Why We Love Einstein

/ by Edit Staff /

100 years after his "miracle year," it's no exaggeration to say that Einstein changed the world...

From the OCT/NOV 2005 issue of Seed:

100 years after his “miracle year,” it’s no exaggeration to say that Einstein changed the world. The 2005 celebrations have reminded us of his genius, his wit, his generosity and his influence.

He is our very favorite.

1. He Made Headlines

REVOLUTION IN SCIENCE
New Theory of the Universe
Newtonian Ideas Overthrown
—London Times, November 7, 1919

When Einstein’s theory of general relativity came out, challenging Newtonian physics, newspapers appeared to be assigning reporters to the Einstein beat. Whenever he spoke out on any topic, whenever he won an award, whenever he had the briefest encounter with another human being, the press ate it up: 

  • Berlin man Pays $16 fine after calling for Einstein’s assassination!
  • Einstein contemplates existence of Santa Claus!
  • Einstein gives a conductor the wrong change on a street car!

Einstein’s travel was also well documented. Headlines would announce his arrival, follow his daily movements, mourn his departure and even provide a post-script of the scientist’s reflections on his visit. Now, 100 years later, he’s still making headlines.

2. His Most Famous Equation Was An Afterthought

(Corbis)

E = mc2 has been used and abused, played up and played out.  It was, in fact, jotted down only as an afterthought; his main theory of special relativity had already been written up and sent out for publication. The equation Rμν1/2gμνR + λgμν = 8πGTμν is the real intellectual crux of Einstein’s career.  That’s general relativity: the warping of space-time in pure geometry; the evolution of the universe in a single line.  That’s beauty.

3. He’s A Brand

When we talk about the great minds of the next generation, we’re always looking for “the next Einstein.” And yes, that’s Albert Einstein™. The ubiquity of his image rivals Jesus and Ronald McDonald and he has been merchandised in every conceivable way, from key chains to a Chia pet. In 1989, Bill Gates set up a digital image company called Corbis and acquired the Roger Richman Agency, which takes a 20 percent cut of every Einstein endorsement (double what you can charge for a living celebrity). There’s a law firm in Beverly Hills that will tell you Einstein is their biggest client. Ironically, we’re more apt to recognize the wise old man than the young genius. Even the Einstein action figure is in his ripe old age.

4. He Inspired Alan Greenspan and Salvador Dalí

His genius crossed all boundaries: national, disciplinary, and otherwise. His influence in physics goes without saying, but there is barely a realm of knowledge that hasn’t been touched by his intellectual charms. His theory of Brownian motion has been applied by economists to stock market analysis, by ecologists to the movement of aerosol particles in clouds, and by biochemists to understand the motion of E. coli. The construction industry borrows from Einstein’s ideas in order to understand the motion of sand particles in cement mixes, and the dairy industry uses them to account for the motion of casein micelles in cows milk. His Relativity theories have inspired countless works of art, an entire system of ethics, a school of literature, and a rash of cultural studies theses. And of course, there are the poets… (see No. 7).

5. He Spoke Truth To Power

Einstein used the celebrity he won through scientific discovery to publicize causes, ranging from the fight against Spanish fascism to doing away with lynching in the southern U.S. During the 1950s, he fearlessly consorted with ostracized Soviet sympathizers like actor/singer Paul Robeson, not because Einstein was himself a communist, but because he supported their freedoms. The world’s most famous scientist was a joiner, a believer in solidarity, and an international lecturer on political causes—he was the quintessential “civic scientist” by the definition of Clinton science advisor Neal Lane.

Living in Berlin as World War I raged, Einstein courageously signed a pacifist manifesto denouncing “nationalist passions.” (He was one of only four people who had the guts.) Later, as he watched Nazism engulf Germany, he took on fascism, crusaded for nuclear arms control (as head of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists), and campaigned for a Jewish state that would recognize the rights of an Arab minority.

And Einstein didn’t simply advocate for causes; even as he stood outside government as a frequent critic, he also managed to offer advice to top policymakers. In fact, he is generally credited with inaugurating the modern American tradition of high level presidential science advising—a tradition that, sadly, has since fallen into steep decline.

6. He Told Us Why The Sky Is Blue

Einstein never failed to address the questions that others took for granted—indeed, his curiosity was as integral to his success as his intellect was. Studying certain gases and liquids that shone blue when all colors of the spectrum passed through them (think of cigarette smoke or milk), led Einstein to a theory of why the sky opalesces blue during the day and glows red at dusk and dawn—phenomena that had never actually been fully explained until then. His theory, and the resulting formula, were instrumental in convincing the last doubters of an atomic view of matter. Unfortunately, children who ask why the sky is blue don’t usually get Einstein’s version of the answer.

7. The Poets Loved Him

Perhaps it was the obscene enormity of Einstein’s vision, or his shock of silver hair, but the poets really took to him. Here’s a little “six degrees of Albert Einstein” that ties a group of wordsmiths to the quintessential scientist:

In 1926, Archibald MacLeish, an American ex-pat living in Paris, published a long poem entitled “Einstein,” about new tensions that would arise as science dispelled old controversies. In his mid-century poem “Albert Einstein to Archibald MacLeish,” poet Delmore Schwartz riffed on a quote attributed to the physicist that stated if he could live his life over again, he’d be a plumber. Schwartz was invited to the 1960 inauguration of President Kennedy along with William Carlos Williams, who wrote “St. Francis Einstein of the Daffodils” to commemorate the scientist’s first visit to the U.S. Williams mentored Allen Ginsberg, the beat poet who wrote about Einstein three times, in the poems “Nagasaki Days,” “Cosmopolitan Greetings,” and “Poem Rocket,” which contains the beautiful stanza:

Scientist alone is true poet he gives us the moon
He promises the stars he’ll makes us a new universe if it comes to that
O Einstein I should have sent you my flaming mss.
O Einstein I should have pilgrimaged to your white hair.

Ginsberg fancied himself a musician and he recorded with Bob Dylan, who considered himself more a poet than a musician. Dylan mentioned Einstein dressed as Robin Hood in his 1965 song “Desolation Row,” a reference to Einstein giving the hope of affordable electricity via nuclear energy to the poor. Dylan was a big fan of jazz poet Richard “Lord” Buckley who wrote a swinging abridged biography of Einstein called “The Mighty Hip Einie.”

___page break___

8. He Was Wrong

Humility is not a trait that often accompanies intellect, let alone power or prestige. But Einstein was, here again, an exception. For all he represented as World’s Smartest Man, his candor in the face of his mistakes is significant. Einstein readily admitted the gaps in his mathematical knowledge, and credited those who helped him when he struggled. He embraced dissent, answered straight to his critics and invited debate in all areas of inquiry. He immediately conceded that the cosmological constant was his biggest blunder after data showed up against it (though it has since been proven correct). In an age of increased infallibility, one can’t help but respect a man who had the chutzpah and integrity to admit his limitations. If anything, it only demonstrates how open his mind really was.

9. Hollywood Adored Him (and Still Does)

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to discover Einstein. More than a dozen films have been made about him, and another, directed by Errol Morris and based on Michael Paterniti’s book, Driving Mr. Albert is rumored to be in development. Einstein was a good friend of Charlie Chaplin’s and attended the premiere of City Lights. The professor was even consulted on the 1946 film The Beginning or the End, which retold—with quite a few dramatic liberties—the story of the Manhattan Project. Einstein’s famous visage pops up in unexpected forms throughout cinema. He was, for instance, the inspiration for E.T.’s eyes, Yoda’s forehead, and Dr. Who’s hair—all Hollywood versions of otherworldly intelligence. But according to at least one female friend, he had the brawn to match the brains. “He had the kind of male beauty that, especially at the beginning of the century, caused such a havoc.” Even Marilyn Monroe is rumored to have said he was her “idea of a sexy man.”

10. There Will Never Be Anyone Else Like Him

Space and time conspired to make Einstein the icon that he is. He was working at a time when a patent clerk could actually change the face of science. He was a Jew living in a time of extreme anti-Semitism who recognized Hitler’s evil before almost everyone else. He had a gift for communicating science in sound-bites, and his ideas about ‘relativity’ were readily embraced by a public struggling with absolutism and seeking change. Compound these unique circumstances with the increased compartmentalization of science and it becomes apparent that there will never be another Einstein. And even if there was an individual who could single-handedly change the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us (who also sailed, played music, told jokes and wooed women), it wouldn’t mean they were Einstein. Even the man himself recognized the task of living up to the name, reportedly quipping in signature form with, “Hey, I’m no Einstein.”

Originally published September 30, 2005

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