By the next year, "Einstein-mania" was in full bloom. During his first trip to the United States he gave many public lectures on relativity, and received the prestigious Barnard Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. After one particularly crowded lecture at Princeton, legend has it that Einstein said wryly to the chairman, "I never realized that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis."
The first Nobel Prize ceremony in 1901
As his quirky personality and untamed tresses gained more popularity with the general public, his momentous theory gained more credibility in the scientific community. In 1921, swarms of both theoreticians and experimentalists again nominated Einstein for his work on relativity. Reporters kept asking him, to his great annoyance, if this would be the year that he received a Nobel Prize.
But 1921 was not the year, thanks to one stubborn senior member of the prize committee, ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand. "Einstein must never receive a Nobel Prize, even if the whole world demands it," said Gullstrand, according to a Swedish mathematician's diary dug up by Friedman. Gullstrand's arguments, however biased, convinced the rest of the committee. In 1921, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded no physics prize.
Two prizes were thus available in 1922. By this time, Einstein's popularity was so great that many members of the committee feared for their international reputations if they didn't recognize him in some way. As in the previous two years, Einstein received many nominations for his relativity theory. But this year there was one nomination—from Carl Wilhelm Oseen—not for relativity, but for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. In another of his 1905 papers, Einstein had proposed that light, which had been thought to act only as a wave, sometimes acted as a particle—and laboratory experiments conducted in 1916 showed he was right.
In his exhaustive research, Friedman realized that Oseen lobbied the committee to recognize the photoelectric effect not as a "theory," but as a fundamental "law" of nature–not because he cared about recognizing Einstein, but because he had another theoretical physicist in mind for that second available prize: Niels Bohr. Bohr had proposed a new quantum theory of the atom that Oseen felt was "the most beautiful of all the beautiful" ideas in recent theoretical physics. In his report to the committee, Oseen exaggerated the close bond between Einstein's proven law of nature and Bohr's new atom. "In one brilliant stroke," Friedman says, "he saw how to meet the objections against both Einstein and Bohr."
Einstein and his first wife, Maleva
The committee was indeed won over. On November 10, 1922, they gave the 1922 prize to Bohr and the delayed 1921 prize to Einstein, "especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." Einstein, en route to Japan (and perhaps huffy after the committee's long delay) did not attend the official ceremony. According to Friedman, Einstein didn't care much about the medal, anyway, though he did care about the money. As the German mark decreased in value after the war, Einstein needed a hard foreign currency for alimony payments to his ex-wife. Moreover, under the terms of his 1919 divorce settlement, she was already entitled to all the money "from an eventual Nobel Prize." Bruce Hunt
, an Einstein historian at the University of Texas at Austin, says that calling attention to these financial arrangements "brings out the fact that Einstein was a much more worldly and savvy man than his later public image would suggest."
Of course, Einstein isn't the only player who emerges as being not quite angelic. "The decisions of the Nobel Committees are often treated by the press and public as the voice of god," Hunt says. But Friedman's research brought to light "how political the deliberations of the Nobel Committees sometimes were—and presumably still are."
See the recent cover story on Mordehai Milgrom's theory that could overthrow even Einstein, The Einstein Dilemma.
See Laurence Krauss' explanation of what Einstein couldn't finish.
See Einstein's Theory of Fidelity, extrapolated from Einstein's recently revealed letters.
See Corey Powell's take on Einstein: the scientist, the philosopher, and the symbol.