An unlikely case of cerebral celebrity
BY THE time he was in his 40s, Albert Einstein was one of the most famous people in the world. But he couldn’t figure out why. Cheered wherever he went, the smiling, shaggy-haired physicist knew that few outside his professional inner circle could understand either his “special” theory of relativity of 1905 or the “general” theory of a decade later. If there was one thing people did understand, however, it was that relativity was important and that Einstein had thereby transformed our comprehension of the functioning of universe to a degree unparalleled since Newton.
In a richly illustrated volume (revised from 2005), Andrew Robinson tells us about both the science and the man, his narrative interspersed with contributions from others who knew Einstein personally or can bring their own expertise to bear on the achieve- ments of the great man. Thus, Stephen Hawking outlines the history of relativity and its subsequent impact on the “big bang” theory of the origins of the universe and Hawking’s own work on the existence of “black holes”, while the composer Philip Glass tells us how he came to create the huge, quasi-operatic work, Einstein on the Beach.
The late physicist Joseph Rotblat shows how Einstein, profoundly aware of how his ideas had helped lead to the creation of atomic weaponry, was aghast at the potential fate of mankind in the thermonuclear age and became increasingly preoccupied with the ultimately fruitless attempttoencouragetheestablishment of some kind of world government.
Born in Ulm in Germany in 1879 to non-observant Jewish parents, Einstein’s first school was a Catholic one in Munich. Over the years that followed, he was based for various periods in Zurich, Bern (where he worked in the Swiss Patent Office), Prague and Berlin.
An inveterate traveller, Einstein made several visits to the USA, finally settling in Princeton after the Nazi takeover in Germany. Many who knew Einstein commented on his selfabsorbed personality; while capable of warm affability, his only true commitment was to his science. An early marriage ended in separation and divorce and a second, while lasting until his wife’s death in 1936, was evidently punctuated by a number of affairs.
Einstein never believed in religion as such, preferring to seek a transcendent, unified truth that might incorporate insights from all faiths. But he became deeply conscious of his Jewish roots and of his kinship with fellow Jews (whom he regarded as his “tribal companions”). An early supporter of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and of the idea of a state of Israel, Einstein visited Palestine in 1923 and, later, from his base in Princeton, felt a deep obligation to do all he could for other refugees from Nazism. But, when offered the presidency of Israel in 1952 after the death of Chaim Weizmann, Einstein turned it down, aware perhaps that he was too much of an individualist, incapable of institutional commitment. On hearing of his refusal, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion was doubtless relieved. “I had to offer the post to him because it’s impossible not to,” he had told his assistant, adding: “if he accepts, we’re in for trouble.” Daniel Snowman’s books include a study of the cultural impact of the ‘Hitler Émigrés’
Einstein pictured circa 1919
He became deeply conscious of his roots and his kinship with fellow Jews