Equated With Genius


People used to write to Albert Einstein just for samples of his handwriting. He often obliged.

So, with all those letters and signatures out there, it might seem odd for someone to pay millions of dollars for another sample of the great genius' penmanship.

But that's almost certain to happen today at Sotheby's in New York. Of course, what's being auctioned there is a manuscript of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, probably written in 1912. It is the oldest such manuscript in existence. When it first went on the block, in 1987, it sold for $1.2 million.

This time, Sotheby's expects the Einstein manuscript to sell for between $4 million and $6 million. This suggests either a great inflation in the value of historical documents or a continuing fascination with the man who taught the world to think of the universe in an entirely different way. Both are probably true.

People wrote to Einstein all the time. Religious zealots tried to convert him: He put them off gently. Young people would ask for romantic advice: He was as sensible as Ann Landers. Editors wanted his opinion on anything; they knew he played the violin, so they'd ask his opinion of Bach or Schubert. For some reason, these queries irritated him.

Listen to the music, he would say "and shut your mouth!"

A young girl wrote him from South Africa and said she would have written sooner but thought he lived in the 18th century and was dead and she had gotten him mixed up with Isaac Newton.

Einstein responded: "Thank you for your letter of July 10th. I have to apologize to you that I am still among the living. There will be a remedy for this, however."

Of all the geniuses that have emerged through history, Einstein alone seems to have escaped the ponderous dignity that weighs down so many great men. There are a lot of jokes about him, unlike, say, Galileo.

There's the one about the janitor in Princeton who washed off all the blackboards one night and left Einstein in tears. When confronted, he said: "Way I see it, I had a job to do, and I was bound and determined to do it right. He wasn't the only perfectionist in the university business."

Then there was the Princeton barber who always ribbed Einstein when he came in for a trim, every four years or so. . . .

These aren't true, of course. They were made up by Ron Hauge, a witty science writer, but they illustrate the license people take with the man from Ulm.

It is true that the most famous scientist of all time had a few idiosyncracies. For instance, he didn't wear socks.

"He dressed sloppy like, usually wore a dark graey overcoat and knitted hat," says Fred Goldsborough, 82, who for years delivered Einstein's mail to him in Princeton. Mr. Goldsborough met Einstein almost every day as the scientist walked to his office at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

"When you spoke to him he would always speak and give you a little salute," Mr. Goldsborough recalls. "He'd just say, 'Howdy, brother.' He recognized you."

Once, children in a fifth-grade class in New York sent him a tie clip and cuff links for his 76th birthday. Thanks, he wrote back, but "neckties and cuffs exist for me only as remote memories."

Never published

The manuscript being auctioned today is full of lined-through deletions, additions and corrections. It was drafted by Einstein for a German publisher who wanted to include it in a collection of papers by esteemed scientists. But World War I erupted before the book could be published, so the project was put off.

After the war, the editor, Erich Marx, asked Einstein not only to update the manuscript, but also for a shorter exposition on his later General Theory. Einstein declined to do either: He was too busy, he said, and also he had reformulated many elements of the Special Theory. Thus, the manuscript was never published. The 72 pages, written in pencil and brown ink, are said to show the progression of Einstein's thought.

The most fascinating thing about Albert Einstein, of course, was his work, though by the time he moved to the United States nearly all of his major achievements were behind him. His two grand theories, on Special Relativity and later on General Relativity, were published before the end of World War I. The first dealt with the laws of high-speed motion, the second with gravity. The rest of his life he spent vainly trying to explain the connection between electricity and gravity.

But as far as Americans were concerned, Einstein was ever in his intellectual prime. He had had the vision to describe how the universe worked. Then, as he aged, one experiment after another validated his descriptions about the atom's inherent power, how high speed can actually slow the progress of time, about gravity's capacity to bend light.

For all this, he was lionized, not only by scientists, but by ordinary folk. This had never happened before to someone whose achievements were so unintelligible to the average person.

This adulation puzzled Einstein. "One time he said, 'I have become sort of a Jewish saint,' " recalls Peter G. Bergmann, his research assistant at Princeton from 1936 to 1941.

A search for heroes

"There was no question that Einstein was one of the outstanding people who made theoretical physics what it was today. But there were other people, too, like Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac. But none of them ever enjoyed the same celebrity."

James R. Blackwood, whose family lived down the street from the Einsteins in the 1930s, says Einstein fulfilled a desire for genuine heroes.

"It was a time of extraordinary people, like Gandhi and Madame Curie," he says. "They were not stock characters. There was &&TC; hunger for more than a Babe Ruth or a Red Grange. There was a hunger that he satisfied."

Though he was German, Einstein publicly resisted the Kaiser's militarism before World War I, says Frank Wilczek, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Studies.

The war proved a global catastrophe, and people remembered Einstein's cautions. Then something else happened. Right after the war, international scientific expeditions were sent to various parts of the globe to monitor a solar eclipse, which confirmed Einstein's theory that the sun would bend the light from the stars.

"It was a spectacular feat, an event that made him a gigantic celebrity," says Dr. Wilczek, who lives in Einstein's old house at 112 Mercer St. "It was also the sort of recovery of international cooperation everyone wanted after the war."

Though the common man's appreciation of Einstein was positive, even enthusiastic, it was more ambiguous than that of the scientific community. Average people would put him on a high plane, but they also sought to reduce him, portraying him as a man who was inept when it came to the practical things of life.

Actually, there is no evidence Einstein was like that at all. So why would people encourage this perception? Maybe they thought it humanized him, brought him down from the clouds. Or perhaps it was a flash from the old vein of anti-intellectualism that runs through the American mind.

That Einstein actually was a simple man, a little "funny looking," and foreign, reinforces the image. But people who have met him don't have such cartoonish impressions, even people intellectually out of his league.

Einstein, fly fisherman

P.G. Arnold met the late physicist in the 1940s when Einstein vacationed at Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. (Sailing was Einstein's favorite pastime, though he couldn't swim, and often would go out without a life vest.) Mr. Arnold owns a gas station in Deer Park, where Einstein stopped now and then to use the telephone.

"He was a nice old fella'," Mr. Arnold recalls, and someone capable of mastering ordinary tasks. "He was a good fisherman. He made his own flies."

Yet, Mr. Arnold was impressed enough by his celebrity that he put a sign up in his establishment that read: "Einstein Was Here."

He took it down only last year. "Got tired of answering questions about it," he says.

Einstein's face is probably more familiar than the pope's, and has been for a longer time extraordinary for someone who lived before the ascendancy of television.

His face is emblematic of the 20th century, but there is nothing heroic about it, nothing in it that coincides with popular notions of how an icon should look. Think of Beethoven: There's a genius. Look at Einstein. The long-lost Marx brother? Photographs of Einstein can be merciless. They do nothing to diminish the pendulous nose that hangs from his face like a potato, the squiggly, uneven mustache, the sad eyes, the hair of a man experiencing electrocution.

One of the better-known photographs of Einstein shows him sticking his tongue out at the camera. It reveals a playful side. In pictures of him with his violin he looks morose, maybe suggesting his awareness that, in this at least, he was no genius. One of these, made in 1931, has him sitting at a piano, his violin in his hand. His shirt tail is out.

Paintings and drawings of Albert Einstein strain to make him appear majestic and astral, like some lord of the universe with stars and planets swirling in the background, as if he controlled, rather than explained, their movements. Many of the sculptures don't suffer from this kind of exaggeration, but they are less representational. The one at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington makes Einstein look like a New Guinea mudman sitting by a puddle.

The Walter Matthau look

There is one picture of him taken during his years at Princeton in which Einstein appears exactly as Mr. Goldsborough, the postman, described him: with his dark top coat, his knitted watch cap. He resembles Walter Matthau, who played Einstein in a 1994 movie, "IQ."

The film had Einstein as the leader of a gang of aging but jocular geniuses at Princeton who go around discussing metaphysical things like whether the time they are spending at badminton is real. Einstein and his pals are playing cupid for his niece and a local automobile mechanic.

It's a funny fiction, but it reveals that Einstein's image, though not entirely heroic, is not to be trifled with. Paramount Pictures, which made the film, had to negotiate a payoff to Hebrew University, which owns all the rights to the image of the late physicist. It was bequeathed to that institution by the Jewish physicist. Other companies have felt the sting of threatened legal action for misusing the famous visage.

In fact, the Einstein image may have received more reverence and protection than the palpable part of the man. After his death in 1955, Einstein was cremated and his ashes sprinkled over the Delaware River. Or at least most of him was.

His better part, his brain, went to Kansas. Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who did the autopsy, didn't take the entire brain home to Lawrence, Kan. "I have most of it; not all of it," he says. He keeps it in jars, in his house.

Dr. Harvey has studied it and intends to reveal his findings in an academic paper. The rest of the Einsteinian gray matter is being investigated in a dozen labs around the country.

That such research continues is evidence that the obsession with Einstein endures, especially among scientists. It's never flagged. Almost 80 years ago, according to author Lincoln Barnett, the fathers of New York's Riverside Church asked the nation's leading scientists to list history's 14 greatest scientists. The images of those chosen, people like Euclid and Newton, were carved in limestone and became part of the church's iconography.

Albert Einstein was not only included. His was the only name to appear on every list.

Pub Date: 3/16/96

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