Einstein and his sources

ein stein

I’ve been reading Broca’s Brain, a series of lectures by Carl Sagan. One chapter/lecture describes the life, ethics and work of Einstein.

Einstein’s first major works were achieved in a single year, 1905, when he published theories about the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion of particles, and special relativity. All of this while he worked alone in a Swiss patents office, because no university wanted him on their staff.

My question is, how did he get the information needed to work out special relativity? In my country in the present day, you have to be affiliated with a university to gain access to publications and research papers. Universities subscribe to journals, and those papers are made available to them, either stored as hardcopies in the library, or online.

Even in the age of the Internet, these papers can only be accessed or downloaded on campus.

How was Einstein, working alone in a patent office, able to obtain the relevant research papers that inspired him and allowed him to work out the theories, such as special relativity? It is obvious that Einstein was aware of the work of Michelson and Morley disproving the existence of the aether and a preferred frame of reference. Einstein’s simpler equations in SR seem to be inspired by Lorentz, who thought that Michelson and Morleys’ observations seemed to indicate that instruments shrink in the direction of motion, and worked out the “Lorentz Contraction”. Einstein was also aware of Mach’s Principle, denying preferred frames of reference, and had to know Maxwell’s works in electromagnetism to conclude the invariability of the speed of light in any frame of reference.

Einstein was able to access this information he needed, cutting edge theoretical physics, without being affiliated with a University, puttering away in his quiet corner of a patent office. This makes me curious about the general social environment he was in. Was such esoteric knowledge generally floating around in Switzerland, accessible to anyone in a library? What did it take to obtain the relevant research papers in those days?

Did the current academic publication model, where big institutions subscribe to journals, exist in 1905? Was it simply a case of Einstein’s friends giving him papers he might be interested in?

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