Genius' popularity proves profitable


In halls of science, Albert Einstein is worshiped for reinventing space and time.

In the hallways of retailers, the shaggy-haired scientist is revered for a different reason: He's a stellar pitchman. Although Einstein died 50 years ago Monday, the man who refused to profit from celebrity in life is one hot commodity in death.

Apple Computer, DaimlerChrysler, Fuji Film, Perrier and Xerox have all licensed Einstein's name or image for advertisements in recent years. Meanwhile, the scientist's droopy lids and unruly halo of hair fuel an inflating universe of Einstein action figures, neckties, coffee mugs, T-shirts and relativity-related kitsch.

True, the king of science may never catch up with that other departed king: Elvis Presley raked in $40 million last year alone, according to Forbes. But for a man whose life and scientific legacy are only vaguely understood, Einstein hasn't done badly.

One estimate puts Einstein-related revenues at more than $10 million over the past decade. "And it's only going to increase," predicts Roger Richman, the Beverly Hills attorney who manages Einstein's posthumous career on behalf of the scientist's heir, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

One reason, says Richman, is that in addition to being the 50th anniversary of his death, 2005 is the centenary of Einstein's so-called miraculous year, the six-month creative burst during which Einstein published five papers that rocked the scientific world.

Celebrating his legacy

To mark the occasion, the United Nations has declared 2005 the International Year of Physics. France, Ireland, Portugal and Germany (where Einstein was born in 1879) are rolling out stamps in the physicist's honor.

At the same time, dozens of scientific societies and schools, including the University of Maryland, are organizing symposiums to dissect subjects as varied as relativity and Einstein's celebrity.

One mystery: Why, among all the great scientists in history, is Einstein so famous?

Alice Calaprice, who spent more than two decades editing Einstein's papers and has written several books about him, says it boils down to "the three H's: his humanity, his humor and his hair."

It's a question even Einstein couldn't answer. "Why is it," he wondered in a 1944 interview, "that nobody understands me, yet everybody likes me?"

It wasn't idle speculation. In recent years, scholars have unearthed evidence that Einstein wasn't always the gentle, grandfatherly genius his photos seem to portray.

Among the revelations: As a young man, Einstein fathered an illegitimate child, and scholars still don't know what became of her. To his legitimate children, he could be an absent or indifferent father.

He was also a cad. While married to his first wife, Mileva Maric, the scientist conducted an affair with his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal. The two eventually married in 1919, but not before Einstein first proposed to Lowenthal's 22-year-old daughter. Later, with his second wife's consent, Einstein began seeing his best friend's niece.

"I wouldn't want to be married to a guy like that," says Calaprice.

At the same time, she says, it's the contrast between Einstein the genius and Einstein the man that makes him so irresistible to scholars: "Einstein seduces us all."

Scholars agree that Einstein's notoriety - and his later value to advertisers - had its roots in the supernova of scientific output that erupted from his pen in 1905, when Einstein was a 26-year-old junior patent clerk in the Swiss city of Bern.

One paper proposed the particle theory of light, which laid the foundation for quantum physics and earned Einstein his only Nobel Prize, in 1922. In two others, he developed a method to measure molecules and erased lingering doubts about the existence of atoms.

A fourth paper described his theory of special relativity, which toppled Issac Newton's centuries-old notions of space and time.

Einstein finished his intellectual windsprint by declaring that matter and energy were interchangeable, a relationship that boiled down to five symbols: E=mc²

"He explained everything by pure thought. It's as if he just had a direct line to God," says Tony Rothman, a physicist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.

Einstein's reputation grew after he published the theory of general relativity in 1916. He became a household name three years later, when British astronomers proved a key part of the theory during an eclipse.

"Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations. Einstein Theory Triumphs," blared the New York Times.

Until his death at age 76, Einstein was bombarded by requests to endorse hair tonics, soaps, pens and other products. More concerned with science and world peace, he turned them down.

But Einstein set the stage for his own commercial afterlife in a 1950 will and testament that ultimately bequeathed his scientific papers, correspondence, other "literary property and rights" to Hebrew University, a school that the passionate Zionist had supported during his lifetime.

"As an individual, Einstein continues to be a very effective fund-raiser," says Hanoch Gutfreund, a Hebrew University physicist who sits on a three-member committee that evaluates proposals passed on by Richman's Beverly Hills licensing agency.

Last month, Disney announced a five-year, $2.7 million deal to keep the scientist's name on its popular Baby Einstein line of educational toys and videos. But Einstein's guardians don't snap up every offer.

Protecting his image

The university doesn't want Einstein associated with alcohol or tobacco products, even though the physicist was an inveterate pipe smoker.

So it rejected a distiller's proposal for Einstein vodka. The university is also wary of sullying Einstein's image. So it killed a TV commercial showing Einstein leaping into the arms of Marilyn Monroe on a windswept beach.

"We take this very seriously," Gutfreund says.

The U.S. Defense Department and pop diva Madonna also got polite turndowns. Another reject: a fitness center ad showing Einstein's head on the chiseled torso of a body-builder. The proposed slogan: "An intelligent alternative to exercise."

Piracy is always a problem. Richman and 16 other eagle-eyed attorneys police print publications, the airwaves and the Internet worldwide for unauthorized use of the physicist's persona.

Over the years they've caught more than a few. In one renegade ad, a bald Einstein announced, "A genius wouldn't buy hair by the graft." Others were even less tasteful.

Unauthorized ads

"How about an Italian company making an Einstein oven?" Richman says. "How bad is that? Einstein. Jews. Ovens. Horrible!"

Not all scientists are comfortable with Einstein-as-pitchman. "I think a lot of it is silly and insulting," says Rolf Sinclair, a retired physicist for the National Science Foundation.

Several years ago, Sinclair and several colleagues sent a letter asking the prestigious journal Science to cut down on corny Einstein-impersonator ads. "They ignored it as far as I could see," Sinclair said.

Some critics see Hebrew University and its Los Angeles licensing as money grubbers and bristle at the notion of paying for Einstein's image or name.

Bryn Mawr's Tony Rothman says the publisher of his 2003 book, Everything's Relative, pulled a photo of Einstein from the cover at the last minute, fearing trouble from the scientist's legal guardians.

"I was furious," recalls Rothman. "I don't see how this is profiting anybody."

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