The Other Albert Einstein

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

| Summer 1984

  • 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

  • Albert Einstein

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.

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