An un­likely case of cere­bral celebrity

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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


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