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BERLIN - Germany kicked off celebrations of the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's theory of relativity and the 50th anniversary of his death, honoring the legendary native son whose books were once burned by the Nazis.

The so-called "Einstein Year" of 2005, is being marked with tours, a scientific conference and a major exhibition about Einstein, whose theories about space, time and relativity revolutionized science and also helped make him a pop icon.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder began the celebration Wednesday evening at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, calling on his fellow Germans and scientists to embrace innovation and political debate as Einstein would.

"He revolutionized science and changed the world through his thinking. He has become a cult figure for the youth of the world through his moral incorruptibility," Schroeder said.

"And to the end, Einstein - who again and again set himself against the most evil anti-Semitic hatemongering - fought against the strengthening of the Nazis and for the defense of democracy."

Einstein, who was Jewish, was born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany. He left Germany one month before Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, never to return. From the beginning, he was a forceful critic of Hitler's dictatorship. In a letter to a friend in 1936, for instance, he wrote: "The only good thing appears to be that Hitler in the awareness of his power will commit enough stupidities to bring the world against him."

Einstein's special theory of relativity makes the point that a large amount of energy could be released from a tiny amount of matter, as expressed in the equation E=mc2 )energy equals mass times the speed of light squared(. The theory changed the face of physics, allowing scientists to make predictions about space and paving the way for nuclear power and the atomic bomb - deeply ironic, considering Einstein's inclination to pacifism.

Although he didn't work on the bomb, Einstein signed a crucial 1939 letter urging U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to speed work on nuclear weapons, warning the Germans appeared to doing the same - an action he later said he regretted.

His scientific legacy prompted Time magazine to name him its Person of the 20th Century, and his musings on science, war and peace, and God helped make him a name known worldwide, iconized on coffee mugs and dorm room posters with his mass of unkempt white hair and in a famous photograph with his tongue sticking out. Einstein died in Princeton, New Jersey, on April 18, 1955.

Germans have taken that iconic status as a chance to ponder Germany's own scientific innovations, and wonder how to keep its brightest lights from leaving. On Wednesday, Schroeder urged Germans to embrace change and to use Einstein's example.

"That means to me to emphasize much stronger in the future the enormous opportunities in scientific and technical advancement, without losing sight of the risks," he said.

The country has long prided itself on being the homeland of some of the world's greatest philosophers and scientists, but it has agonized in recent years about the strength of its education system and the "brain drain" that draws its scientists to elite universities in the United States.

"Einstein finally stands for much that this country has needed bitterly: the desire to puzzle over and discover things," the Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily commented. "The cult of Einstein could have positive effects. The humorous physicist would certainly not be displeased if he fired up research in Germany 50 years after his death."