WHEN I WENT TO Berne as a student at the beginning of the century, I had not decided on the subjects that I wished to study. Since philosophy, though unworthy of the distinction today, still held claim to the study of the most exalted problems, I felt strongly inclined toward this subject, but simultaneously I had a burning desire to learn about concrete things, with the result that along with courses in Greek philosophy, literature and philology, I also studied mathematics, physics, and geology as well as a course in physiology in the Faculty of Medicine. By dint of hard work, I managed to acquire during the first year a body of knowledge which was far from enough to bring complete satisfaction but which allowed me to untangle the jumbled ideas that filled my head and to become aware of the paths and procedures through which the mind achieves positive results. My course in experimental physics had been absorbing, but the professor seemed to delight in speaking disdainfully of physical theories. He used to say that physical theories are more or less arbitrary constructions based on hypotheses and that the discovery of new facts undermines them and causes them to collapse, while facts which are carefully studied experimentally and shaped analytically stand as a definitive acquisition of physics and contribute to its continuous elaboration.
But what I found most absorbing were these theories, for they gave me an overall view of nature and a firm basis for the study of philosophy, but I felt incapable of understanding them because of a deficiency in mathematics; still, I tried hard to grasp as much as I could. The discovery of radium caused considerable agitation since it was thought to reverse the principle of the conservation of energy.
Having bought a newspaper and started to walk down the streets of Berne one day during the Easter vacation of 1902, I came to a place which said that Albert Einstein, a former student of Zurich Polytechnical School, would teach physics for three francs an hour. I mused: “Perhaps this man could explain theoretical physics to me.” I made my way to the house mentioned in the advertisement, walked up to the second floor and rang the bell. I heard a thunderous “Herein!” and soon saw Einstein appear. The hallway was dark and I was struck by the extraordinary radiance of his large eyes. After I had gone inside his apartment and taken a seat, I told him that I was studying philosophy but wanted also to delve into physics so as to acquire a thorough understanding of nature. He confessed that he, too, had leaned toward philosophy when he was younger, but that the vagueness and arbitrariness that characterizes philosophy had turned him away from it and that he now concentrated exclusively on physics. For two hours we talked on about all sorts of questions and felt that we shared the same ideas and a mutual attraction. As I started to take leave of him, he went along with me and we continued the discussion in the street for about half an hour and agreed to meet the following day.
When we saw each other again, we renewed our discussion of certain questions that we had broached the preceding evening and the physics lesson was completely forgotten.
And when I came to him on the third day, he told me, after we had talked for a while: “As a matter of fact, you don’t have to be tutored in physics; our discussion of problems that stem from it is much more interesting. Just come to see me and I will be glad to talk with you.” I went back many times, and the better I became acquainted with him, the stronger my attachment grew. I admired his singular insight and his surprising mastery of physical problems. He was not a brilliant orator and did not use striking imagery. He outlined his subjects in a slow, even tone but in a remarkably lucid manner. To make his abstract thought more easily understood he sometimes used examples drawn from common experiences. Einstein was a skilled mathematician but he often spoke out against the abuses of mathematics in the hands of physicists. “Physics,” he would say, “is basically a concrete, intuitive science. Mathematics is only a means to express the laws that govern phenomena.”
As we were talking one day, I asked him: “Don’t you think that it would be a good idea for both of us to read one of some great thinker’s works, and then discuss the problems dealt with in the work?” “That’s an excellent idea,” he answered. I suggested then that we read a scientific work by Karl Pearson and Einstein eagerly accepted. A few weeks later, Conrad Habicht, whom Einstein had known in Schaffhouse and who had come to Berne to finish his studies with a view to teaching mathematics in the lycée, took part in our discussions. Our dinners were models of frugality. The menu ordinarily consisted of one bologna sausage, a piece of Gruyére cheese, a fruit, a small container of honey and one or two cups of tea. But our joy was boundless. The words of Epicurus applied to us: “What a beautiful thing joyous poverty is!”
Einstein was a candidate for a license at the time I knew him and was impatiently awaiting appointment. He had to give private lessons in order to live, and pupils were not easy to find; rates were low. One day when we were discussing ways of earning a living, he told me that the easiest way would be to play the violin in the streets. My answer was that if he had really decided to do that, I would begin to learn the guitar and accompany him.
Our material status was certainly unenviable, but we shared an uncommon penchant for studying and explaining the most difficult problems of science and philosophy. Together we read, after Pearson, Mach’s Analysis of Sensations and Mechanics which Einstein had browsed through previously, Mills’ Logic, Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature, Spinoza’s Ethics, some of Helmholtz’ memoirs and lectures, some chapters from André-Marie Ampère’s Essay on Philosophy, Reimann’s On the Hypotheses Which Serve as a Basis for Geometry, some chapters from Avenarius’ Critique of Pure Experience, Clifford’s On the Nature of Things in Themselves, Dedekind’s What Are Numbers?, Poincaré’s Science and Hypothesis, which engrossed us and held us spellbound for weeks, and many other works. We also read literary works such as Sophocles’ Antigone, Racine’s Andromaque, Dickens’ Christmas Tales, most of Don Quixote, etc. Our meetings were sometimes highlighted by Einstein’s playing some musical selection on his violin.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for me to set down the long, animated discussions provoked by the works which we read together. We would read a page or half a page—sometimes only a sentence—and the discussion would continue for several days when the problem was important. I often met Einstein at noon as he left his desk and renewed the discussion of the previous evening: “You said…, but don’t you think…?” Or: “I’d like to add to what I said yesterday.…”
The end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth witnessed the flowering of research on the bases and principles of the sciences. We devoted weeks to the discussion of David Hume’s eminently penetrating criticism of conceptions of substance and causality. Book III of Mills’ Logic, which deals with induction, also held our interest for a long time.
Einstein favored the genetic method in the examination of basic ideas. To explain those ideas, he would call upon what he had observed among children. He also talked about his own works from time to time, and this revealed a brilliant mind and great originality. In 1903 he published his remarkable work entitled Theories der Grundlagen der Thermodynamik; in 1904, his Allgemeine molekulare Theorie der Wärme; and in 1905, his admirable monograph entitled Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper, in which he outlined his theory of relativity. It is worth noting that no one except Max Planck has grasped the extraordinary significance of this work.
The extent to which Einstein could become absorbed in an interesting problem is suggested by our experience with caviar. In our strolls through the arcades of Berne we passed by a delicatessen where we saw, among other rare foods, some caviar on display. On seeing it, I remembered how much I had enjoyed it at home as a youth. It had been moderately priced there in Rumania, but in Berne it was too expensive for me to buy. This did not prevent me from extolling the merits of caviar in Einstein’s presence. “Is it so good as all that?” he asked. “You just can’t imagine how delicious it is,” I answered. One day in February, I said to Habicht: “Let’s plan a big surprise for Einstein. Let’s serve him some caviar on his birthday, which comes on March 14.” Whenever Einstein ate an unusual dish, he would become effusive and describe it in glowing terms. We were pleased by the thought of seeing him wax ecstatic and use the most far-fetched words to express his satisfaction. When March 14 came, we went to his apartment to dine together. I pretended that I was putting bologna sausages and the regular fare on the table; actually, I put the caviar in our three dishes, and then went over to speak with Einstein. That evening, he happened to start talking about Galileo’s principle of inertia, and whenever he dealt with a problem, Einstein forgot completely about the earth and its joys and sorrows. When we sat down at the table, Einstein consumed bite after bite of caviar without saying anything about it, continuing his discussion of the principle of inertia. Habicht and I looked furtively at each other in amazement, and when Einstein had eaten all the caviar, I exclaimed: “Say, do you know what you have been eating?” “For goodness sake,” he said, “it was that famous caviar.” And after a minute of stunned silence, he added: “It doesn’t matter. There’s no point in serving the most exquisite delicacies to hicks; they can’t appreciate them.”
But we were still determined to have him enjoy caviar. A few days later we brought him a sizable portion of caviar, and to avoid having him treat it with shocking indifference, we intoned to the theme of the third movement of Beethoven’s Symphony in F: “Now we are eating caviar…now we are eating caviar.…” While eating, Einstein remarked: “I admit that it’s a fine dish, but you have to be an accomplished epicure like Solovine to make so much fuss over it.”
What stamped our Academy, as we jokingly referred to our meetings every evening, was the burning desire to broaden and deepen our knowledge and our affection for each other. I followed these meetings with intense interest, and amazingly enough, Einstein was as intensely interested in them as I and would not allow me to be absent. The one time that I missed a meeting cost me dearly.
Berne was outstanding in that leading violinists, cellists and pianists who were touring Europe from East to West, North to South, or vice versa, always gave one or two recitals there. We always made it a point to attend some of the recitals. One day I saw from the billboard that the widely-acclaimed Czech Quartet was going to give a recital. The program was very interesting; they were to perform quartets by Beethoven, Smetana and Dvo?ák. On arriving at Einstein’s place for our regular meeting that evening, I told him the good news and told him that I intended to reserve three seats. “It seems to me,” he said, “that it’s better to give up that idea and read Hume, who is extremely interesting.” “Good,” I assured him. “It’s a date.” But I passed by the recital hall on the day mentioned in the announcement and was so affected by the sight of the program that I went into the vestibule mechanically and asked the lady in charge of ticket sales if any seats for the evening were still available.
Glancing at the seating chart, she called out the available seats in the different categories. When she finally added that she still had two specials, that is, seats for those without much money, I lost my head and bought a ticket.
As our “academic” meeting was supposed to be held at my place that evening, I rushed home to prepare dinner. Knowing that they were fond of hard-boiled eggs, I added four to the meal and placed them on a dish which I covered with a white sheet of paper on which I had written: Amicis carissimis ova dura et salutem (hard eggs and a greeting to very dear friends).
I then advised the lady in charge of the lodging house to tell them that I begged them to excuse my absence, an urgent matter having obliged me to leave. When she told this story, they understood. They conscientiously ate everything on the table. Then, knowing how I detested tobacco in any form, they began to smoke like persons possessed, Einstein his pipe and Habicht his thick cigars. They put the butts and smoldering pipe dumpings into a saucer and dumped the table, chairs, dishes, forks, cups, teapot, sugar bowl and a number of books on the bed; finally, they pinned to the wall a sheet of paper on which they had written: Amico carissimo fumum spissum et salutem (thick smoke and a greeting to a very dear friend).
After attending a musical event, I usually stroll around for a little while mulling over what I have heard and memorizing the themes, variations, etc. That was what I did after the recital given by the Czech Quartet. I walked slowly through the streets until around one o’clock in the morning. When I returned home and opened the door to my room. I thought that I would suffocate because of the heavy tobacco smoke. I threw the window wide open and began to remove from the bed the heap that reached almost to the ceiling. When I finally went to bed, the pillows and draperies reeked so strongly of the horrid tobacco fumes that I could not close my eyes. It was almost dawn before I managed to go to sleep.
When I went to Einstein’s place for dinner and our “academic” meeting the next evening, he took one look at me, frowned, and shouted: “Wretch! You dare miss a regular meeting and listen to violin playing? Barbarian! Boor! If you ever again indulge in such folly, you will be excluded and shamefully expelled from the Academy.”
Since the previous meeting had not been held because of my absence, this evening’s session lasted until one o’clock in the morning.
After Einstein received his license, he married Mileva Maric, a young Serbian girl whom he had met at the Polytechnical School where she was studying. This event occasioned no change in our meetings. Mileva, intelligent and reserved, listened attentively but never intervened in our discussions.
After our “academic” meetings during the summer, we sometimes went up on Gurten, a sprawling mountain located south of Berne, to see the sunrise. The sight of the twinkling stars made a strong impression on us and led to discussions of astronomical questions. We would reach the summit at dawn and marvel at the sun as it came slowly toward the horizon and finally appeared in all its splendor to bathe the Alps in a mystic rose. We would wait for the restaurant located there to open, drink dark coffee and start our downward trek, arriving at the foot of the mountain around nine o’clock, dead tired but very happy.
We also went on hikes to Thun, a town located some thirty kilometers from Berne. We would leave at six o’clock in the morning and reach Thun around noon. Our view of the Alps occasioned discussions of their formation and structure and of geological problems in general. After breakfast, we would stay on the banks of Lake Thun until evening and return to Berne by train.
Such was the full and interesting intellectual life that we led for more than three years. Smitten by the desire to assimilate the culture of France, which has always exerted a strong attraction on Rumanians, I left Einstein in November, 1906, to study at the University of Lyons. I was saddened by the thought of being far from him and denied the pleasure of being present at our incomparable meetings, which ended with my departure and that of Habicht, who had left Berne several months before me. I have always been astounded by the fact that Einstein, crowned with renown and honors, still harbored nostalgic memories of our meetings.
I loved him and admired him profoundly for his basic goodness, his intellectual genius and his indomitable moral courage. In contrast to the lamentable vacillation that characterizes most so-called intellectuals, he fought tirelessly against injustice and evil. He will live in the memory of future generations not only as a scientific genius of exceptional stature but also as an epitome of moral greatness. His portrait is deeply etched in my mind and, strangely moved, I whisper these words of Epicurus:
Sweet is the memory of a departed friend.
May 3, 1906