BERN, Switzerland -- Albert Einstein was 22 when he arrived here in 1902, unemployed, traveling on foot, and carrying all his belongings in a single suitcase. Within three years, however, he would become a husband and father -- and would develop a radical new picture of space and time that would change the world forever.
With 2005 marking both the 100th anniversary of Einstein's theory of relativity and the 50th anniversary of the scientist's death, Bern is ready for an influx of Einstein-minded visitors. Einstein wasn't born here; that honor goes to the southern German city of Ulm, some 170 miles away. Nor did he remain in Bern for very long; in less than a decade, with his genius bringing increased fame, academic positions would draw him to Zurich, Prague, and Berlin, before the rise of Nazism would force him to leave Europe for good. But it was here in the picturesque Swiss capital that the ambitious young physicist got his first real job, an entry-level position examining patent applications in a government office. And it was here that Einstein had his first great insights into the nature of the universe.
Unlike the modern metropolises of Geneva and Zurich, Bern has kept one foot squarely in the medieval world. In the nearly millennium-long span of its history, the century that has passed since Einstein's time is a mere blip. Arcades line the cobbled streets of the Aldstadt, the old city, dotted every few yards with colorful fountains, many of them dating to the 16th century. Visitors who climb the gothic spire of the city's Munster, or cathedral, at 330 feet, one of the tallest in Switzerland -- are rewarded with sweeping views of red-tile roofs, church spires, and the churning, ice-blue waters of the Aare River.
The apartment where Einstein once lived, at Kramgasse 49, is nestled in a row of modest low-rise residential buildings in the center of town, midway between the Munster and the 13th-century Zytglogge, the clock tower. In autumn 1903, the young Einstein was earning enough money to rent a suite of second-floor rooms here, a site now designated as Einstein House. It has been a museum since 1979, and since then nearly a quarter-million visitors from more than 150 countries have streamed through its rooms, restored to reflect the style of the period. The scientist's stand-up wooden desk from the patent office is on display, as are dozens of photographs and other memorabilia -- even his high school report cards.
As Einstein's financial situation improved, he proposed to his girlfriend, Mileva Maric, a former classmate from his university days in Zurich. She joined him in Bern, and it was here that their son, Hans Albert, was born. Einstein's salary -- 3,500 francs a year -- was not much, but it was enough to cover the rent and the family's most basic needs.
''Einstein was so happy and so proud that he could, for the first time in his young life, rent an apartment like that," says Ruth Aegler, a tour guide at the museum. ''Only 60 square meters. That's not much, but for him it was absolutely luxury."
By day, Einstein pored over the hundreds of applications that passed his desk at the patent office. His true passion, though, was not gadgetry but the underlying theory, the machinery of the cosmos itself. Eventually, a new theory of space and time took shape in Einstein's mind. In these cramped rooms, he scribbled the formulas that would become the first part of his theory of relativity, known as special relativity.
He did it largely in a few precious hours of free time each day.
''That young man worked eight hours a day, six days a week," says Aegler. ''He came home in the evening about six o'clock. First, he took his baby on his knees, then he took his violin and played for his family, for the children waiting downstairs on the street. And after dinner -- and it was always a very modest dinner, because they didn't have much money -- his friends came for long discussions, past midnight." From those discussions, swirling conversations about philosophy and physics, came the seeds of special relativity.
In his first relativity paper, titled ''On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," Einstein recognized that the speed of light was a universal constant, while space and time were as flexible as rubber. In a supplementary paper, published in autumn 1905, he explained the connection between matter and energy, embodied in what is now the world's most famous equation, E=mc2.
Few of today's visitors to Einstein House are professional scientists. Instead, they come from all walks of life, drawn by Einstein's universal appeal as a man of enormous compassion as well as otherworldly intellect. Sometimes, children draw sketches in the museum's guest book. A 9-year-old boy penned a note to ''Dear Albert," expressing his hopes of becoming ''a scientist like you are," Aegler recalls.
Even adults can become surprisingly emotional as they enter Einstein's world. Some of them want to stay past closing time, just breathing the air and hoping to get the ''inspiration of Einstein," Aegler says.
''And you can't explain that," she says. ''That is something you have to feel."
Dan Falk is a freelance writer based in Toronto.