On May 29th, 1919, on the island of Principe off the west coast of Africa, one of the longest solar eclipses of the 20th century lasted for nearly seven minutes. Astronomer, physicist, and mathematician Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington was there to witness it. His observation of light bending around the sun provided one of the earliest confirmations of General Relativity, Albert Einstein’s gravitational theory that introduced a new framework for all of physics, proposed new concepts of space and time, and propelled Einstein into the pantheon of science’s greatest thinkers.
Today, it’s hard to think of Einstein without imagining a genius scientist. But before he developed his theory of relativity, devised the world’s most famous equation (E = mc²), or was awarded the Nobel Prize, Einstein increased his intellect with a humble book club.
In 1901, at the age of 23, while working for minimum wage as a patent clerk in Switzerland, Einstein hoped to earn some extra money as a physics tutor. His first pupil was Maurice Solovine, a philosophy student. The two quickly gave up their studies, preferring instead to have a few drinks, smoke cigars, and discuss books. With the addition of Einstein’s friend, mathematician Conrad Habicht, the Olympia Academy, as they called themselves, was complete.
For the next three years, the men regularly met to read and debate books such as The Grammar of Science by Karl Pearson, A System of Logic by John Stuart Mill, Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, Ethics by Baruch Spinoza, and even Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.
Despite the brief lifespan of the Olympia Academy, it had a lasting effect on the three men. They remained in touch throughout their lives and Einstein credited their discussions with the successes of his later scientific career.