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The Face of Science

How Albert Einstein became a celebrity

By Sam Kean | HUMANITIES, May/June 2014 | Volume 35, Number 3

It took six minutes, fifty-one seconds for Albert Einstein to become world famous. That’s how long the moon stood suspended before the face of the sun on May 29, 1919, eclipsing its light. Mind you, the astronomers below couldn’t sail back home and develop their photographs for weeks; they then needed months more to analyze the results. Within those few minutes that spring day, the scientists had captured the first hard proof of Einstein’s theory of general relativity—and with that, launched Einstein himself from the darkness of obscurity into the brightness, even glare, of celebrity.

Success did not come easy to Einstein. He received no job offers upon graduating from college in 1900, and even after his annus mirabilis of 1905—when he published papers that laid the foundations for special relativity and quantum mechanics, and derived E=mc2 to boot—it took four more years to find work as a physicist.

Professional struggles aside, Einstein’s scientific work dissatisfied him as well. His 1905 paper on special relativity had unified two previously incompatible fields, Galileo’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. But Newton’s theory of gravity had resisted integration, and after 1905 Einstein labored for another decade to bring gravity into the fold. Even then, despite how nifty general relativity looked on paper, Einstein’s critics complained that there was no proof that it corresponded to reality.

So, rather audaciously, Einstein proposed a way for scientists to disprove his theory—if they could. Relativity predicted that gravity should bend light. As a result, light from distant stars should curve as it passed by the sun. This, in turn, made the stars’ positions in the sky appear shifted compared with their true positions. The sun’s brightness made this shift impossible to observe, of course—except during an eclipse, when stars could peek out from behind its shadow. Search for this shift, Einstein declared, and see if I’m right.

English astronomer Arthur Eddington took Einstein up on this challenge in May 1919, setting up telescopes and cameras on Príncipe, an island off western Africa famed for its cocoa. World War I had just ended, and the premise of the trip—spending British money to test a German scientist’s theories—rankled many. Rain almost scotched the expedition anyway; only an hour before the eclipse did rain clouds lift over Príncipe. And although Eddington scrambled to take sixteen pictures in those six minutes, fifty-one seconds, only two provided useful data.

Nevertheless, they revealed enough: The stars had shifted. When Eddington finally had these results in hand, he called it the greatest moment of his life. And he wasn’t alone in gushing. Newspapers worldwide jumped on the story: “LIGHT ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS,” read one headline, “MEN OF SCIENCE MORE OR LESS AGOG.” Even those who couldn’t grasp relativity’s nuances knew that this Einstein fellow had transformed our understanding of space and time.

From that moment on, we have lived in Einstein’s universe—in more ways than one. Beyond confirming a revolutionary theory, the eclipse inaugurated Einstein as a celebrity, making him the face of science worldwide. This beatification of Einstein didn’t please everyone. Some colleagues found his willingness to pontificate about social reforms and political causes distasteful. And, as a Jew, Einstein became a magnet for anti-Semitism in Europe; relativity itself was denounced as “Jew science.” In the end, however, nothing could stop the metamorphosis of Einstein the man into Einstein the star.

The hunger for Einstein seems unbelievable in retrospect. Among scientists, a veritable public relations machine of physicists worked to promote general relativity from 1915 onward; six hundred articles and books on it appeared within six years of its debut. The public’s hunger proved greater still. A book-length biography of Einstein had appeared by 1921, and he attracted crowds wherever he went, once drawing 15,000 people to Madison Square Garden to celebrate Hanukkah. Churches displayed statues of him, he attended the Rose Bowl parade, and, when he visited Washington, D.C., the U.S. Senate put aside its normal partisan bickering to bicker about relativity theory instead. Einstein appeared on the cover of Time on five occasions, and his second wife, Elsa, also got a cover story in Time—just for being Mrs. Einstein.

Most admirers cheerfully admitted they didn’t understand relativity in the slightest. Marcel Proust adored Einstein for upending our notions about how time flows and how we experience time; pity, then, that Proust couldn’t make heads or tails of Einstein’s algebra. Even many scientists shrugged. After crossing the Atlantic with Einstein in 1921, Chaim Weizmann, a chemist and later the first president of Israel, commented, “Einstein explained his theory to me every day, and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”

Einstein found the attention thrust upon him flattering, puzzling, and tiresome all at once. “He loved publicity and loved to complain about it,” biographer Walter Isaacson noted in Einstein: His Life and Universe. But he always tolerated it, for reasons both noble and grubby.

One reason was money. In college, Einstein had fallen in love, against his family’s wishes, with a fellow physics student named Mileva Marić. They had two sons (Hans, a future engineer, and Eduard, who died in an asylum) and packed plenty of Sturm und Drang into just a few years. It didn’t help that, whenever a domestic storm kicked up, Einstein buried himself in his equations and ignored the problem.

Einstein eventually divorced Marić, and married Elsa, his cousin and a mother of two girls, in 1919. And although his domestic life quieted down, the price was not cheap. For one thing, Einstein now had two families to support. Furthermore, in a desperate gambit to rid himself of Marić in 1918, he’d agreed to give her—for he expected to win it soon—the cash bonus that accompanied the Nobel Prize. (The sum turned out to be nearly fifty times his annual salary, with which Marić bought three houses.) To compound the problem, Marić and their sons moved to expensive Switzerland while Einstein remained in Germany, where inflation was laying waste to the economy: In 1923 alone, the price of bread rose from 700 marks per loaf to one billion marks. Fame allowed Einstein to hoist himself out of this financial hole. He requested fees as high as $15,000, almost $200,000 today, for a talk. Some institutions balked; others happily paid what they could for the honor of a visit.

Fame also gave Einstein a platform for promoting social causes, like Zionism. He made his first trip to the United States in 1921 to raise money for what became Hebrew University in Israel. Later in life, he was offered the presidency of Israel. (He declined, realizing he’d make a hash of it.) The other cause dear to his heart was pacifism, and he spent much of his free time in the 1920s writing articles and giving speeches to promote peace and understanding among nations.

Throughout all this, Einstein continued to work on science. He helped develop Bose-Einstein statistics in 1924, which describes how particles like photons and electrons behave in groups. He served as a valuable foil in disputes over quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of protons, electrons, and other subatomic particles. In particular, Einstein was horrified by the bizarre philosophical implications of quantum mechanics, like the lack of clear cause and effect in certain situations, which he famously disparaged, when he said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” And he continued his lifelong quest to develop a “unified field theory” that would explain every phenomenon in physics—from planets orbiting the sun to electrons orbiting a nucleus—with one single set of equations.

Sadly, a unified field theory never materialized, and Einstein spent several decades tangled in a briar patch of gnarly mathematics. Mirroring this failure, relativity itself suffered an eclipse of prestige in the 1930s and 1940s, as most promising young physicists turned to quantum mechanics instead. Einstein grew more and more isolated scientifically—partly because he never fully accepted quantum mechanics—and by 1948 physicist Freeman Dyson could write to a friend, “Relativity is one of the least promising fields that one can think of for research at the present time.”

Still, Einstein’s glamour never faded in the public’s eye. He continued to draw crowds wherever he traveled, and whenever he published a new theory, newspaper reporters outdid themselves to laud it. In 1929, a London department store even plastered one of his dense, equation-riddled papers in its front window so that crowds could gather around and confirm that, nope, they still didn’t understand. That Einstein often ignored these papers later—citing some mistake or misinterpretation and moving on—didn’t matter. Reporters fell for it every time and would celebrate the next “breakthrough” with undimmed enthusiasm.

Not everyone celebrated Einstein’s fame. Colleagues recoiled for the rather quaint reason that publicizing science seemed uncouth. In science, they declared, only ideas matter; all else was claptrap. Colleagues also feared that political agitators and Communist front groups were taking advantage of Einstein to further their dubious agendas. In response to these protests, Einstein basically threw up his hands. As he wrote to a friend, “The English expedition of 1919 is ultimately to blame for this whole misery, by which the general masses seized possession of me. Ever since, I have become a kind of flag that various sorts of interests parade about.”

That quote appears in the thirteenth and newest volume of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, a volume that captures a pivotal period in Einstein’s life.

Published by Princeton University Press, the volume is the work of the Einstein Papers Project, headquartered at the California Institute of Technology. The editors working on the project draw on more than thirty thousand unique documents that Einstein willed to Hebrew University. Project head Diana Kormos Buchwald says that making sense of Einstein’s vast output—personal letters, scientific work, political documents, all in several languages—offers a formidable challenge for scholars, a challenge comparable to that offered by the works of Jefferson, Darwin, and few others in history.

The recently completed thirteenth volume (of an expected thirty) covers fifteen months in the early 1920s—a time when Einstein became aware of the dark side of fame. This comes through most clearly in the kerfuffle over his Nobel Prize in 1922. Despite receiving repeated nominations for Einstein, a few Nobel committee members had always dismissed relativity as too theoretical—some committee members considered the work too Jewish—to warrant the prize. Ultimately, the committee honored Einstein only for his work on the photoelectric effect, which describes how electrons are ejected from the surfaces of metals. The affair disgusted Einstein, who accepted the prize (and the money) but skipped the Nobel ceremony to travel to Japan. He never mentioned winning the Nobel in his diary, either.

Outside of scientific circles, the prejudice was more acute. In June 1922, thugs gunned down Walther Rathenau, a German cabinet member and a friend of Einstein’s who was also Jewish. The cold-bloodedness shocked Einstein, whose own name appeared on a seized list of assassination targets not long afterward. The final straw came in 1933 when mobs ransacked Einstein’s apartment in Berlin. Einstein was visiting California at the time, and his stepdaughter barely saved thousands of his papers, smuggling them to France. Had she not, much of what we know about his struggles to complete relativity theory would have been lost to history.

Fear for his safety finally, in 1933, drove Einstein to settle in Princeton, New Jersey, a move he made with mixed feelings. He admired many things about his adopted homeland, like the lack of class hierarchies and the intellectual freedom. He adored American informality as well: He could get away with wearing no socks to work, and schoolchildren often stopped by his house for help with math homework.

Despite his pacifism, he also supported U.S. involvement in World War II. He donated $11.5 million from the sale of a handwritten copy of his 1905 paper on special relativity to the war effort. His celebrity also changed the course of the war. A less famous colleague of Einstein’s realized in the late 1930s that uranium could be harnessed into an atomic weapon. Having no pull himself, Leó Szilárd turned to Einstein to alert President Franklin Roosevelt, who soon initiated the Manhattan Project. After the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein regretted even his peripheral involvement in the project. For once, he refused to talk to reporters.

The fallout from World War II also exacerbated some of the things Einstein loathed about the United States. The paranoia of McCarthyism especially disgusted him: “Everything—even lunacy—is mass-produced over here,” he complained to a friend. Such outspoken criticism prompted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to investigate Einstein, whom it hoped to expose as a Communist and subversive element.

The FBI turned up nothing, of course. And even if it had, it’s hard to believe the FBI could have tarnished Einstein, whose celebrity continued to shine undimmed into his seventies. He spent his last years puttering about Princeton wearing no socks, scribbling equations in the morning, and answering a bombardment of letters each afternoon, about everything from the nature of God to the possible links between love and gravity. He couldn’t escape his fame even after his death in 1955: A doctor in Princeton more or less stole Einstein’s brain during the autopsy, hoping to determine what made him a genius. A second doctor also plucked out his eyes, for no other reason than because they were Einstein’s.

A few other scientists in history have achieved celebrity status. Newton and Darwin were buried in London’s Westminster Abbey. Marie Curie’s love affairs were splashed across the Paris tabloids. Stephen Hawking makes headlines today. But no one compares with Albert Einstein. His work strums the deepest chords of our imagination—the nature of time, the origin of the heavens, the ultimate fate of the universe. And he rose to prominence just as new forms of communication made true celebrity status possible. “He came at the moment when almost all the modern media were in place,” says Kormos Buchwald. “Newspapers, magazines, photographs, radio. So he was a quintessentially modern scientist in everything, including media exposure.”

Almost six decades after his death, we love Einstein no less. He’s so ubiquitous, in fact, we don’t often reflect on how odd it was for a goofy, unworldly, ill-kempt physicist to become one of the most beloved figures in history. Perhaps his fellow frumpy dresser Charlie Chaplin put it best. He and Einstein met in 1931, and Chaplin invited him to a movie premiere in Hollywood a few days later. As the crowds cheered themselves hoarse upon seeing these two icons arm in arm, Chaplin turned and said, “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.” That doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.

Sam Kean is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. His latest book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery, will be released this spring by Little, Brown and Company.

Since 1984, NEH has awarded $858,000 for work on the papers of Albert Einstein at the California Institute of Technology and Princeton University Press. NEH grants also supported programs marking Einstein’s 1979 centennial.