PD Smith

Time, space and problem hair

Times Literary Supplement, 11 November 2005

Albert Einstein: Man of the Century, 15 September 2005 – 8 January 2006, The Jewish Museum, Camden Town, Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London NW1 7NB

By P. D. Smith

One of the most revealing photographs in Albert Einstein: Man of the Century at the Jewish Museum, is a snapshot somewhat smaller than a postcard, clearly intended for a family album, its grey tones already fading like a distant memory. Taken during his visit to Shanghai in 1922-3, it shows an unusually dapper Einstein sporting a stylish black hat. Still in his early forties, the great physicist stands proudly in the middle of the picture, flanked by members of the local Jewish community. He had just won the Nobel Prize and was well on the way to becoming the “greatest Jew on Earth”, as David Ben-Gurion later called him. The previous year thousands had flocked to hear him speak during his American tour to raise funds for the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As Einstein himself said with characteristic irony, he was fast becoming a “Jewish saint”.

This small but entertaining exhibition is curated by Ze’ev Rosenkranz with material from the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Alongside many images of Einstein, together with well-chosen excerpts from his writings placed into a biographical context, there are also a number of high quality facsimiles of famous letters and manuscripts. Although sadly lacking in personal artefacts, the exhibition does provide a wonderful glimpse into the life of this scientific icon.

Fifty years after his death, Einstein’s face is instantly recognisable to all generations, his name still synonymous with genius. He saw deeply into the laws of the physical universe, but the reasons for his fame remained something of a mystery to the man himself. He expressed his puzzlement in 1927 in a delightful and typically playful verse:

“Wherever I go and wherever I stay,
There’s always a picture of me on display.
On top of the desk, or out in the hall,
Tied round a neck, or hung on the wall.
Women and men, they play a strange game,
Asking, beseeching: ‘Please sign your name.’
From the erudite fellow they brook not a quibble
But firmly insist on a piece of his scribble.
Sometimes, surrounded by all this good cheer,
I’m puzzled by some of the things that I hear,
And wonder, my mind for a moment not hazy,
If I and not they could really be crazy.”

Although the focus of Albert Einstein is clearly the man, the science is represented by four documents in facsimile: the opening page of his seminal 1905 paper on special relativity from the Annalen der Physik; the first, and much-amended, handwritten page from “Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relitivitätstheorie” (The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity, 1916); and two manuscript pages from an article on E=mc2. For visitors who cannot read German and for whom higher maths and physics are equally alien tongues, such texts (provided without translation) will offer little enlightenment. They are presented rather like sacred texts, to be revered rather than read. In the same spirit, a blackboard on which Einstein chalked equations during a 1931 lecture on relativity at Oxford has been preserved in the University’s museum, the ultimate work of conceptual art, its mathematical runes only disclosing their secrets to a select caste – physicists. But in these postmodern times we can all own, if not understand, these sacred texts: at Camden Town there is a mouse mat of the Oxford blackboard.

Some of the most interesting material, here, relates to how other people saw Einstein. With his Princeton secretary, Helen Dukas, Einstein kept what he called a “komische Mappe”, or curiosity file. By his death it contained 700 items, including assorted marriage proposals, weird scientific theories (other people’s theories, that is) and, unfortunately, anti-Semitic hate mail. There was even a separate category for envelopes. A typically surreal one was addressed to “Professor Albert Einstein, Master Tailor of Clothes for Vacuum Space”. A rather confused British correspondent wrote for reassurance about the effect of gravity on a person during the Earth’s rotation. Is it, he enquired, “while a person is standing on his head – or rather upside down – [that] he falls in love and does other foolish things?” Einstein politely replied that “falling in love is not at all the most stupid thing that people do – but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it.”

Two of the most memorable letters on display are from children. Ann G Kocin, aged 6, wrote in 1951 to “cordially” inform “Mr Einstein” that, having seen his picture in the newspaper, “I think you ought to have your hair cut, so you can look better”. A year later young John Jurgensen from Indiana wrote:

“Dear Dr Einstein
My Father and I are going to build a rocket and go to Mars or Venus. We hope you will go too! We want you to go because we need a good scientist and someone who can guide a rocket good.
Do you care if Mary goes too? She is two years old. She is a very nice girl.
Everybody has to pay for his food because we will go broke if we pay!
I hope that you have a nice trip if you go.”

These touching letters are just a few of the many Einstein received from children all over the world and reveal the extent of his fame and influence. By the 1950s he had become the archetypal wise man, part prophet, part sorcerer, the man who with little more than pen and paper had read the mind of God. According to the post-war myth, Einstein was the new Prometheus who had snatched the divine atomic fire and brought it down to Earth where man misused it to create the ultimate weapon of mass destruction: the atomic bomb.

A cartoon in the exhibition by Horacio Guerriero entitled “Einstein and the Bomb” (published in Uruguay Today, 1979) shows Einstein morphed into the atomic mushroom, his hair billowing darkly in the sky. Also on display is a facsimile of Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt that eventually led to the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein admitted that signing this letter was the “one great mistake in my life”. But even Einstein’s mistakes are hallowed texts. In 1986, one of the two versions of this letter, drafted by his colleague Leo Szilard, fetched £150,000 at auction.

Einstein’s genuine fears about a German atomic bomb persuaded him to write to Roosevelt. But he was a pacifist; as the exhibition shows, Einstein hated war and the military with a passion. One wonders what he would have thought of the State of Israel developing its own nuclear weapons. In 1952, three years before Einstein’s death, Israel offered him the presidency. The many crossings-out in the draft letter declining this honour reveal that it was not an easy letter to write. “All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions,” was Einstein’s rather feeble excuse. The Prime Minister was relieved. Ben-Gurion told an aide: “Tell me what to do if he says yes! If he accepts, we are in for trouble.” Privately, Einstein had said that he was prepared to tell the Israeli people some hard truths. But he had spent his life being a “radical non-conformist who rejected societal norms”, and it is difficult to imagine him as a statesman or politician. For one thing, he would have had to cut his hair.