Brno. When Einstein was nominated primo loco by the faculty’s commission, Jaumann was nominated second, but the minister of education and religion changed the order, preferring Jaumann. Finally Jaumann declined the call making the appointment of Einstein possible.

MG: I hoped that effect would come across. I worry people might get frustrated if they think that this book is only about Einstein. There are many places in the book, such as the chapter about German literature, where Einstein is a minor character. Most of the chapters are about somebody else. The chapter about the philosophy of sciences is at least about relativity theory. But it’s not about Einstein. That is a deliberate point that I wanted to stress: that you are not always the main character in your life. It seems that way because you are the one observing everything and so you think you are the main character, but sometimes there are things going on that concern you but that you don’t fully understand. I wanted to try to capture some of that. But of course people are very excited about Einstein. So if I can capture some of these surrounding narratives and get people to learn about them by using Einstein as a gateway into these other stories, I will be very happy. I will be glad to have made that change.

JS: Do you already have reactions, for example, from people who are still claiming that the things that you describe as myths in your books did really happen?

MG: Actually, I’ve gotten a lot of reactions. Most of them have been positive and most of them understood what the book is trying to do. There are some people who are frustrated that there is so little about Einstein in some parts of it. They are people who think I argued that the Prague period was extremely significant for how Einstein develops later. I am not claiming that. I am saying that Einstein’s time in Prague is interesting but not more significant than in Berlin or Zurich or some other places. 

What I am surprised by is that no one has said «I refuse to believe your evidence» when I dismiss certain myths, which are very strong, such as Einstein and Kafka becoming friends. No one has said that yet. And I think the reason for that is that I try to show all the evidence. This is all the material we have. You can interpret it how you like, and I interpret it this particular way. So far no one has told me “I would prefer my myth and I don’t want your correction to it”. I have gotten that reaction about Mendeleev. I’ve had chemists tell me they are not interested in my accurate story and that they prefer the story that they already know. But it’s still early, the book has been out only for a few months. I’m sure people will have views as time moves on.

Einstein in Prague, Einstein and Prague

JS: You mentioned Kafka, one of the figures we nowadays see representing Prague at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a dream of many that Kafka and Einstein had met and discussed for long hours about ideas they had in common. As it turns out, apparently they have met only once, shook hands, spoke a few words.

MG: It would be so wonderful if the two of them actually had a meaningful interaction, so many things that could have come from that. That’s why it is such a tempting myth and keeps appearing again and again and again. In the same way there is a kind of desire connected with Prague. Most people I know who have been in Prague find this city fascinating and charming. They had a good experience in Prague. Not everybody, but most people. The fact that Einstein came and went and did not care seems strange. We expect him to have the same appreciation for the buildings and the history that we have. We expect him to find the same stories interesting that we find and it turns out that’s not true. It would be nicer if it were true, but sometimes history does not provide you any evidence for the nice story.

JS: That’s true. I think the most recurrent statement Einstein makes about Prague while being there is about the terrible taste of water.

MG: Yes, I think it tasted terribly. If you drink it you might get sick, which was something I experienced in the Eastern parts of Europe, constantly being told not to drink the water, to get bottled water. This is a common story. What is interesting for me about Einstein is that he focuses only on those things. He doesn’t focus on things like electric light, which is surprising because Einstein’s father’s business was to electrify towns. So you may think he would be like «oh, how interesting, even though Prague has bad water they have electric lights and electric trams, and Zurich doesn’t». He doesn’t say anything about it. Every time he comments he picks up on the negative.

JS: It is somehow paradoxical that for a person who has such a global life, Einstein actually likes stability. He doesn’t like small changes to his everyday life.

MG: He is the only person I can think of that I know who, looking at Zurich and Prague, always thinks Zurich is better on every level. (Maybe there are Zurichers who do it also.) It is a very interesting and revealing feature of this life. When you consider that he lived a very Berlin-life when he was in Berlin, he was public and open and so on, but when he moves to Princeton, which is a small town, he lived the life here that you would live in a small town. He was adaptable when he was older. In his younger period, he wanted to live in Prague as if he were still in Zurich, and he could not. It is a much bigger city, much more populous, much more dynamic. And he didn’t know how to process that.

JS: I want to focus now a bit more on Prague. It is a big city but it seems that the city is very fragmented. Not only between the Czech and German communities, as the common story has it, but also within the German community. They are exactly as fragmented. You stress, for instance, the importance of small intellectual circles. So the first part of the book is really about Prague and I think it sheds a lot of new information on the city, or a new way of understanding Prague, which I think specialists of Central Europe know, but I suppose that for many scholars in the West it is surprising. For instance, you have two universities with as good as zero contacts between them, you have students on the streets fighting, but at the same time you can live a life outside of these conflicts.

MG: The two universities being split is, I think, unique. The Habsburg Empire went through a series of linguistic and institutional reforms at the end of the 19th century, but the idea of taking a university and instead of just switching its language over, which happens in several of these universities, like Budapest, L’viv and Cracow, to say «no, we will just make two» is fascinating. For 35 years you have side-by-side institutions next to each other, which is really odd and makes the fragmentation so much more noticeable. There are also very important issues related to Jews in the city, which I spent a lot of time on in the book. There are Czech-speaking Jews and German-speaking Jews and there are conflicts based on politics, based on Zionism or Anti-Zionism, etc. In the German community there is a politics based on right-wing or liberal or left-wing views. It is a very diverse environment. Even though it was a big city maybe you have it put it right: It is a series of small cities all on top of each other and people sometimes exist in several of these cities at once.

JS: Probably it is a good lesson for a period after 1918 when there are, I think, universities with four different languages. On top of the Czech and German universities there is a Ukrainian language university, Russian language university and they also apparently don’t have that many contacts.

MG: If you saw my files for this book you would see that I took a great deal of notes about the Russian and Ukrainian emigration (or diaspora) that was in Prague at that time. I just couldn’t find any linkage to Einstein or to the people who knew Einstein. With one exception, when a very anti-Einsteinian philosopher visited the Prague linguistic circle. He had contacts with some of that Russian diaspora: Jacobson, Trubetskoy, and so on. But it’s very surprising to me how that the story, which I really wanted to incorporate, just didn’t work.

JS: When I looked at Prague and tried to understand the communication between scholars at different universities, both before and after the World War I, one of the impressions I had is that people were afraid to write it down that it might be that we don’t have sources because these meetings were hidden. For many reasons people did not want to talk about it, so they didn’t record it.

MG: That’s absolutely possible. Obviously if something is never documented I cannot write it down. There are a couple of memoir sources, though. Gerhard Kowalewski, a mathematician, who lived during 1909-1920 in Prague and ended up in Dresden, wrote a very interesting memoir. He had contacts with Czechs and wrote about them. Once he was gone he was happy to say something. Phillip Frank was happy to say something about his contacts in the 20s and 30s with Czech scientists as well. Einstein wouldn’t have known about any taboo, because he was very bad at picking up on those cues; if he had some contacts he would probably have mentioned it. 

I think if there was a taboo it would probably be on the other side, for Czechs, not wanting to speak about the German contacts. The people I’ve just mentioned — Kowalewski, Phillip Frank, Einstein — were all not “Prague Germans”. They were Germans who came from somewhere else. So they didn’t feel quite the same tension about how to talk about Czech and German interactions. It’s quite possible there are many more interactions that we can’t detect. I am quite sure that there are no Einsteinian interactions that I missed, but there could definitely be connections among others that people were hesitant to document in a variety of ways. You see some elements breaking down later. Jaroslav Heyrovský, a Czech who later won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, had correspondence with Frank and it was quite open. But Heyrovský also got in trouble later for continuing to work in the lab in the university after the Czech university is abolished and the German university under the Nazis was established. So there are many ways in which the extent of the interaction is hard to document with our available evidence. You’ve got a good point that could be very true.

JS: In your book we can see the importance of salons, which are significant and informal meeting places as compared to the university as a social space. But also they are fragmented. Einstein apparently did not know anyone from the Czech University, or am I wrong? 

MG: As far as I can tell, he knew nobody from the Czech University. It is either that he did not know them, or that he met them and neither side cared. This would be kind of like the situation with Franz Kafka in the book: he briefly met Kafka, but he didn’t care and Kafka didn’t care — neither of them remembered it. As a result, there is very little record of anything. There's no documentary evidence of him interacting with any Professor of the Czech University.

JS: While there is no evidence of Einstein having a meaningful interaction with Czech scholars while being in Prague, in the correspondence after he left Prague, he can refer to a common past. He does it, for example, with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, whom he then also proposes twice for the Nobel Peace Prize.

MG: I think that Einstein was really fond of the Masaryk myth, which is its own story. When he refers to a common past, or a common interest with Masaryk, those are dating from his visit in 1921, when he went back to Prague for a series of lectures. Czechoslovakia was then an independent country and one that has emancipated the Jews at the Constitutional level. He attributed that (not incorrectly) to Masaryk’s advocacy. So he had warm feelings towards Masaryk for several reasons, that have to do with moving from a Habsburg regime to a democratic regime, moving towards a kind of politics that is not nationalist in the way that Einstein dislikes nationalism. So he is fond of Masaryk even though Masaryk and he disagree about a lot of things, as talked about in the book.

JS: I mean, it is very tempting to say that everything has changed while being in Prague, but, probably, a lot of things changed, because of World War I …

MG: I would say a lot more changed because of World War I, including how Einstein viewed his time in Prague. After the war he no longer thought of Prague as controlled by Habsburg bureaucrats whom he hated. He thought of Prague as the capital of a country that was struggling for minority rights. Whether that is an accurate depiction of Czechoslovakia in this period is a separate question, but he thought about Czechoslovakia differently than he thought about Bohemia as a Habsburg territory. He thought about his time in Prague completely differently and started saying how much he enjoyed it. This is not what he said when he was in Prague, when he talked a lot about how unpleasant he found it. The War, I think, is really a crucial moment when not only did Prague change, but Einstein changed very much how he viewed the world.

JS: And this is exactly very interesting for me how he then completely changes his narration of Prague. This brings a range of problems for historians of science because of the sources you have to narrate Einstein’s life.

MG: It is not until we have the letters that we can see the distance between his later memories and his actual experience at the time. His interviews and recollections from later in his life used to carry a great deal of weight about how we understood the person himself. Now most of the scholarship is focusing — correctly, I think — on the correspondence and notebooks, the documents that were produced at the time. Einstein's recollection of what he did at various moments is often extremely different from what you can find out from his own documents produced at the moment. That's about his science as well as his social directions.

JS: My last question would be about Jewishness and how it became important for Einstein. But I want to connect it with the question about your style of narrating. I think your book is also proposing a different way of talking about influence. In Einstein’s case Prague does not influence him linearly, so there are things which he works on during this time and they come back later. Also the question of Jewishness, with which he is confronted in many ways in Prague, does not directly lead to changes but it comes a few years later, when, of course, many contexts have changed. Is it an “Einsteinian” idea of influence?

MG: That is a very perceptive way of thinking about the book. I don’t like the usual model of influence that we have, which is kind of like playing a game of billiards: a person is a ball here and another ball comes and pushes them and the first moves in a new direction. That’s how we understand influence, but that is not how any of us actually interact. When we interact with other people sometimes you remember something that happened a while ago. Or it’s the third time you meet someone that actually is the important time you meet them. I wanted to show how we shouldn’t have these very strictly linear ways of understanding influence. I wouldn’t call it “Einsteinian” though, because there we end up with the problem of how do we define relativity and in what sense would this be Einsteinian. I follow a number of sociologists and historians who do different kinds of work that I found very powerful and helpful in how to think about other models of interaction with peers and with one’s environment. The older kind of “block models” that we have, or «billiard ball models», just aren’t sophisticated enough to capture how rich and multivalent, or in Bakhtinian sense polyphonic, interactions actually are in anyone's space.

Archival footage, 1920-s

So back to the question of Jewishness: Einstein was famously very close to Zionism and supported many Zionist causes, especially in the 1920s. Yet in 1911 he first met the Zionist at the Fanta social circle, and he found them medieval, mystical, irrelevant, and also nationalist (which he didn’t like). It took many years for him to think about Zionism differently. Later still he rethinks his relationship to Zionism and distances himself from the movement after violence erupts in Palestine late 20s and 30s. All these cases — his first introduction to Zionism, his coming into close contact with the movement, and his rupture with the movement — all three are mediated by the same person, Hugo Bergmann, who is a son-in-law of the woman who’s circle Einstein goes to. So even with the same interaction, on the same topic, with the same person, it goes completely different ways at different times and those all make sense when you view them in the proper context. But if you try to put them into the linear or straightforward picture or just try to tell the story of the Einstein-Bergmann interaction without all of the other Prague and non-Prague connections it wouldn’t make sense.

JS: I think it's a very important idea of how to think about mobility, also international mobility. Because in the last few years there has been more criticism towards mobility, because it doesn’t produce immediate results, for instance the Erasmus program. In your narrative we see that results don’t have to be immediate, or they even rarely are. They will come at some point in time.

MG: They can come at some point in time. I think that’s an interesting connection to make, how this can help us to think about mobility and transnational studies that have been criticized for other reasons lately. I did not think of this book as transnational, but I suppose it is, because there are many things that are related in the book that took place in between the Habsburg Empire, Czechoslovakia, Germany, United States, and Palestine and Israel. But they happened on a very long timescale.

July 17, 2020