Albert Einstein: Pop Culture Icon

A cultural icon by all measures, Einstein the man is still much more interesting than Einstein the celebrity

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In the orgy of pop-cultural retrospection that swept through American media at the end of the year, century, and millennium, the reputation of a certain fuzzy-haired theoretical physicist stood up very well: A veritable flood of new books on Albert Einstein flowed into bookstores, and People magazine tabbed him “Most Intriguing” person of the century. Time took it a step further, anointing him Person of the Century and celebrating him with essays by, among others, celebrity physicist Stephen Hawking and conservative pundit Roger Rosenblatt, who somehow links the image of Einstein as a demigod of science with the prevalence of the first-person pronoun in modern literature.

Perhaps Rosenblatt’s murky reaction to Einstein the phenomenon is understandable. Einstein the man, it seems, is much more interesting than Einstein the celebrity. The great unsettler of classical space and time, who in his theories of relativity proved that in the far reaches of our universe, time and space are as malleable as clay, was a complex man with a legacy that extends well beyond science.

First, as Fritz Stern notes in Einstein’s German World (Princeton University Press, 1999) his undoctrinaire socialism, pacifism, and anti-militarism—he had denounced the German war effort publicly during World War I—made him the perfect ambassador of German science to the world when a defeated Germany was trying to burnish its image as a peace-loving nation. Then in 1933 he became the world’s most famous Jewish emigre from Hitler’s terror. Settling in at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, which had been created for him, he began a career as a pundit and philosopher while slowly retreating from the forefront of physics research in what many colleagues saw as a quixotic quest for the unified field theory, the “theory of everything” that would account for all the forces of the physical universe in a single set of equations.

The dominant popular image of Einstein in his American years was extremely ambivalent: He was the brainy teddy bear in rumpled clothes, the archetypal absentminded professor with a comic-opera German accent. But he also represented physics in the years in which it went to war. It was Einstein who warned Franklin Roosevelt that Nazi Germany had the capacity to develop an atomic bomb; the Manhattan Project was a direct result—although Einstein the devoted pacifist took no part in the project and bitterly regretted Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There was a third Einstein during these years too, as Max Jammer points out in Einstein and Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999). The physicist who had once declared that “all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling” was in demand to pronounce on religious questions in the media and in conferences and colloquia. But Einstein’s religion combined awe in the face of the beauties and symmetries of nature with a strict determinism that denied free will and a total rejection of an anthropomorphic god. This “naturalistic theology,” as Jammer terms it, called forth condemnation from orthodox Christian clergy—condemnation that was sometimes laced with genteel anti-Semitism, as when one Episcopal divine suggested that “[Einstein] does his own people a grave injury . . . giving the religious bigots, especially the followers of Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan, fuel for their fanatical fires.”

Where, and who, is Einstein today? Perhaps inevitably, our personality-obsessed culture is insisting on a search for Einstein the man beneath the various grand or goofy images of scientific sainthood. Stern’s Einstein’s German World situates Einstein’s early career within the history of a German scientific establishment heavily funded by big business—an early military-industrial complex—and portrays a scientist divided between a genuine distaste for German military-industrialism and genuine enthusiasm for the magnificent facilities he enjoyed as a professor at the University of Berlin.

Einstein’s troubled first marriage, to Serbian-born physicist Mileva Maric, as chronicled in Michele Zackheim’s Einstein’s Daughter (Riverhead, 1999), was a one-sided affair in which the talented Maric was expected to submit in all respects to her husband’s superhuman work schedule and irregular habits, including an eye for other women. (Einstein’s libidinous impulses also tormented his second wife, his cousin Elsa Einstein, but the union lasted until his death in 1955.) An accomplished violinist and a man of culture in the old European style, Einstein was nevertheless a driven man whose lust for theoretical work coalesced with a pronounced desire to avoid the discomforts of daily life: “No wonder that under these conditions my love for science flourishes,” he once wrote Elsa, complaining about Mileva and his mother, “for it lifts me out of my vale of tears to quiet spheres, impersonal and without rebuke or complaint.”

Is “our” Einstein, warts and all, a diminishment of the man? Only if you believe that great ideas somehow ought to be born by immaculate conception. Physicists are still astonished by the beauty and power of his work, and it remains the foundation for modern advances in physics, astronomy, and cosmology. “[There] is one thing on which all . . . scientists agree,” writes Amir Aczel in God’s Equation: Einstein, Relativity, and the Expanding Universe (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999), “and that is the sheer power and the ever-continuing usefulness of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.” That it was born from the frenetic efforts of a flawed human, a man who sought both escape from and involvement in our world during a terrible century, should not diminish our admiration of the work—or the man.