A half century after he died, Albert Einstein still knows how to make an entrance. He drops in unexpectedly when I take out the trash: a momentary glance up at the night sky becomes a vertiginous vision of fusion-powered stars, their bulks held together by the curvature of space-time, their light emitted at a steady 186,282 miles per second. He leaps out from among the sun-bleached rocks when I visit Mount Wilson in California, where Edwin Hubble first saw that the universe is expanding and so transformed the general theory of relativity into a road map of the origin and fate of the cosmos. And he greets me from the faint, Xeroxed papers of the Einstein Archives at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, his words still fresh and vibrant in letters to Franklin Roosevelt, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, adulatory children, even to cranks wishing to debunk his theories.
Over the years, these visitations have consolidated into a portrait of my Einstein—or, more precisely, my three Einsteins, related but distinct aspects of the man, which I envision nested inside one another like Aristotle's heavenly spheres. The symbolic Einstein touches me through his seismic influence on popular culture; the scientific Einstein reaches me through his serpentine formulas and theories; the philosophical Einstein reaches deepest into my heart, challenging my notions of beauty and spirituality. What ties these together is Einstein's miraculous gift for reckless invention. In his public proclamations, his theorizing, and his religious ruminations, he cast a piercing gaze on existing formulations, rejected existing ideas, and freely redefined terms—space and time, pacifism, God—in search of deeper meanings.
The symbolic Einstein offered me his most pointed lessons while I was growing up, just as he has for millions of other academic-minded kids over the past eight decades. Who doesn't know the stories? Einstein famously (if not actually) started out a "slow" child but grew up to become a gentle genius. Einstein was so far ahead of his time, so out of step with his colleagues, that he had to take a menial job at the Swiss patent office while he hammered away at the mysteries of E = mc2. Einstein encouraged the development of the atomic bomb, then spent the late years of his life arguing for peace and international cooperation. He was an otherworldly presence, visually signified by his mane of untamable hair, who nevertheless uttered deliberately accessible epigrams: "God is subtle, but He is not malicious," or "To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate has made me an authority myself."
It hardly matters that many aspects of Einstein's pop biography verge on caricature. The messages they convey are valid all the same. This Einstein taught me that great achievement is inextricably tied to a healthy dose of disrespect for mainstream belief. For me, Einstein was a kind of physics hippie, a man whose creativity was inseparable from his refusal to play by the rules of academia and buy into its comfortable certainties. He reminds me of Bob Dylan kicking out an electrifying "Like a Rolling Stone," or John Lennon embracing guitar feedback and Yoko Ono's abrasive Fluxus art. Einstein could easily have compromised, working more on the applied side of physics and taking on teaching duties. Instead he chose a line of work that allowed his thoughts to hum freely until they spun out the song of special relativity.
I still marvel at the diligent vigor that enabled him to remain true to his freethinker conventions even as his place in the world, and the world around him, changed. His fame built steadily after the publication of special relativity in 1905 and accelerated sharply when he unleashed the general theory of relativity in 1915. Then came the crescendo, when the prominent English physicist Arthur Eddington examined observations collected during a 1919 solar eclipse and declared that the sun's gravity bent the light of nearby stars in exactly the manner Einstein predicted. Suddenly Einstein went from the physics journals to the front pages of the world's newspapers and morphed into science's first modern media star.
The adulation changed him, but not in narcissistic ways. He still followed a resolutely independent path through the landscape of physics, seeking a single theory of all the laws of nature. Few followed his lead, and his many published attempts at a unified field theory proved to be frustrating dead ends. He persevered all the same, reportedly calling for a notebook on his deathbed in the hope that a final flash of inspiration might complete the project of his last thirty years.
Even as Einstein's scientific inspiration dimmed, fame exposed another aspect of his greatness: a profound understanding of the responsibility that came with celebrity. He was keenly aware that he had become the public face of science, a role he treated with seriously playful irreverence. The genial "Uncle Albert" persona undercut the stereotype of the scientist as a coldhearted materialist. (Think about how many photographs of Einstein on the bicycle or Einstein sticking out his tongue still stand watch over college dorm rooms.) Those famous quotes citing God did the same, in a more penetrating way. I interpret Einstein's use of that word as a symbolic act as much as a theological one. He evidently understood that a science that ignores or seemingly refutes religion would never be fully satisfying to the public—not even to himself.
In politics, too, Einstein carefully evaluated the interplay between his authority and his contempt for authority. He had always been an ardent antinationalist and pacifist, vehemently opposed to World War I and appalled by his many German colleagues who supported it. Now he clung to these ideals but recognized the danger of blind adherence to ideology, even the idealistic ideology of pacifism. In a 1931 talk at the California Institute of Technology, he explained how he had reinvented the word: "I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. . . . Is it not better for a man to die for a cause in which he believes, such as peace, than to suffer for a cause in which he does not believe, such as war?" When the threat of a Nazi atomic bomb seemed real, he signed the letter drafted by physicist Leo Szilard urging President Roosevelt to begin an American atomic bomb project. Yet he stuck to his core beliefs, arguing after the war for disarmament and international government to preserve the peace.