The man behind the legend

ALBERT Einstein, one of the most celebrated scientists in history, died over half a century ago.

Before his death in 1955, he had become a legend in his own lifetime, having received numerous prestigious awards including the Nobel Prize in 1922 for his contribution to theoretical physics. Characterised as the greatest genius of the 20th century, his name has become synonymous with intellectual brilliance. A non-observant Jew, he was offered the presidency of Israel following the country’s creation; he declined. Always a loner, he once commented only partly in jest that “physicists call me a mathematician, and mathematicians call me a physicist. Though everyone claims to know me, there are only a very few who really know me.” Today, his 12-foot-high bronze statue, showing the figure of a wrinkled old man staring at his famous equation, adorns the halls of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington.

Born a German, Einstein as a child showed no inkling of the superior intellect he was to demonstrate in his later life. He did not learn to speak until he was three, and later at school his grades were only mediocre, as he quickly got bored with subjects that did not interest him, often to the annoyance of his teachers. They thought that he might be retarded. However, Einstein soon debunked this perception as he focused his sharp mind on unsolved riddles of mathematics and physics.

Einstein is principally known to the world as the genius who in 1905 published five landmark papers embodying his revolutionary theories to explain the relationship between time, space, light and gravity whilst working in the patent office in Berne, Switzerland, where he had moved initially to study engineering. His theories were so original in nature that, unlike established practice, his publications did not cite the work of anyone else. These achievements in theoretical physics secured his name in the hall of fame of science forever, placing him in the company of such august stalwarts as Newton, Galileo and Copernicus. In 2005, many academic and research institutions around the world celebrated the century of his momentous publications which in some ways unleashed the era of nuclear science.

While Einstein’s fame was on the rise world-wide, the political situation in his country became inhospitable. The Nazi takeover of Germany and the prevailing climate of anti-Semiticism forced Einstein to migrate to the United States in 1933, becoming a professor at the prestigious Princeton University, on the US east coast, where he remained until his death.

Einstein had remained a pacifist all his life and, especially in his later days, he became a vocal, strong opponent of the development and use of nuclear weapons. He had been greatly affected by the destruction and loss of life caused by the atom bomb in Japan in the closing days of the Second World War. He regretted the contribution he made to the knowledge that was eventually used to develop such devastating weapons.

While numerous books and papers have been written about Einstein’s scientific contributions, in recent years, attention has been shifting from his technical achievements and focusing on him as a person. There is a newfound interest among literary researchers in discovering who he really was underneath the luminous exterior. This quest has been spurred by the fact that he has left behind a wealth of personal documents and manuscripts which afford fascinating glimpses into many facets of his personality at various phases of his life. In addition, several of his colleagues and close friends have recorded their impressions of him and his views on a range of topics from mundane to sublime. Before his death, Einstein had made his long-time German secretary, Helen Dukas, custodian of all his archival documents during her lifetime. Thereafter, they were to be donated to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to be made available for scholarly research.

For a long time after Einstein’s death, these documents remained at Princeton University and Dukas guarded them with her life, permitting limited access only to those writers whom she trusted would present the renowned scientist in the best light. Not surprising, the book written about him — Albert Einstein, the Human Side, published in 1981 by Princeton University Press, showcased him as a kind, compassionate and tolerant philosopher, free of common human failings, a picture that it turned out is only partly true.

Helen Dukas died unexpectedly in 1982 and the vast collection of Einstein’s manuscripts in her custody was moved from Princeton University to the University in Jerusalem, where they were systematically catalogued and selectively made available for publication. Einstein’s archival papers were widely distributed. Altogether, it is estimated that he left some 40,000 written pieces that are still scattered in the academic institutions of Europe and America. In recent years, through various agreements with his legal heirs, it has been possible to re search and evaluate these documents and to make them available to the public. The most recent book drawing from his papers was published last year, under the title The New Quotable Einstein, edited by Alice Calaprice, senior editor of the Princeton University Press. This is an updated edition of an earlier collection of Einstein’s sayings and writings and represents a remarkable anthology of his thoughts and musings, distilled from his letters and miscellaneous writings.

The extraordinary feature of the book is that it makes no attempt to disguise the unattractive side of his personality, the difficulties and turmoil he faced during most of his domestic life, his inability to stay faithful to his wives, and his unfair treatment especially of his first wife. Einstein was married twice; the first wife was a fellow physicist who worked with him in his early career, while his second wife was his cousin. The book reveals that he a had stormy and unhappy relationship with both of him, mostly because of his extramarital relationships with other women, who were drawn to him by his fame and celebrity status. At best, he was an uncaring husband and father.

Some of his letters released earlier this year portray his troubled relationship with his first wife, Mileva Maric, and relate how he lost most of the money he received from his Nobel Prize. In her divorce settlement, his first wife, with remarkable prescience, had included a clause stipulating that should he win the Nobel Prize, he would hand over the money to her so she could use it for the education of their two sons. Einstein eventually received both the prize and the money, but he invested most of it, which amounted to only $34,000 in 1922, in long-term bonds whose value was wiped out in the economic depression that financially ruined many Americans in 1930s.

Of all the known manuscripts and papers related to Einstein, nothing aroused as much excitement as a personal diary written in German that was discovered some two years ago at Princeton University’s Firestone library. Johanna Fantova was his female companion and associate and a former librarian, who spent much time with him during the last years of his life. She kept a meticulous record of his various activities and pursuits. The 62-page diary, interestingly, is virtually devoid of any discussion of physics or mathematics, the life-long passions of Einstein. Instead, it provides a unique window into his thoughts as he approached the end of his life, and his daily struggle with aches and pains. In many respects, his last days were very similar to what most elderly people experience in their twilight years, the infirmities of old age. However, in some respects he was more than an ordinary old man.

Fantova notes that Einstein was regularly visited by a paraded of renowned scientists who called on him to pay their respects. In addition, he was inundated with letters from around the world in which people made an infinite variety of requests, ranging from simple autographs to attempts to persuade him to convert to Christianity for his salvation. While his health and memory were fading, curious visitors and tourists showed up at his house, asking to have a photograph taken with him. He occasionally pretended to be sick in bed in order to avoid being overwhelmed by the demands of his visitors. On his 75th birthday, his final year of life, someone sent him a live parrot and the great scientist took an instantaneous liking to it. Believing that the bird was depressed, he tried to cheer it up by telling it his favorite jokes. Almost until the end, Einstein continued to take interest in current affairs, while sailing and music remained his favourite hobbies.

It is most likely that Einstein did not know that his close friend was taking notes and keeping a diary of his activities. Fantova maintained that she wanted the world to know the human side of his personality, since it was revealed to only a very few. She died in 1981 at the age of 80, and until her death her diary remained unpublished, un-translated and hidden in her personal files. Discovered recently, it has now been translated and published by Princeton University Press as part of the updated version of the book, The New Quotable Einstein. In one of his published quotations, Einstein manages to remain cheerful while expressing his frustration with the frailties of old age: “I feel like an old, rundown car. But even old age has some very beautiful moments.”

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One Response to The man behind the legend

  1. Mary says:

    I enjoyed reading your entry on mysticism and Einstein. I have an Einstein calendar with quotes from the man. Amazing! Am about to write an entry on Dostovesky. Have you heard of him? A great Russian poet and thinker who had sprinklings of Sufism.
    Great work

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