How do you come up with a scientific theory that completely changes the world? Albert Einstein is fascinating not just because of his incomparable contributions to physics, but because we all want to know how he did it. Is there some step we could take to become as brainy as him? Perhaps his diet could explain part of his genius?
You’ve probably heard of Einstein, but just in case… He was a clerk in a patent office who turned into possibly the most important scientist of the 1900s. In fact, he was arguably the most significant physicist since Isaac Newton identified gravity back in the 17th century. There were a few big discoveries to Einstein’s name, but the most famous are probably his theories of relativity.
Boy and man
There are lots of biographical facts that may be relevant to how Einstein grew into a Nobel Prize-winning genius. He was born German but would spend time stateless before becoming a Swiss citizen. He showed an interest in music as a child and even composed religious songs before being overtaken by scientific skepticism. He never followed a typical or predictable path.
A troubled youth
Whatever brilliance may have been possessed by the young Einstein, he had trouble putting it to practical use. By the age of 16 he was a dropout and a draft dodger. Somehow. he still made it to university, during which time he embarked on a somewhat scandalous relationship with his future wife, Mileva Maric.
A balanced diet?
So what we have is a smart, intellectually curious guy with some concentration issues and a distracting personal life. How exactly did he manage to focus? Where did he find the energy to do the ground-breaking work that would make him famous? Well, as any healthy living advice today will tell you, a nutritionally balanced diet is essential to success.
On the menu
Can it really be a as simple as what he ate? Maybe not, but it undoubtedly had a role to play. Let’s look in a little more detail at the life and works of Albert Einstein, and the role that food may have played in it all. The story starts in Ulm, a city in the German state of Württemberg, in March 1879.
Meet the Einsteins
Herman Einstein and Paula Einstein (née Koch) were Jewish, though they didn’t observe religious practices. Albert was the first of their two children, and their only son. It was a middle-class sort of life. Herman was a businessman whose endeavors enjoyed a mixed level of success. It didn’t take long for Albert to start showing signs of his future brilliance.
It started when Einstein was five and first saw the swinging of a compass needle. The idea that something could move due to invisible forces was the beginning of a lifelong fascination. This was one of two “wonders” that Einstein would describe as deeply influencing his early life. The other was a “sacred little geometry book” that he read when he was 12.
Out of the box
Unfortunately, the schools Einstein attended weren’t designed to nurture his unique talents. A suffocating Prussian educational system had little room for innovative thought. Few teachers can have misjudged a pupil as badly as the one who told Einstein that he was destined for failure! It’s no wonder he gave up and ran away from school.
A difficult genius
Somehow, he still managed to pass the incredibly difficult entrance exams to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School. It was mainly his math ability that got him through, though he still had to take extra high-school classes first. Einstein loved his time at the Polytechnic and the mathematicians and scientists he befriended there, including his future wife. Still, his tutors were less-than-impressed with his tendency to skip class.
A lack of support from his professors meant he had difficulty finding a job after he graduated, but eventually he made it to the patent office. The work was simple enough that he had plenty of time to daydream. In fact, in 1905 alone he daydreamed his way to not one, nor two, nor three, but four full papers full of ground-breaking scientific ideas.
The “miracle year”
First there was his explanation of the photoelectric effect, which is all about how some materials release charged particles when hit by light. Then there was the paper where Einstein became the first person to experimentally prove the existence of atoms. Third was the special relativity concept that would become his most famous idea. The fourth paper extended these ideas to the concepts of energy and mass: later, his fully-fledged theory of general relativity would include the now-iconic equation “E=mc2.”
It’s all relative...
That’s right, he did all of that in one year, and while working in a completely different job. Some of these ideas may have been floating around previously, but he was the first person to put it all together. In his theories of relativity, he identified and resolved a conflict between the work of Newton hundreds of years ago and of James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s.
Newton vs Maxwell
Newton’s laws of motion didn’t conform to Maxwell’s ideas about light and electromagnetism. It was Einstein who realized this but then also created a theory that could explain both. This involved the concept of the speed of light being constant, and the implications of that for the velocity and motion of other, slower, objects.
Pushing the boundaries
It took a while for the rest of the physics community to realize just what Einstein had done. By the time they recognized him, he had already started reworking his ideas because he’d realized the flaws in his own theories. He was constantly looking to push things further. Unfortunately, his academic success and prestigious position put a lot of strain on his marriage.
He’d married Mileva despite the disapproval of his parents, who’d disliked her Serbian, Eastern Orthodox Christian background. The couple had been forced to contend with financial difficulties and the loss of an illegitimate child before they made their union official. Now they were man and wife, but Albert’s attention was all for his work and the many conferences to which he traveled.
Mind and heart
Einstein started having an affair with a woman called Elsa Löwenthal. She happened to be his cousin, but they’d eventually marry anyway. He also continued to make ripples with his beliefs, such as when he became one of a very small group of German academics opposed to WWI. Einstein’s pacifist beliefs continued throughout his life, through WWII and the invention of the atomic bomb.
After WWI Einstein’s renown only grew. “Revolution in Science — New Theory of the Universe — Newton’s Ideas Overthrown — Momentous Pronouncement — Space ‘Warped.’” These were the headlines in British newspaper The Times after other scientists tested Einstein’s theories and found that they worked.
The Nobel Prize
It was in 1921 when he won that most prestigious of awards: the Nobel Prize. Somewhat strangely though, it wasn’t for the theory of relativity. It was for the first of his four papers, in which he’d explored the photoelectric effect. Even Einstein himself seemed to think that was strange, as he spent his acceptance speech talking about relativity instead.
There were more revelations to come from Einstein. He basically invented cosmology — the study of the nature of the universe — in its modern form. The likes of astronomer Edwin Hubble would later build on his work. Yes, Hubble like the telescope. Einstein also made friends with famous people from all walks of life, from Sigmund Freud to Charlie Chaplin.
The dark years
Dark times were coming though. Einstein’s Jewish background was more than enough to earn him the enmity of the Nazis. He was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s and take up refuge in America. It was the biggest threat to Einstein’s pacifist beliefs as he wrestled with how much violence was acceptable to fight fascism. Personal tragedies such as his son’s mental breakdown and wife Elsa’s death also overshadowed his life.
When other scientists turned from relativity to quantum theory, Einstein was ready to pick arguments with them. He also continued to look for the one great “unified field theory” that could explain everything in nature. He became more isolated and set in his ways, even though his ideas would continue to inspire other Nobel Prize winners. Eventually the celebrated physicist died from a ruptured aorta in 1955.
The secret ingredient
The sorts of things Einstein did every day may seem far above us ordinary folk, but he needed to eat like any other human being. Did he have a special diet to maximize his brain-power? Was there some special, secret ingredient that he added to his meals to give him that boost? Or was he someone with a surprising guilty pleasure? Well, it might not surprise you to know that his food habits weren’t simple.
Diet is one of the areas where we see Einstein’s sense of ethics. He believed that "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.” It wasn’t until around 1954 that he got to put this into practice, though. Before then, he was still a meat-eater.
Einstein at Home
How do we know about Einstein’s dining habits? His housekeeper, Herta Waldow, was responsible for a book called Einstein at Home. The title is pretty self-explanatory. In it she explained Einstein’s breakfast habits and how “Herr Professor always ate fried eggs, at least two,” pretty much every day.
Eggs, honey and mushrooms
So, we start with eggs for breakfast. Nothing unusual about that. They’re tasty, healthy and full of nutrients, including protein, iron, phosphorus and selenium. Often, they’d be accompanied by honey and mushrooms, which would add some B vitamins and antioxidants to the mix. Waldow said Einstein “...would probably have eaten mushrooms three times a day” if he’d been able to get away with it.
A supportive wife
Food isn’t just about what you eat, but also about the shared experience of a meal. Family dinners have long been thought of as bonding time. Einstein’s wife, Elsa, saw it as a chance to express her love for her husband. According to the physicist’s biographer Walter Isaacson, she “took great joy in foraging for the food he found comforting.”
The perfect breakfast
That was a pretty impressive gesture considering there was a war on and everyday staples such as bread, butter, and eggs were in short supply. Elsa used all of her cunning and resources to make sure her husband could have his favorite breakfast. It might not have been the origin of Einstein’s cleverness, but this nutritious diet probably helped keep his brain working at its best.
A scatterbrained genius
There’s a bit of a stereotype regarding the genius and his meals. The scatterbrained scientist is a common trope which has at least some basis in reality. Einstein admitted to one of his children, “I am often so engrossed in my work that I forget to eat lunch.” It’s lucky he had that good breakfast to keep him going if he spent the middle of the day with his head in his research.
Lunch with the neighbors
Even when he didn’t outright forget to eat, Einstein did treat meals with the same care and attention his wife did. Isaacson related the story of Adelaide, an eight-year-old girl from the neighborhood who wanted to borrow Einstein’s brain to help with her math homework. She brought a friend with her one time and Einstein was at least polite enough to offer them lunch.
Beans, beans, beans
Unfortunately, offering lunch and being able to provide it are slightly different things. Adelaide later recalled that they got a can of beans each, telling Isaacson, “So he moved a whole bunch of papers from the table, opened four cans of beans with a can opener, and heated them on a Sterno stove one by one, stuck a spoon in each and that was our lunch.”
Einstein the host
Not exactly a feast fit for a king, or a proper way to treat guests. There wasn’t even a drink to wash it down. We should probably just be grateful Einstein managed to move his papers out of the way first. Beans are pretty healthy though, with lots of fiber and minerals. They may have made a decent lunch, but they probably weren’t the source of Einstein’s genius.
No appreciation of luxury
Einstein continued to be distracted when it was time for dinner. To celebrate his birthday one year, a couple of his friends brought him caviar. It doesn’t come much more luxurious than that! Except as per Isaacson, “Einstein was engrossed in analyzing Galileo’s principle of inertia, and as he talked he took mouthful after mouthful of his caviar without seeming to notice.”
That’s right: inertia is much more interesting than caviar. Einstein’s friends watched him in shock. When they explained what he’d done, well, his only response was to say, “If you offer gourmet food to peasants like me, you know they won’t appreciate it.” No wonder most of his dinners with scientist friends consisted of more prosaic fare such as sausage, cheese and fruit, washed down with some nice tea.
Another thing that can hinder a lot of people when it comes to diet is if they have stomach problems. Einstein was no exception. Jaundice, ulcers and what one doctor called a “chronic stomach malady” caused him more than a little discomfort. The recommended treatment was to strip a lot of the interesting stuff out of his diet and make it as bland as possible.
Blander and blander
As per website Inverse, at first this involved rice, macaroni and the dry bread from Germany known as zwieback. Note the lack of spreads, sauces and other flavorings. This diet was only meant to last for a month, but it didn’t cure things. Again a shift was recommended, this time to a simple, balanced combination of meat and carbs. He seems to have been quite fond of spaghetti.
Inverse also related how in 1954 another doctor made a different recommendation. He told Einstein to cut out the meat completely, as well as any alcohol or fat. For the last year of his life Einstein would be vegetarian. This turned out to be a pretty good choice, with Einstein writing to a friend that, “I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way.”
Did being a vegetarian help make Einstein smarter? Well, as he only started practicing vegetarianism around 1954 and he died in 1955, that phase of his life probably didn’t last long enough to have a huge impact. And no, his death didn’t have probably didn’t have anything to do with his change in diet either.
As previously stated, Einstein died of an aortic aneurysm: that’s when the main artery carrying blood from the heart becomes enlarged and then ruptures. Yes, this took place in his stomach, but it’s highly unlikely it had anything to do with food. Lifestyle factors can contribute to an aortic aneurysm, but the most common contributor is smoking, and Einstein was very fond of his pipe.
A complicated question
It’s interesting to wonder whether Einstein became better at thinking because of his diet. He was an eccentric man in lots of ways and we may never fully understand how his unique combination of traits and behaviors led to such groundbreaking work. Still, a nutritious diet must have helped his energy levels and cognitive function. A balanced diet may be the best way to start your own brain-training!