The Other Albert Einstein

Few figures in human history have left a greater mark, but Albert Einstein's inventions tragically skewed his legacy.

Albert Einstein

Beyond the legend of the great scientist, Albert Einstein was a great humanitarian and peacemaker.

Photo Courtesy Cliff1066/Flickr - Licensed under Creative Commons

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When Albert Einstein died, in Princeton Hospital at 1:15 on the morning of April 18, 1955, having mumbled his last words in German to a night nurse who understood no German, he left both a scientific and philosophical legacy. His scientific legacy has endured. The fate of Einstein’s philosophical legacy, rooted in his deep commitment to human values and especially to peace, remains in doubt.

Einstein was a dedicated humanitarian, who wrote as much about ethical and social issues as about science. “Knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified live,” he asserted. “Humanity has ever reason to place the proclaimers of high moral standards and values above the discoverers of objective truth. What humanity owes to personalities like Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the inquiring and constructive mind.” Ethical leaders like Spinoza and St. Francis of Assisi shared a “cosmic religious feeling,” Einstein felt. The “most important function of art and science,” he argued, is “to awaken this feeling and keep it alive.”

One great obstacle to understanding Einstein better is that we already know him. He is a peerless myth—Einstein of the rumpled sweater and snowy hair, naïve and absentminded yet crammed with incomprehensible wisdom, the high school dropout who failed algebra but proved to know more than the professorial stuffed shirts, the brilliant mathematician who found time to help children with their homework.

Nor is the myth entirely false. Einstein was, for instance, absentminded. His wife Elsa used to bundle him up in his overcoat and leave him in the foyer, only to find him standing there a half hour later, lost in thought. Attending a reception, Einstein busied himself scribbling equations then stood when the speeches ended and joined in the general applause, not realizing that the guests were applauding him. But he didn’t fail math; he dropped out of Munich’s Luitpold Gymnasium (now the Albert Einstein Gymnasium) because he hated its authoritarian atmosphere.

To appreciate Einstein’s qualities, we must peer behind the thunderheads of the myth. There stands an Einstein of Zen-like poise who was, first and last, pacific. Peace was the subject of hundreds of his essays, letters and lectures. His last conversation with his old friend Otto Nathan, just a few hours before his death, concerned civil liberties. The last document he signed was a proclamation against the use of nuclear arms. The advent of nuclear weapons, he maintained, had transformed international tolerance and understanding from a desirable goal into a practical necessity. He argued that the bomb had left the world with no choice but to renounce all-out war, which he called “the savage and inhuman relic of an age of barbarism.”

His pacifism drew fire from the politicians. President Truman’s Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles dismissed as “impossible” Einstein’s proposal for a world government. When Einstein’s name appeared (without his permission, incidentally) on a letter advocating a break in U.S. relations with Franco’s Spain, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi cried out in the House, “I call upon the Department of Justice to put a stop to this man Einstein.” But Einstein kept speaking out, even when close friends warned that he was getting himself into trouble. He played no significant role in the development of the atomic bomb and indeed disregarded early suggestions that his E=mc2 could be employed to make weapons. But he was quick to understand that the bombs, once built, must spell the end either to total war or to the societies that wage it.

He was a stranger not only to the bellicosity but to the competitiveness and materialism that Western societies so often champion in their young. In 1932, invited to name his salary at the Institute of Advanced Study, eh requested only $3,000 a year, asking, “Could I live on less?” The Institute responded by paying him $15,000 a year. Einstein spent little of it. On at least one occasion he offered to pay the salary of a colleague who had been refused reappointment at the institute, explaining that he had more money than he needed.

Awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for physics, Einstein neglected to mention it in his diary, in letters to friends, or years later, on a form requesting a list of the honors he had received. This was not because he felt he didn’t deserve the prize. Quite to the contrary: When he divorced his first wife, Mileva, in 1919, he promised her as alimony the Nobel prize money he was confident would soon come his way. It seems instead that Einstein’s attitude was one of genuine selflessness. His colleague Leopold Infeld writes that Einstein was the only scientist he worked with who cared solely for the content of scientific discoveries and not at all for whether he had made them.

Winston Churchill, who thrived on fame, wrote that “it is better to be making the news than taking it; to be an actor rather than a critic.” Einstein disagreed. “Better an understanding spectator than an electronically illuminated actor,” he said. At age 70 he wrote that he thought his accomplishments had been “over-valued beyond all bounds for incomprehensible reasons. Humanity needs a few romantic idols as spots of light in the drab field of earthly existence. I have turned into such a spot of light.”

Einstein was deeply religious, though in a way sufficiently subtle to recall the dictum that if one is asked, “Do you believe in God?” the answer least likely to be understood is “yes.” Einstein’s answer was that he believed in “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the harmony of all being.” For Spinoza as for Einstein, God is nature. “What I see in nature,” Einstein wrote, “is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of ‘humility.’ This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism. . . .

“My religiosity,” he added, “consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding can comprehend of reality.”

In his scientific research, he invoked the deity so frequently that Infeld joked, “Einstein uses his concept of God more often than a Catholic priest.” “I want to know how God created this world,” Einstein said. “I want to know his thoughts, the rest are details.” Einstein felt that science could never replace God—“Knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be.”

Einstein saw God as dressed in questions more than answers—“What really interests me,” he told his assistant Ernst Straus, “is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world”—and his personality was imbued with a deep sense of the mysterious. “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious,” he said. “It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does no know it is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.” Here may be found the wellspring of Einstein’s egolessness. “The Sphinx stares at me in reproach and reminds me painfully of the Uncomprehended, blotting out the personal aspects of life,” he wrote.

A solitary man, he had few if any intimate friends. “It is strange,” he wrote, “to be known so universally and yet be so lonely.” Asked what might be the ideal livelihood for a working scientist, Einstein replied, “lighthouse keeper.” Yet for all his detachment and steely will, he was, by all accounts, extraordinarily warm. A democrat in practice as well as theory, he dealt in the same friendly, unpretentious way with janitors and chiefs of state, students and movie stars. He took pains to put people at ease; colleague Banesh Hoffman recalls that when he was introduced to Einstein in the 1940s, feeling “utterly overawed and scared,” Einstein suggested that Hoffman explain his work, then added, “Please go slowly, I don’t understand things quickly.

“When Einstein said that,” Hoffman remembers, “all my fears left me. It was magical—what he said and how he said it. He treated us all as equals.” Einstein’s friends and associates often used the word magic when describing him.

Though he had every excuse to retreat into the privacy he craved, Einstein chose to immerse himself in the affairs of this world. “One must divide one’s time between politics and equations,” he said. He played the violin at Israel fund-raisers, wrote recommendations for so many students and colleagues that university administrators eventually came to disregard them, answered most of the thousands of letters he received—and he really did help a few schoolchildren with their homework, assuring them that they shouldn’t worry about their difficulties with math as his were even greater.

Einstein had his faults. He was not, for instance, a good family man. He forgot his children’s birthdays, confided to friends that he had been married “disgracefully” both times, and wound up, like Mark Twain, mothered by women who brought him his slippers and denied him his cherished cigars. He was an unexceptional mathematician, though his intuition was so powerful that he could grope his way to solving unfamiliar equations.

He had no gift for popularizing his ideas. Infeld, who collaborated with him on a non-technical book, The Evolution of Physics, attributed this to his separateness. “It is not easy for Einstein to emerge from his inner isolation and to realize the way in which the ordinary man speaks and thinks,” Infeld remarked.

Nor was Einstein an especially gifted teacher. Indifferent toward rhetoric, he lectured in an almost inaudible voice, staring into the middle distance, in a style on student described as “thinking out loud.” As Pais points out, nobody ever got a Ph.D. studying with Einstein.

We remember Einstein as adored, but he was also widely detested. “It is possible that Einstein was as much hated as he was loved during his lifetime,” writes John Stachel. “He was hated as a Jew, a pacifist, a democrat and a civil libertarian, a radical, and in later years a socialist.”

For declaring that “to kill in war is not a whit better than to commit ordinary murder,” and for insisting that in the nuclear age, “mankind can be saved only by a supranational system,” Einstein was called impractical and naïve. The best reply to this charge of his own: “Is it really a sign of unpardonable naivete,” he asked, “to suggest that those in power decide among themselves that future conflicts must be settled by constitutional means rather than by the senseless sacrifice of great numbers of lives?

“The worldwide armaments race,” he said, “which not only stifles scientific progress through the demands of military secrecy but serves to intensify war fears, will only be eliminated if the traditional military organization is replaced by a supranational military authority which would possess sole control of all offensive arms: a kind of world government in the interest of international security.

“Do I fear the tyranny of a world government?” he asked. “Of course I do. But I fear still more the coming of another war.”

A declaration against the use of nuclear arms, drafted by Bertrand Russell and signed by Einstein, put the situation in this way: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal, as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest.”

On his deathbed, Einstein refused to consider surgery for the aortal aneurysm that had brought on his collapse. “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially,” he said. “I have done my share, it is time to go.” His body was cremated without ceremony. The ashes were scattered at an undisclosed location, so that none could make a pilgrimage to his grave.

The question of a monument has kept arising ever since. Frank Press, President Carter’s science advisor, told the audience at an Einstein centennial celebration at Princeton in 1979 that “Einstein, were he with us today, would have been appalled that the world now spends more than $350 billion a year on arms and more than $30 billion on their research and development.

“If there is anything that the science community can do to honor the memory of Albert Einstein today,” Press said, “it is to support efforts toward arms control.”

But arms spending has gone up, not down. Einstein understood that the real peace might be a long time coming. In 1936 he wrote a little note on the subject, on a sheet of long-lasting rag paper to be placed in a time capsule. It read:

Dear Posterity, 

If you have not become more just, more peaceful, and generally more rational than we are (or were)—why then, The Devil take you.
Having, with all respect, given utterance to this pious wish,

I am (or was), 

Yours truly, 

Albert Einstein 


Excerpted with permission from Science 84 The American Association for the advancement of Science (October 1983).  

Image: Albert Einstein by Cliff1066, licensed under Creative Commons.