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Einstein’s mysterious genius

Albert Einstein’s greatest achievement, the general theory of relativity, was announced by him exactly a century ago, in a series of four papers read to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in November 1915, during the turmoil of the First World War.

For many years, hardly any physicist—let alone any other type of scientist—could understand it. After general relativity received its first experimental confirmation in the solar eclipse of 1919, by astronomers led by Arthur Eddington, a famous story tells of how Eddington was approached by a fellow astronomer who had recently published a book on Einstein’s 1905 special theory of relativity. He said: “Professor Eddington, you must be one of the three persons in the world who understands general relativity.” When Eddington demurred, his colleague persisted: “Don’t be modest, Eddington,” and received the crushing reply: “On the contrary, I am trying to think who the third person is.” But after some decades of controversy, since the space programme of the 1960s general relativity has been regarded by most cosmologists as the best available explanation for the observed structure of the universe, including black holes, if not the complete explanation.

However, even today hardly anyone apart from specialists understands general relativity—unlike, say, the theory of natural selection, the periodic table of the elements or the concept of wave/particle duality in quantum theory. So why is Einstein the world’s most famous and most quoted (and misquoted) scientist, far ahead of Isaac Newton or Stephen Hawking—and also a legendary byword for genius? His fame is a puzzling phenomenon. As an Einstein biographer, let me to try to unravel the mystery, at least a little, by considering the reactions to Einstein of a wide range of people during his lifetime and since his death in 1955, as well as his own surprised reaction to his fame.

For example, when Einstein gave lectures about general relativity at Oxford University in 1931, the capacity academic audience soon ebbed away—baffled by both Einstein’s mathematics and his German—leaving only a small core of experts. Afterwards, a cleaner rubbed the equations off the blackboard (though thankfully one blackboard was saved and is on display in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science). Yet, in the very same year, when Einstein and his wife appeared as the personal guests of Charlie Chaplin at the premiere of Chaplin’s film, City Lights, in Los Angeles, they had to battle their way through frantically pressing and cheering crowds—on whom the police had earlier threatened to use tear gas. The entire movie theatre rose in their honour. A somewhat baffled Einstein asked his host what it all meant. “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you,” quipped Chaplin.

Albert Einstein, 1947, via the Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Albert Einstein, 1947, via the Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1940s, Einstein informed a biographer: “I never understood why the theory of relativity with its concepts and problems so far removed from practical life should for so long have met with a lively, or indeed passionate, resonance among broad circles of the public… I have never yet heard a truly convincing answer to this question.” To a New York Times interviewer he disarmingly remarked in 1944: “Why is it that nobody understands me, yet everybody likes me?”

Part of the reason for Einstein’s fame is surely that his earliest, and best known, achievement—his 1905 special theory of relativity—seems to have come out of the blue, without any prior achievement. Einstein (like Newton, but unlike Charles Darwin) did not have anyone of distinction in his family. Indeed Einstein himself insisted in old age that “exploration of my ancestors … leads nowhere” in explaining his particular bent. He was not notably excellent at school and college (unlike Marie Curie); in fact he failed to obtain a university post after graduation and had to accept a position as a patent clerk. He was not part of the scientific establishment, and worked mostly alone, during the period 1905-15. In 1905, he was young and struggling, with a newly born child. His apparently sudden outbreak of genius inevitably intrigues us all, regardless of whether or not we grasp relativity.

A further reason for his fame is that Einstein was active in many fields far from physics, notably politics and religion, including Zionism. Best known are his open opposition to Nazi Germany from 1933, his private support for the building of the atomic bomb in 1939 and his public criticism of the hydrogen bomb and McCarthyism in the 1950s, which was secretly investigated by the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, who was determined to prove that Einstein was a Communist agent. In 1952, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but declined. Clearly, his turbulent later life and courageous stands fascinate many people who are bemused by general relativity.

According to the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who knew Einstein personally: “Einstein was not only a great scientist, he was a great man.” The mathematician Jacob Bronowski proposed: “Newton is the Old Testament god; it is Einstein who is the New Testament figure… full of humanity, pity, a sense of enormous sympathy.” The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke guessed: “Einstein’s unique combination of genius, humanist, pacifist and eccentric made him accessible—and even loveable—to tens of millions of people”. The biologist Richard Dawkins calls himself: “unworthy to lace Einstein’s sockless shoes… I gladly share his magnificently godless spirituality.”

Such a combination of solitary brilliance, personal integrity and public activism is rare among intellectuals. Add to this Einstein’s lifelong gift for witty aphorism when dealing with the public, the press and fellow physicists. For example, his popular summary of relativity, given to his secretary for communication to casual enquirers: “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour”. Or his sceptical response to the role of chance introduced in quantum mechanics: “God does not play dice.” Or my own favourite Einstein comment: “To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.” And one has at least some rationale for Einstein’s unique and enduring fame.

Featured image credit: Albert Einstein in a Classroom. Public domain via Pixabay.

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