Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who had a massive influence on science today. Regarded as a genius, his theory of relativity is one of the pillars of modern physics, while his algebraic formula recognising the correlation between mass and energy, E=MC², has been labelled the “world’s most famous equation”.
Although his contemporaries viewed him as an eccentric genius, new research has suggested Einstein had an autism spectrum disorder. Experts believe he exhibited traits of a form of high-functioning autism, such as Asperger’s. Although experts agree it’s impossible to offer a firm diagnosis of someone who is no longer living, some believe Einstein showed some classic signs.
Biographical reports of his childhood and his personality in adulthood have been used to check if he exhibited the three key symptoms of Asperger’s: obsessive interests, problems with communicating and difficulty in maintaining social relationships.
Born in Württemberg, Germany on 14th March 1879, Einstein is documented as not having spoken until after his third birthday. He had remained mute until then, missing out when other children were learning new words and stringing sentences together. When he finally began to talk, he was able to do so using complete sentences, without hesitation or stumbling over words as his peers had done.
He said each sentence to himself obsessively under his breath before saying it out loud, to make sure he was pronouncing the words properly. He was a loner as a child, but excelled in his lessons that were higher than his age level. At 11, he was studying college-level physics and mathematics, but he wasn’t interested in playtime activities with children his own age, preferring to read alone or build a house of cards for entertainment.
He also gained a reputation as a rebel, having no time for the rules of his schools. The reputation continued into adulthood, particularly when he worked as a lowly clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, where he began questioning the physics beliefs of the era!
Einstein lived in Switzerland from 1895 to 1914 and attained his academic diploma from the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zürich in 1900. He lectured there from 1912 to 1914 as a professor of theoretical physics, and he became known as a notoriously confusing lecturer.
He officially became a Swiss citizen in 1901, and four years later he was awarded a PhD by the University of Zürich. During 1905, he also wrote four ground-breaking papers at the age of just 26, which brought him to the attention of academics across the world.
He developed the theory of relativity, with his mass–energy equivalence formula E=MC² being the equation that is most widely known across the world today. The formula quantifies the amount of energy that’s locked up in matter – something that scientists had researched with little success for years.
The formula is so famous that it’s frequently referenced in modern culture, such as in pop songs like Big Audio Dynamite’s E=MC² in 1985 and Landscape’s Einstein A Go Go in 1981; in two films (1996 and 2002) both called E=MC²; and in television series such as Project MC² on Netflix, which tells the story of four super-smart teenagers who use their science skills to join a spy organisation.
In 1921, Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics for services to theoretical physics and the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.
According to Cambridge University-based autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, Einstein showed signs of Asperger’s Syndrome from an early age. He cites studies that reveal a disproportionately large number of people who have a talent for grasping complex systems – such as physicists, mathematicians and engineers – are on the autism spectrum.
He says there are certain niches in society where their academic skills rather than their social skills enable them to flourish, so if employers can find ways of making things easier for them, then it’s beneficial both for the individual and for businesses as a whole.
There are 16 possible criteria – outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – when diagnosing whether people have an autism spectrum disorder. Delayed speech development, as exhibited by Einstein, is one of them. In addition, as an adult he lived his life by a rigid set of expectations, which he expected his wife to follow too.
It was recorded how he required three meals a day which must be served in his room, where he had strict requirements for the organisation of his desk and study. This has been likened to another criterion: an inflexible adherence to routine or ritualised patterns.
It was documented that Einstein had difficulty in small talk and preferred to spend his leisure time sailing alone, rather than socialising. It was said he didn’t feel comfortable around other people on the whole.
Modern research has suggested a link between autism and genius: the 2015 study, by researchers at Ohio State University, has further backed up suggestions that Einstein, a historical genius, could have been on the autism spectrum. During his lifetime, he was viewed as an eccentric genius, but modern experts believe he was on the autism spectrum in the days before the condition was fully recognised or understood.
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