Shooting thousands of feet into the air, a Swiss scientist was on a mission. Inspired by fellow scientific titan Albert Einstein, he and his co-pilot were sealed inside a metal capsule suspended below a hydrogen balloon. Their daring and dangerous 1931 journey was a bid to become the first people to reach the stratosphere, but as the craft climbed ever higher, Auguste Piccard and his companion seemed only to be proving the perils of 20th-century air travel.
Einstein and Piccard
Described as a friend and confidant of Einstein’s, Piccard made a game-changing contribution to the field of physics. It nearly cost him his life, but against the odds he succeeded, soaring into the sky and complementing the groundbreaking theories of his contemporary. Einstein may be the more recognizable face, yet Piccard was an explorer who went on Indiana Jones-style adventures. When not working out theories, he was exercising outdoors and taking to the water on a boat. Einstein loved to sail, though was reportedly terrible at it. Piccard, too, faced his own failings.
Piccard was born in 1884 in the city of Basel, in north-west Switzerland. His father Jules worked as a professor at the local university. There doesn’t appear to be much information available about his mother, Jeanne. It was clear that Auguste and his twin brother Jean were destined for great things. Together, they would put a whole new spin on reaching for the stars. As mentioned by website Britannica, the brothers attended the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. Qualifying as doctors, they focused their energies on teaching. Auguste specialized in physics and Jean in chemistry.
Meanwhile, in Germany…
Someone else who studied in Zürich was Albert Einstein. He too went to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, where he read mathematics and natural sciences. That said, he predated Piccard’s time there. Einstein had been born in 1879 in the city of Ulm, part of the state of Baden-Württemberg, close to the Bavarian border in Germany. After graduating, the young Einstein studied for a Ph.D. at the University of Zürich. Einstein’s parents weren’t scholarly: his father Hermann was a salesman and engineer, while mother Pauline was a housekeeper. All the same, they raised someone who became a legend in academic circles and around the world.
Arguably Einstein’s most famous contribution to the field was his Theory of Relativity, which overtook the ideas of hallowed figures such as Sir Isaac Newton. He began publishing the building blocks of it in the early 20th century. Even a simple explanation is enough to trigger a headache, but a relevant detail concerns how larger objects can curve or warp their surrounding space. Piccard spotted a major curve of his own whilst engaged in the epic balloon journey. When he heard about Einstein’s theory, his imagination was fired. Boundaries were about to be broken.