Albert Einstein and His Astonishment

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is”. Albert Einstein, scientist and thinker

Albert Einstein had been silent for several minutes, contemplating the succinct letter he had just read…and reread, and reread. He was just astonished, and a childlike smile had appeared on his wrinkled, venerable face.

He always spent some time each day reading the letters that came from all over the world. Most were from admirers of his work, sending heartfelt thanks for the new horizons that his theory had opened for science. Still, from the moment he held that envelope in his hands he knew the letter inside was different from all the rest. That a surprise was waiting in there.

It was sent by a 10-year-old Australian girl, who evidently was quite direct. A single question took up the entire page:

“Dear Mr. Einstein, I am writing to you to find out if you really exist.”

What moxie! That of an alert child who has not lost the capacity to be astonished, the sense of mystery with which she perceives everything that surrounds her. Einstein knows all about this attitude toward life…

It was during early childhood when his eyes were opened to the wonders of the world. At the age of five, his father gave him a compass, something he would always carry with him from then on. He was instantly fascinated by its needle, which moved without any mechanism or spring propelling it, always pointing to the north no matter how much that curious and playful child moved it to-and-fro.

He was now old enough to recognize that this sense of astonishment was what had driven him all of his life, and what had impelled him not to give up after multiple failures. He’d never lost the capacity to be surprised. And that, perhaps, was why he had never grown tired of making progress, or giving his best effort to research.

It hadn’t been easy. Rejected by the Technical University of Munich, he decided to move to Zurich to better prepare for the entrance exam so he could start the following year at the Swiss university. Rejected later as a professor due to his mediocre academic performance (he barely went to class, and was more intrigued by intellectual discussions in bars with his future first wife, Mileva), he had to find a job in the city’s patent office to survive. His thesis was disregarded by the academic community. And so on.

Yet he never lost his curiosity, his astonishment at what he could not explain. It was precisely in those years of apparent failure that, unbeknownst to the world, he would develop the four articles that he would become known for, which would later earn him the Nobel Prize of 1921. But it was 1905, and only Einstein saw that underlying those articles was the great theory of relativity; the rest of the scientific community could only wonder where the formula E = mc2 came from, and what exactly it meant.

Fame would only come—he remembered it all too well—when a solar eclipse proved his predictions about the curvature of space under the effect of gravity. From then on, his world was turned upside down. Conferences, symposiums, invitations from leading politicians around the world to explain his theory… How he appreciated having moved to the USA, to the peacefulness of the small town of Princeton, so far from the spotlight—and the war in Europe.

The relaxed smile on his face that had come from reading the girl’s letter vanished much too quickly. His countenance was bitter, as it had been of late. Alongside that endearing letter lay another, half written. It was the letter in which he would ask President Roosevelt to fund the Manhattan Project. The letter his colleagues had beseeched him to write. “Roosevelt cannot deny a request from the greatest living scientist.” That is what they told him, and he knew it was true. And that was precisely why he struggled to write it. He knew that the moment he sent the letter, it would set off a chain of events, leading to the launch of a weapon of mass destruction in some German or Japanese city… “The Germans have already started developing this. It is now a matter of seeing who launches it first.”

Despite having fled the war, it seemed that he would never get far enough away from it. What great sadness it brought him to see how his sense of astonishment, his intellectual ability, all his creativity, were put at the service of a project that would take the lives of so many innocent people.

Would he go down in history for his role in war? He, who had always tried to avoid participating in one. He, who enjoyed more than anyone his meetings with Gandhi, his epistolary friendship with his pen pal, the cellist Pau Casals. In the future, what would be more impactful: his theories or his role in the war? Only playing the violin allowed him to keep those thoughts at bay. He now had a new source of comfort: the letter from his young friend, the Australian girl. The smile returned to his face, fleetingly.

He woefully went back to writing the letter to the president. Clearly, the Nazis could not be allowed to win; but if they developed atomic technology before anyone else, they would win. Europe, his beloved Europe, the Nazi continent…

So he started writing again, while in the depths of his heart he wished that in time, as years went by, his work and intelligence would serve to inspire, not to threaten; to be astonished, rather than suspicious; to educate citizens, not fanatics; and to increasingly recover people’s sense of astonishment over the everlasting miracle that is the reality in which we live.

Einstein’s life was rich in experiences and lessons, as reflected in these highlights:

  • Not all intelligences react equally to the same stimuli, nor do all geniuses need the same thing to develop their talent.
  • Astonishment and the capacity to be astonished is an overwhelming force for a restless and privileged mind.
  • One who does not lose the capacity to be astonished is more in tune with reality than one who already thinks they know everything.