The birth of a second son, Eduard, in 1910 did little to mend the rift, and by 1914, when Einstein became a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Berlin, he and Mileva separated. Einstein was by all accounts a humble man, but his divorce settlement indicates that he grasped the magnitude of his contributions—he ceded all of the $32,000 Nobel Prize for Physics money to Mileva, though he had not yet won it. He received the prize in 1921.
Overwork, remorse over his separation from his sons, and poor health battered Einstein; in the fall of 1917 he collapsed in agony from a stomach ulcer and lost 56 pounds in two months. Elsa Löwenthal, his cousin, nursed him back to health, and they married in 1919. It was a marriage of convenience. “She told him he could have a woman on the side, but only one at a time,” says Shara. Einstein’s flirtatious letters written to various women over the next 36 years make it clear that he exercised the option.
In 1919 Einstein became the first, and perhaps last, superstar scientist. British photographs of a solar eclipse showed that the sun’s gravitation bent starlight, appearing to confirm Einstein’s premise that gravity is not a force but a distortion in space-time. On November 10 The New York Times trumpeted, “Einstein Theory Triumphs,” and his place in history was assured. “He was regarded by many as an almost supernatural being, his name symbolizing then—as it does now—the highest reaches of the human mind,” wrote Brian.
On a whirlwind tour of the United States in 1921, a reporter asked him to give a simple explanation of relativity. Einstein paused, then said, “Before, it was believed time and space were separate from matter. My theory says time and space are inseparable.”
Throughout the 1920s, Einstein toured the world lecturing and teaching, buffeted by a mixture of adulation for the greatness of his intellect and hatred for his being a Jew. “What really strikes you about him is his courage,” says Shara. “He was the number one enemy of the Nazis and kept speaking out against them when there was a price on his head.”
Once Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933, Einstein abandoned Berlin and received permanent residency in the United States, where he accepted a position in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study. Even as he labored unsuccessfully there to unify the fundamental forces of physics, he became a much-beloved public figure, strolling about town in a sweatshirt, rumpled khakis, and sandals. “When he came to Manhattan, he pulled up at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in a big, open touring car, and all the people would gather, saying, ‘It’s Einstein! It’s Einstein!’ ” remembers Gardner, a member of the impromptu crowd. “His picture was always in the newspaper and the movies. Everyone knew that face.”
Griffin felt for Einstein: “He was absolutely beset by people.”
As he had been in Europe, Einstein remained outspoken politically in America, both in public and behind the scenes. In 1939 he wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging a U.S. effort to build an atomic bomb before the Germans could do so. Later, he pushed ardently for nuclear disarmament. As a pacifist and Zionist, he garnered a 1,427-page FBI file and was invited in 1952 to be Israel’s second president, which he declined. Griffin remembers an intimate dinner among friends in 1954 at which Einstein was asked what he thought of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of American communists. “It was a dark time in America, but Einstein had a wonderful perspective,” Griffin recalls. “He said, ‘America has a sense of humor. In time, we will laugh at this man.’”
Einstein’s religious views were close to the pantheism of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: He believed in a “God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”
Einstein’s second wife, Elsa, died in 1936. His first wife, Mileva, died in 1948. His elder son, Hans Albert, who became a respected expert on sedimentation and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, died in 1973. His second son, Eduard, by most accounts a brilliant child, gifted in languages and music, suffered a schizophrenic breakdown at age 20 and was frequently institutionalized until his death in 1965. His mental illness was a source of lasting pain to his father.
That, in fact, appears to be a fundamental contradiction in Einstein’s personality. He often claimed detachment from the affairs of men. “I have never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a
circle of friends, nor even to my own family,” he wrote near the end of his life. Yet where his intellect and fame might have made him haughty or withdrawn, Einstein time and again gamely plunged into
the human world of love, fatherhood, friendships, and politics, propelled to the end by the same passion for life that vaulted him up a stranger’s stairs, violin ready, decades earlier.
If one takes a large step back—in matters involving Einstein, it is always appropriate to take a large step back—the opposites unite. “He always tried very hard to unify what had previously been kept apart,” says Gerald Holton, a research professor of physics and history of science at Harvard who has studied Einstein for 50 years. What looked like detachment was actually a passion to include, to transcend petty identifications in favor of a more fundamental whole—not just in physics but in everyday human existence. “Wherever you look in his life, he was always dedicated to removing barriers,” Holton says. “His talent was in seeing the unity in phenomena that ordinary people always perceived as different.”
Perhaps it was Einstein’s steadfast refusal to set himself apart from humanity despite his enormous gifts that left the world inconsolable when he died on April 18, 1955, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. “The world has lost its best man, and we have lost our best friend,” wrote a heartbroken Alice Kahler, a fellow German refugee living in Princeton.
Even now, for some, the wound has not healed. “He was just one of the kindest people I ever met,” says Gardner softly. “Back in those days, most people ignored me. He seemed genuinely interested in what an 11-year-old boy had to say.”
Lemley, a Discover contributing editor, wrote “Going Up,” the July 2004
cover story about space elevators.