Albert Einstein, Michael Besso, and Ernst Mach

Amanda Gefter in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_2417 Dec. 03 18.54When they met, Einstein wasn’t Einstein yet. He was just Albert Einstein, a kid, about 17, with a dark cloud of teenage angst and a violin. Michele Besso was older, 23, but a kindred spirit. Growing up in Trieste, Italy he had shown an impressive knack for mathematics, but he was kicked out of high school for insubordination and had to go live with his uncle in Rome. Einstein could relate. At the Swiss Polytechnic, where he was now a student, his professors resented his intellectual arrogance, and had begun locking him out of the library out of spite.

Their first encounter was on a Saturday night in Zurich, 1896. They were at Selina Caprotti’s house by the lake for one of her music parties. Einstein was handsome—dark hair, moustache, soulful brown eyes. Besso was short with narrow, pointed features and a thick pile of coarse black hair on his head and chin. Einstein had a look of cool detachment. Besso had the look of a nervous mystic. As they chatted, Einstein learned that Besso worked at an electrical machinery factory; Besso learned that Einstein was studying physics. Perhaps they recognized something in each other then: They both wanted to get to the truth of things.

Besso would go on to become a sidekick, of sorts, to Einstein—a sounding board, as Einstein put it, “the best in Europe,” asking the right questions that would inspire Einstein to find the right answers. At times, though, he would seem to be something more—a collaborator, perhaps, making suggestions, working through calculations.

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