Had he not had that wild halo of hair and those piercing eyes, would he still have become science’s poster boy? Had he lacked that admixture of intensity and distraction, would he nevertheless have become such an icon, his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius?
Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like Max Planck or Niels Bohr. Would he have remained in their reputational orbit—a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the quantum leap into the realm inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?
As we seek to determine Albert Einstein’s proper place in history’s pantheon, we can look at how he became paramount in both the field of science and the field of celebrity. And from this duality—surely genius can be both wave and particle too—we can speculate about a unified theory that would explain the interaction between the fields.
The examination will intensify with the centennial celebration of Einstein’s miracle year, an annus more mirabilis than any since the 22-year-old Newton fled the plague and moved to the countryside in 1665, inventing calculus and beginning work on a new theory of universal gravitation. It was during Einstein’s spare time as a technical examiner in the Swiss patent office in 1905 that the 26-year-old produced four major papers that would change science forever.
The first, for which he won the Nobel Prize, described how light could appear to behave not only like a wave but also like a stream of particles, a duality that laid the foundation for quantum physics. The second confirmed the existence of molecules and atoms by statistically showing how their random collisions explained the jerky Brownian motion of tiny particles in water.
Important as both papers were, it was his third that truly upended the universe. It was based, like much of Einstein’s work, on a thought experiment: If you could travel at the speed of light, what would a light wave look like? If you were in a train that neared the speed of light, would you perceive time and space differently?
Einstein’s conclusions became known as the special theory of relativity—no matter how fast you are moving toward or away from a source of light, the speed of that light beam will appear to be the same, a constant 186,282 miles per second. But space and time will appear different for someone not traveling with you. As a train accelerates to near the speed of light, time on the train will seem to slow down to someone not moving with it, and the train will seem to get shorter and heavier.
In his fourth missive, Einstein showed that energy and matter were different faces of the same thing, their relationship described by the most famous equation in all of physics: energy equals mass multiplied by the speed of light squared, E = mc2. Although not exactly a recipe for an atomic bomb, it explained why one was possible.
Einstein’s crowning glory, perhaps the most beautiful theory in all of science, is the general theory of relativity, published in 1916. Like the special theory, it was based on a thought experiment. Imagine being in an enclosed lab accelerating through space. The effects you’d feel would be indistinguishable from the experience of gravity. Gravity, Einstein figured, is a warping of space-time. Just as his earlier work paved the way to harnessing the smallest subatomic forces, the general theory opened up an understanding of the largest of all things, from the formative Big Bang of the universe to its mysterious black holes.
It took three years for astronomers to test this theory by measuring, during an eclipse, how the sun shifted light from a star. The results were announced at a meeting of the Royal Society in London presided over by J. J. Thomson, who discovered the electron in 1897. After glancing up at the society’s grand portrait of Sir Isaac Newton, Thomson told the assemblage, “Our conceptions of the fabric of the universe must be fundamentally altered.” The headline in the next day’s Times of London read: “Revolution in Science . . . Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” The New York Times, back when it knew how to write great headlines, was even more effusive: “Lights All Askew in the Heavens/ Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations/ Einstein’s Theory Triumphs.”
Einstein, then little known, became a global celebrity and was able to sell pictures of himself to journalists and send the money to a charity for war orphans. More than a hundred books were written about relativity within a year.
Einstein’s theory of relativity not only reshaped physics, it also jangled the underpinnings of society. For nearly three centuries, the clockwork universe of Galileo and Newton, based on absolute laws and certainties, formed the psychological foundation for the Enlightenment, with its belief in causes and effects, order, rationalism, even duty.
Now came a view of the universe in which space and time were no longer absolutes. Indirectly, and much to Einstein’s chagrin, popular conceptions (or misconceptions) of relativity paved the way for a new relativism in philosophy, the arts, and politics. There was less faith in absolutes, not only of time and space but also of truth and morality. “It formed a knife,” historian Paul Johnson has said of relativity theory, “to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings.” Just as Darwinism became, a century ago, not just a biological theory but also a social theology, so, too, did relativity shape a new social theology of the 20th century.
In 1922, the year Einstein received the Nobel Prize, James Joyce published Ulysses and T. S. Eliot published The Waste Land. There was a famous party in May for the debut of the ballet Renard, composed by Igor Stravinsky and staged by Sergey Diaghilev. They were both there, along with Pablo Picasso (who had designed the sets), Marcel Proust (who had been proclaimed Einstein’s literary interpreter), and Joyce. The art of each, in its way, reflected the breakdown of mechanical order and of the sense that space and time were absolutes.
In late 1933, as Hitler consolidated power, Einstein came to the United States, eventually settling in Princeton as the world’s first scientific supercelebrity. That year he helped found a group to resettle refugees, the International Rescue Committee. Thus he became a symbol of another of the great themes of the century: how history was shaped by tides of immigrants, so many of them destined for greatness, who fled oppressive regimes for the freedom of democratic climes.
As a humanist and internationalist, Einstein had spent much of his life espousing a gentle pacifism. But in 1939 he signed a famous letter that came to symbolize the relationship between science and politics. “It may become possible to set up nuclear chain reactions,” the letter told President Roosevelt. “This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs.” When Roosevelt read the letter, he crisply ordered, “This requires action.”
That is how science and celebrity can become intertwined. Yet even when judged only by the physics that he put on paper, Einstein would stand supreme in the modern age. The development of quantum theory by Planck and Bohr and others may have been just as important to the progress of physics as Einstein’s theory of relativity. Nevertheless, the theory of relativity, first special and then general, represented a burst of individual genius and personal creativity seldom seen in science or any other field. And it burst into being, with what would later be seen as a big bang, in that Bern patent office a century ago.
Isaacson is president of the Aspen Institute and the author of
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life.