The Sciences

A Tangled Life

How could one man be genius, secular saint, pacifist, humanitarian, indifferent parent, jokester, poet, dreamer, musician, world saver, father of the bomb, loyal friend, flirt, and fraud?

By Brad LemleySep 30, 2004 12:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Albert Einstein has been dead for 49 years, but Ralph Gardner can still see the great physicist’s dark eyes across the chessboard.

“Dr. Einstein taught me how to play chess,” says Gardner, a former New York Times editor. In 1934 Gardner was 11 years old. He had learned to speak German from his grandparents, so a friend invited him to a Manhattan tea party honoring Einstein (who spoke at least four languages but preferred German). “First, he asked me if I played an instrument,” says Gardner. “I told him no. He said he played the violin. Then he asked me if I played chess. I said no. I was getting worried that he would think I couldn’t do anything. He said he would teach me chess, and he did.” Einstein returned for several successive Saturdays and taught his new student until tea was served. Gardner learned later that the tea party recurred weekly because Einstein, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, was arranging passage out of Germany for Jewish college professors.

Memories of Einstein are just as strong for Gillett Griffin. In 1954, after eating dinner at Einstein’s house at the invitation of a mutual friend, Griffin watched curiously as Einstein wound up a plastic toy bird with suction cups for feet. “He stuck it on the mirror,” recalls Griffin, 76, a Princeton art curator for more than 50 years. “It ran up the mirror, then fell back into his hand. He said, ‘Do you like it?’ I said I loved it.” The next day, Einstein’s stepdaughter and secretary both called and told Griffin, “The professor says come back whenever you like. You are part of the family.”

Teacher and toy aficionado are just two of the endless descriptions applied to the most famous scientist who ever lived, the man Time magazine dubbed the person of the 20th century. Almost every adjective ever applied to a human being has been pasted across Einstein’s iconic visage with its towering forehead, tangled white mane, and sometimes goofy smile: genius, secular saint, pacifist, humanitarian, indifferent parent, jokester, poet, dreamer, musician, world saver, father of the bomb, loyal friend, flirt, even fraud.

For those who are drawn to science, Einstein is most profitably seen as a superposition. Quantum physics tells us that an object can be in all possible states simultaneously—superposition—until it is observed. Einstein is like that. To observe and describe him is to limit him. “I found him more complex than I even thought I would,” says Michael Shara, curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s seminal Einstein exhibit created to mark the centenary of the 1905 publication of the theory of special relativity. “For a man who was so great a scientist, he was more human than one could believe.”

The possibilities that would be expressed by Albert Einstein began to manifest on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Württemberg, Germany, when the swollen, misshapen head of their newborn son alarmed Hermann Einstein, a feather-bed salesman, and his wife, Pauline. The attending physician assured the worried parents that time would rectify the problem, and it did, though the back of Albert’s head remained oddly angular for the rest of his life.

Popular mythology holds that young Einstein seemed slow, even mentally challenged. But a more comprehensive view of his early life—such as that provided by Denis Brian in his 1996 book, Einstein: A Life, jostles the superposition. Young Albert excelled at math. From the age of 10 he conversed as an equal with Max Talmey, a Polish medical student and weekly lunch guest of the Einsteins. Talmey fed Albert’s voracious curiosity with books, especially works by Aaron Bernstein, a popularizer of science whose writings discussed the idea that a unified force underlay all natural phenomena.

Still, the popular view has some merit too. Disgusted by young Albert’s inability to learn Greek, his professor at Munich’s Luitpold Gymnasium reportedly told him in front of the entire class that he would never amount to anything.

Regarding one aspect of his developing character, however, no one has doubts: Einstein was inflamed by great passions. “As a young man, he was so eager,” says biographer Brian. “Once, he was walking down the street carrying his violin and he heard a woman playing the piano. He rushes into her house, stomps up the stairs, startles her, and shouts, ‘Don’t stop! Don’t stop!’ He pulls out his violin and accompanies her. He had a wonderful spontaneity.”

Unsurprisingly, as Einstein reached his late teens the passionate young man soon found himself gripped by forces of attraction beyond the scope of particle physics. Around 1898 he fell in love with Mileva Maric´, a Serbian classmate at Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zürich. His exuberant personality opened up the reserved young woman, and soon he was composing fevered doggerel for her about Johnnie and Dollie, their pet names for each other:

In 1902 they had a daughter out of wedlock, Lieserl, whom Einstein never mentioned in public and whose fate remains a mystery. In that same year Einstein took a job as an examiner at the Swiss Patent Office. In 1903 he and Mileva married, and a year later she gave birth to their first son, Hans Albert. Then came the miracles.

In the golden year of 1905, 26-year-old Einstein wrote four major articles that forever altered physics. The most famous is “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” which introduced the special theory of relativity. It plumbed the nature and interrelationships of time, distance, mass, and energy and smashed the Newtonian view of the universe that had held sway for two centuries. The paper “was strangely free of footnotes or references, as if the inspiration had indeed come, if not from God, from some otherworldly source,” wrote Brian. Some biographers credit a more down-to-earth font of inspiration, arguing that Mileva contributed to the papers and Einstein unfairly denied her credit.

In any case, as the groundbreaking papers circulated among physicists and his stature and obligations increased, Einstein’s marriage became strained. “I am very starved for love,” Mileva wrote to a friend in 1909. Divorce loomed, and Einstein sent Mileva a list of conditions that she would need to meet to remain married to him, such as, “You make sure . . . that I receive my three meals regularly in my room” and “You are neither to expect intimacy nor reproach me in any way.”

The birth of a second son, Eduard, in 1910 did little to mend the rift, and by 1914, when Einstein became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, he and Mileva separated. Einstein was by all accounts a humble man, but his divorce settlement indicates that he grasped the magnitude of his contributions—he ceded all of the $32,000 Nobel Prize for Physics money to Mileva, though he had not yet won it. He received the prize in 1921.

Overwork, remorse over his separation from his sons, and poor health battered Einstein; in the fall of 1917 he collapsed in agony from a stomach ulcer and lost 56 pounds in two months. Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin, nursed him back to health, and they married in 1919. It was a marriage of convenience. “She told him he could have a woman on the side, but only one at a time,” says Shara. Einstein’s flirtatious letters written to various women over the next 36 years make it clear that he exercised the option.

In 1919 Einstein became the first, and perhaps last, superstar scientist. British photographs of a solar eclipse showed that the sun’s gravitation bent starlight, appearing to confirm Einstein’s premise that gravity is not a force but a distortion in space-time. On November 10 The New York Times trumpeted, “Einstein Theory Triumphs,” and his place in history was assured. “He was regarded by many as an almost supernatural being, his name symbolizing then—as it does now—the highest reaches of the human mind,” wrote Brian.

On a whirlwind tour of the United States in 1921, a reporter asked him to give a simple explanation of relativity. Einstein paused, then said, “Before, it was believed time and space were separate from matter. My theory says time and space are inseparable.”

Throughout the 1920s, Einstein toured the world lecturing and teaching, buffeted by a mixture of adulation for the greatness of his intellect and hatred for his being a Jew. “What really strikes you about him is his courage,” says Shara. “He was the number one enemy of the Nazis and kept speaking out against them when there was a price on his head.”

Once Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, Einstein abandoned Berlin and received permanent residency in the United States, where he accepted a position in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. Even as he labored unsuccessfully there to unify the fundamental forces of physics, he became a much-beloved public figure, strolling about town in a sweatshirt, rumpled khakis, and sandals. “When he came to Manhattan, he pulled up at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in a big, open touring car, and all the people would gather, saying, ‘It’s Einstein! It’s Einstein!’ ” remembers Gardner, a member of the impromptu crowd. “His picture was always in the newspaper and the movies. Everyone knew that face.”

Griffin felt for Einstein: “He was absolutely beset by people.”

As he had been in Europe, Einstein remained outspoken politically in America, both in public and behind the scenes. In 1939 he wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging a U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb before the Germans could do so. Later, he pushed ardently for nuclear disarmament. As a pacifist and Zionist, he garnered a 1,427-page FBI file and was invited in 1952 to be Israel’s second president, which he declined. Griffin remembers an intimate dinner among friends in 1954 at which Einstein was asked what he thought of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of American communists. “It was a dark time in America, but Einstein had a wonderful perspective,” Griffin recalls. “He said, ‘America has a sense of humor. In time, we will laugh at this man.’”

Einstein’s religious views were close to the pantheism of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: He believed in a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”

Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, died in 1936. His first wife, Mileva, died in 1948. His elder son, Hans Albert, who became a respected expert on sedimentation and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, died in 1973. His second son, Eduard, by most accounts a brilliant child, gifted in languages and music, suffered a schizophrenic breakdown at age 20 and was frequently institutionalized until his death in 1965. His mental illness was a source of lasting pain to his father.

That, in fact, appears to be a fundamental contradiction in Einstein’s personality. He often claimed detachment from the affairs of men. “I have never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a

circle of friends, nor even to my own family,” he wrote near the end of his life. Yet where his intellect and fame might have made him haughty or withdrawn, Einstein time and again gamely plunged into

the human world of love, fatherhood, friendships, and politics, propelled to the end by the same passion for life that vaulted him up a stranger’s stairs, violin ready, decades earlier.

If one takes a large step back—in matters involving Einstein, it is always appropriate to take a large step back—the opposites unite. “He always tried very hard to unify what had previously been kept apart,” says Gerald Holton, a research professor of physics and history of science at Harvard who has studied Einstein for 50 years. What looked like detachment was actually a passion to include, to transcend petty identifications in favor of a more fundamental whole—not just in physics but in everyday human existence. “Wherever you look in his life, he was always dedicated to removing barriers,” Holton says. “His talent was in seeing the unity in phenomena that ordinary people always perceived as different.”

Perhaps it was Einstein’s steadfast refusal to set himself apart from humanity despite his enormous gifts that left the world inconsolable when he died on April 18, 1955, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. “The world has lost its best man, and we have lost our best friend,” wrote a heartbroken Alice Kahler, a fellow German refugee living in Princeton.

Even now, for some, the wound has not healed. “He was just one of the kindest people I ever met,” says Gardner softly. “Back in those days, most people ignored me. He seemed genuinely interested in what an 11-year-old boy had to say.”

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2022 Kalmbach Media Co.