Ludwig Boltzmann: Suicidal and Steps Out
Born in 1844, Ludwig Boltzmann was an Austrian physicist of such genius that by age 22, he served as the professor of mathematics in the University of Ganz. At one point, he realized that gases comprised tiny atoms that followed the laws described by Isaac Newton. In the 1870s, Boltzmann published a series of papers explaining this. This idea resulted in the realization of stunning new laws of physics. Ultimately, Boltzmann’s breakthrough fermented an entirely new category of physics: statistical mechanics.
However, Boltzmann faced unexpected heat for his new-found ideas:
- Most of the most prominent philosophers and scientists of the time scoffed at the very idea of atoms’ existence.
- Boltzmann became the object of scorn and attack by even his most highly respected colleagues.
- Even close friends of Boltzmann harshly disagreed with his theory (while maintaining warm relations with him outside of the bitter debates).
- One of the premier German physics journals rejected most of Boltzmann papers on the grounds that atoms and molecules were strictly theoretical tools for a scientist’s convenience and could not literally exist in nature.
(Much of this seems to have been the academic elite’s 19th-Century version of trolling.)
But at the same time, Boltzmann experienced academic honors (such as being promoted to Chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Munich in 1890 and serving as Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Vienna in 1893) in tandem with the attacks and ridicule. Boltzmann's students were solidly on his side of the equation. And Boltzmann also enjoyed a happy marriage to a fellow mathematical and scientific genius named Henrietta, and together they had 5 children.
But those honors and comforts weren't enough to balance out the ridicule and attacks.
While all this was going on, Albert Einstein (still considered up-and-coming at that time) wrote the first paper to demonstrate the existence of atoms. That was in 1905.
But Boltzmann never learned about that paper. Instead, he endured the scholarly assaults and ridicule until he committed suicide in 1906 while his family was at the beach.
Had Boltzmann toughed it out a little longer, he would have seen his wheel of scholarly fortune cycle up to the top by the time Einstein was honored as one of the leading scientists in 1908.
Albert Einstein: Suicidal, Yet Soldiers Onward
- His doctoral thesis had been rejected the year before (which later proved to be a good thing, as its purpose was to demolish very theories of Boltzmann which Einstein later ended up validating).
- With a fresh doctorate in hand, every university he applied to rejected him based on nasty “recommendations” written by one of his former professors.
- His personal life had become miserably complicated with his Serbian girlfriend and fellow physics student (the only woman in his class) pregnant and both sides of the family strongly opposed to their relationship (and eventual marriage, which later ended in divorce).
- Einstein couldn’t succeed in the workforce and was even fired from a simple tutoring job and his applications for schoolteaching were rejected.
- Plus, his father died—which Einstein not only experienced as a personal loss, but as a great shame because in Einstein's eyes, his father died seeing his son as a loser.
Letters to his family expressed the feeling that it would have been better had he never been born because he was such a burden to his family and lacked any possibilities for success in life.
But a compassionate friend managed to get this apparent neb a job at the patent office. Yet even there, Einstein was passed over for promotion twice because he had not yet “fully mastered machine technology.” (Ha!)
However, the job at the patent office became Einstein’s turning point. It was there Einstein started analyzing the innovations that passed over his desk and contemplated physics puzzles like, “What happens if you manage to run faster than a beam of light?”
And who doesn't know of all the success and recognition Einstein reaped in the end?
(Although my personal belief is that Einstein would have been more successful had he truly delved into the Torah world—rather than just “reading through the Bible,” presumably in German—and followed halachah. Certainly, holding steadfast to the laws against intermarriage and of guarding one’s eyes, guarding against physical contact with women, and remaining alone with a woman would have saved him untold heartache and distress.)
And while this can just end in the usual lesson of how one should “never give up!” and “Hang in there—the best is yet to come!” (and that is a very good moral to get from this story), the truth is that a look under the surface reveals even more.
Boltzmann doesn’t seemed to have believed in God.
He once stated that any theory which could explain everything would be “God” for him.
He disdained philosophies he considered “metaphysical” and held Darwin in lofty regard, even stretching the theory of biological evolution to encompass cultural evolution, seeing cultural evolution as a physical brain process—in other words, he saw them as one and the same.
This kind of thinking ultimately leads to eugenics, which ultimately leads to genocide.
That would make anyone depressed.
On the other hand, Einstein (who tragically never developed the true knowledge of Hashem as One Who is intimately and omnipotently involved in every aspect of Creation) did come to acknowledge an “Intelligence” that formed the Universe. (Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be evidence one way or another of Einstein’s attitudes toward evolution or Darwin.) Furthermore, Einstein expressed spiritual beliefs—or at least an openness to spiritual beliefs—using the word “mystical” to describe such ideas.
But anyway, don't give up, no matter how impossible and bitter your situation seems.