Monday, March 14, 2011

In Memoriam: Albert Einstein

Physics - that unholy combination of beautiful science with horrifying math - is almost the only topic of conversation that will cause my eyes to glaze over instantly; in fact, whenever it comes up, I know I have about three seconds in which to brace myself on something sturdy or risk falling over. It stands to reason, then, that physicists ought to be the very last people I would write about on the Pop Culture Institute, where our editorial policy consists of the unholy combination of beautiful history with horrifying entertainment (or, if you prefer, vice versa).

PhotobucketYet every so often - okay, twice, but technically that still counts as 'every so often' - a physicist also becomes a pop culture icon, putting me in the kind of awkward position of which a sadistic Pilates instructor (or is that a tautology?) can only dream.

It's happened before, with Sir Isaac Newton; unable to suitably gird myself I passed over his birthday without remarking on his extraordinary life. Today, though, I decided to man up and tackle the life of Albert Einstein, whose remarkable achievements I cannot hope to understand but am still able to admire.*

The man who made E = mc2 famous was born on this day in 1879; best known for his theory of relativity, Einstein's early marriage - to Mileva Marić - ended in divorce in 1919 (after a five-year separation), having produced two sons: Hans Albert in 1904 and Eduard in 1910. A daughter named Lieserl, about whom very little is known, was born before they were married. It was during this time (1905) that he also produced the Annus Mirabilis Papers, on which the majority of his early fame was built; these writings did much to overthrow the ideas of that other physicist I've heard of, Newton. Several months after his divorce, Einstein was remarried, this time to his second cousin Elsa Löwenthal, a relationship which endured until her death in 1936.

When, in 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, he gave the considerable award money to his ex-wife, as had been stipulated in their divorce papers; the following year he made his first trip to New York City. Unlike many people who are savants in their field but idiots in life (say, me, for instance) Einstein was canny enough both to have taken out Swiss citizenship (as early as 1901) and gotten the Hell out of Germany long before Hitler's rise to power in March 1933, having more or less settled at Princeton University by then (although he often spent his winters in Pasadena at the California Institute of Technology).

As war threatened, then broke, and especially after the nuclear genie had been let out of the bottle, Einstein was increasingly concerned with peace, which naturally outraged many who were enamoured of the pro-war position (including much of the US government); Einstein's FBI dossier was soon more than 1400 pages thick, and his enlightened views on race relations, world government, even vegetarianism, meant it became difficult to obtain funding for his work.

Einstein's April 1955 death should have been the end of it, but 45 years later he was voted Time magazine's Person of the Century, his name having long since become synonymous with the word 'genius'; part of the reason for his renown, of course, was his considerable charm, as demonstrated by the 1951 photograph of him which adorns this post, which was taken by UPI photographer Arthur Sasse. When Marilyn Monroe expressed her attraction to him the hearts of every geek in the world were considerably gladdened. He was most famously portrayed in Fred Schepisi's 1994 film I.Q. by another charming uggo, Walter Matthau.

*Hopefully by the time it's Nils Bohr's birthday I'll be over it all!

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Seumas Gagne said...

Nice piece! Another couple pop-scientist that I would like to know more about:

Steven Hawking
Carl Sagan

Just a thought!

michael sean morris said...

Thanks for the input! I'll see what I can do...