Genius at Work

The labs, desks, and chalkboards where Einstein brought his insights into the world.

By Ed Regis|Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When Einstein died in 1955 his physical remains mostly vanished. The autopsy surgeon, one Thomas S. Harvey, removed Einstein’s brain and later stored portions of it in a jar at his private practice in Weston, Missouri. Einstein’s ophthalmologist, Henry Abrams, managed to remove the eyes, which he kept in a bank vault. The rest of Einstein’s body was cremated and the ashes scattered, as biographies tell us, “at an undisclosed location.” (A persistent rumor has it that they were strewn into the Delaware River south of Princeton.)

But other traces of the man have survived. Although the most obvious ones are intangible—the thought experiments, the insights, the paradigm-shifting theories—some telling material ones endure as well. Many of the key locations where Einstein lived and worked were photographed and preserved, right down to the papers he was reading and writing at the time of his death. These traces help fill in the story behind the still-astonishing scientific breakthroughs.

There is the Einstein House in Bern, Switzerland, the second floor of which Einstein rented from 1903 to 1905. This is where, during his annus mirabilis—his “miracle year” of 1905—he wrote four landmark papers, one of them defining the principles of special relativity and another explaining the photoelectric effect. The house has since been turned into a museum: The stairway is adorned with an image of the Milky Way, and Einstein’s former living quarters contain pictures, documents, his original Swiss patent office desk, and other memorabilia.

The physicist’s summer house in Caputh, Germany, a place where Einstein went to sail his boat, the Tümm­ler, on Lake Templiner and to contemplate the riddles of space-time, has also been preserved. Following Einstein’s wishes, however, it is now not a museum but a gathering place used for scientific workshops and retreats. And Einstein’s lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and the patent office where he worked in Bern have both been re-created.

Matters are somewhat different in the United States. Einstein’s white clapboard house at 112 Mercer Street in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived from 1936 until his death, has remained a private residence, off-limits to the public as well as to journalists and photographers. For a time it was the home of Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate in physics (like Einstein) who worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. It later passed into the hands of Eric Maskin of the institute’s School of Social Science. In October 2007, Maskin, too, won a Nobel Prize, his in economics. Occupied by three Nobelists in succession, it was as if the dwelling were somehow blessed.

And then there is Einstein’s office at the institute, room 115 of the main building, Fuld Hall. It is a grand space—long and capacious, with a bay window at one end. The myth persisted for many years that after his death the institute left everything just as it was: the arcane blackboard jottings; the piles of papers, notes, books, and photographs that spilled across his desk in waves; his pipe; his bottle of Skrip ink. There was no truth in this. As historic as it may have been, Einstein’s office was nevertheless a place of business—science business—and two of the institute’s mathematicians have since occupied it: Arne Beurling and then Robert P. Langlands.

Still, Einstein’s office gives off special vibes to this day. The aura of a long-departed major presence suffuses it, and crossing its threshold is like entering a sanctum. One cannot help but think: This is where probably the greatest scientist the world has ever known did his thing.

What do these traces tell us about Einstein and what he meant to humankind? Perhaps that whatever else can be said about him, he may be regarded as science’s one and only saint: Saint Albert.

I cannot think of another scientist who is as highly respected, even revered, not only by the general public but by many researchers. Even his foremost scientific biographer, Abraham Pais—a colleague at the institute and an impressive physicist in his own right—referred to him in terms usually reserved for biblical prophets. “A new man appears abruptly, the ‘suddenly famous Doctor Einstein,’” Pais wrote in Subtle Is the Lord. “He carries the message of a new order in the universe. He is a new Moses come down from the mountain to bring the law and a new Joshua controlling the motion of heavenly bodies. He speaks in strange tongues but wise men aver that the stars testify to his veracity.”

Einstein is universally regarded as a seer. The saintly image derives from his ethereal achievements, certainly (his description of time and space literally displaced the old scientific concept of ether), but also from his modesty, his obsession with social justice, and his penchant for treating everyone the same, whether janitor or king. He was a pacifist for most of his life, an understandable exception being the case of Nazi Germany. During the McCarthy era he was an outspoken defender of civil liberties.

It is hard to avoid the holy connotations that hang over the man. Einstein’s nimbus of silvery hair evokes a halo. His preserved eyes and brain are like saintly relics. And what did he do in his “miracle year” but perform scientific miracles? In this context, the Einstein museums, houses, and reconstructed offices may be regarded as shrines to his memory.

Einstein wanted his ashes to be scattered at a secret location because, like Moses, he didn’t want the place overrun by idolizers. He has become an idol nonetheless, a saint not of any religion but of reason and logic. He is a figure of unmatched status in the history of thought, and he may forever be.

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