What I Know about Einstein
When I was a child, in the 1940s and 1950s, Einstein’s name came up fairly often, usually as a synonym for genius, but when our family got our first television set, around 1952, I saw him on a variety show and he certainly didn’t act like a genius. In fact all he did was tell jokes! A few years later I realized that he wasn’t Einstein, he was a stand-up comedian named Morrie Amsterdam, who bore only the vaguest resemblance to the internationally known scientist.
The onset of puberty made me think. That is, my intelligence, which had devoted itself to schoolwork and not much else, began to work on its own, exploring new areas in my mind. I started to think about thinking. And time. And space. Infinity. This new cast of mind led me to books about astronomy and theoretical physics—Einstein territory. Suddenly it semed important for me to try to understand his Theory of Relativity.
One book I read described a moment when Einstein, riding in a trolley car down a street in Zurich, imagined the car accelerating toward the speed of light, which caused the buildings on both sides to curve over and touch roofs. I found this anecdote fascinating, but I could hold the general idea of space-time in my head only temporarily.
Another book explained relativity “in layman’s terms”—a popular expression of the day—by having us imagine a man standing in the aisle of a moving train and dropping a ball to the floor. If the train had been standing still, the trajectory of the ball could be described as vertically straight down, but since the train is moving horizontally, the falling ball is moving both horizontally and vertically, so its trajectory could be seen as a diagonal. Hence, to the man the ball drops straight down, but to an observer watching the train go past, the ball drops diagonally. Reality depends on one’s point of view: one of the basic principles of relativity, or at least relativism.
Because I was ready to embrace a more nuanced view of the world, I found relativity to be very much to my liking. No longer was something hot or cold, it was hotter or colder than something else. No longer was something good or bad—it was a matter of comparison or degree. For example, in our culture it is bad to cut off someone’s head and shrink it, but in the jungles of Brazil . . . Goodbye to absolutes! And goodbye to the annoying “certainties” they tried to impose on us.
Einstein himself had definite moral and political views that had nothing to do with relativism. Having been portrayed as the man whose ideas led to the creation of the atomic bomb, he wrote a benevolent and heartfelt book urging the world to calm down and be nice. I think it amounted to preaching to the choir.
Some of his scientific theories had long been under attack. As with many other great mathematicians, his major discoveries had come when he was in his twenties, to be followed by little more than elaborations. I have the impression that in his later years he was given a small house in Princeton, which he occupied as a permanent fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Did someone live with him? A devoted servant? A wife? I don’t recall a Mrs. Einstein. Perhaps the deep sadness in his eyes in his later years comes partly from loneliness. Humanity had misused his ideas and now he was mainly alone, the most famous person alive. But fame can be isolating. What good is celebrity if you are misunderstood and lonely?
I just realized that ever since my adolescence I have been comforted by the thought that he existed. It has been reassuring to know that someone can be staggeringly brilliant and still hold out hope for humanity. I hope his house was nice.