Relatively Famous: How the Einstein Brand Endures

Albert Einstein’s refusal to contain himself within the confines of science enabled him to become not just a pioneering physicist, but a cultural phenomenon crossing genres and mediums.

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Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin (center) line up at the premiere of the latter's "City Lights" movie in 1931.
Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin (center) at the premiere of the latter's "City Lights" movie in 1931.Credit: AP

In June 1919, Londoners hurrying up and down that ultimate shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street, slowed as they approached the front of Selfridges, the revolutionary department store that had opened 10 years earlier, bringing about radical changes in local shopping habits. Its storefront window displays had become famous, and tens of thousands of tourists would crowd around in order to admire the brilliantly organized, brightly lit elegance. The dreary fashions of the Great War years were slowly yielding to the buoyant affluence of the Roaring Twenties.

Bernice, the eponymous protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, bobbed her hair just like everyone else, and women’s dresses rose well above the ankle, displaying flat and boyish figures, especially without a corset. But on that June day, it wasn’t ostrich eggs and glitter that adorned Selfridges’ storefront, but some yellowing pages containing equations, bathing the universe in a new light. These were pages from one of the articles published by the brightest light in the world of physics, Albert Einstein.

British physicist Arthur Eddington had just returned from the island of Principe, off the west coast of Africa, where he had taken measurements during a solar eclipse on May 29 that confirmed predictions made by Einstein in his theory of general relativity four years earlier. These predictions and results shook the very foundations of space and time.

Einstein’s measurements were still doubted, which prevented him from receiving the Nobel Prize in 1920 (he finally got it in 1922). But they did not stop the waves of admiration from the public and the scientific community. They followed with amazement the “comet” that streaked across the skies of physics in the magical year of 1905, when Einstein published four groundbreaking articles which, among other things, laid the foundations for quantum mechanics and publicized his earlier special theory of relativity. These articles turned Isaac Newton’s mechanics into a small fish in a big ocean, presenting the best-known and elegant equation E=mc2. This equation would ultimately give birth to the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 40 years later.

The confirmation of his theory cracked open the hard shell of the scientific community, which now recognized the contribution of this disheveled German Jew, and his fame radiated in all directions. Einstein exchanged letters with the greatest thinkers of his time – from Sigmund Freud to Thomas Mann. He voiced his opinions on political and theological matters, and answered letters by schoolgirls complaining of difficulties with arithmetic (“I can assure you mine are still greater,” he wrote one of them). He met Mahatma Gandhi and David Ben-Gurion, and on his visits to Palestine was accompanied by the enthusiastic High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, who took time off from dealing with the machinations of the Mufti.

Chaplin and Chatterley

Prof. Issachar Unna, one of the editors of Einstein’s extensive writings, called him “a citizen of the world ... actively involved in all the major world events in the first half of the 20th century.” The period’s celebrities sought him out and he was invited to gala openings, event launches and movie premieres, including 1931’s “City Lights” – where he was photographed alongside director-star Charlie Chaplin. “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you,” Chaplin allegedly told Einstein at the Hollywood screening.

This feeling was evidently shared by “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” author D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in his 1929 poem “Relativity”:

I like relativity and quantum theories

because I don’t understand them

and they make me feel as if space shifted about

like a swan that can’t settle,

refusing to sit still and be measured;

and as if the atom were an impulsive thing

always changing its mind.

In his article “Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious and Fantasia of the Unconscious”, Lawrence – a pacifist, like Einstein – borrowed some of the renowned physicist’s terms and applied them to an subject close to his heart: “I am I, but also you are you, and we are in sad need of a theory of human relativity. We need it much more than the universe does. The stars know how to prowl round one another without much damage done,” he wrote.

Albert Einstein resting in the garden of his villa on the Bay of Luebeck, on September 24, 1928.Credit: AP

Lawrence wasn’t the only writer into whose work Einstein’s theories permeated. Modernism embraced the theory of relativity in the same way that postmodernism would swoop down on quantum mechanics in the second half of the 20th century. “The theory of relativity applies in full to the universe of fiction,” said Jean Paul Sartre, and modernists on both sides of the ocean tried to confirm his prediction – which came after the artistic eclipse experienced by the “Lost Generation” (to borrow the term popularized by Ernest Hemingway).

The creators of the “stream of consciousness” were swept up by the rich metaphors inherent in Einstein’s physical concepts: William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” (1929) – labeled by one critic as “a silo of compressed sin” – applies Einstein’s ideas to the structure of the novel. The same thing was done by Virginia Woolf, who tried to stretch and shrink the years in her work. In his 2001 book “Einstein’s Wake: Relativity, Metaphor and Modernist Literature,” Michael Whitworth presents the complex system of metaphors borrowed by writers such as Woolf, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and others, from the theories that changed everything known and familiar in the universe.

Einstein himself had trouble dealing with the manner in which different artists appropriated his concepts. As a man of letters with a well-developed mode of metaphoric thinking, he managed to exhibit some tolerance toward the literary experiments of these authors. But when an art historian, Paul M. Laporte, sent him his 1945 article entitled “Cubism and the Theory of Relativity,” in which he claimed that both paid attention to relationships allowing different viewpoints, Einstein wrote back, pleasantly but forcefully, that “The essence of the Theory of Relatively has been incorrectly misunderstood” in the article.

Twisting his theories

Such pleasantness was more difficult for Einstein to express when it came to an issue that was supposedly closer to his work – science fiction. He accused writers in the genre of distorting and twisting his theory, on which he had spent his entire life, purely for the purpose of entertainment. He famously said he never thought “of the future – it comes soon enough.” And since this was the heyday of B-movies, with aliens scooping up scantily-clad, buxom women, Einstein’s derogatory attitude may not be that surprising.

In the generation that followed the atom bomb and World War II, though, science fiction became more serious regarding the scientific principles it was based on, while taking them to more extreme realms such as wormholes – in series such as “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Farscape,” or movies such as “Thor 2” (in which British physicist Brian Cox served as a professional consultant) or Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” in which theories expounded by Kip Thorne, a researcher in relativity, were used to construct the convoluted plot.

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan's 2014 sci-fi epic "Interstellar." Would Einstein approve?Credit: AP

In light of his abhorrence of the popularization (although not the popularity) of his theories, and his spartan and modest lifestyle, it’s not hard to imagine how this vegetarian socialist – who gave all his Nobel Prize money to his first wife, with the executor of the will required to sell two of his letters in order to finance its execution – would have responded to his enormous commercial success. Einstein, whose name became synonymous with genius, is the seventh top-earning dead celebrity, according to a list compiled by business magazine Forbes. His ghost haunts popular culture, appearing in dozens of movies, series, computer games and artworks – from Warhol to Disney. He was a robot in Steven Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” and Doc Brown named his dog after him in the “Back to the Future” movies.

The image of the man who didn’t believe that God plays dice with the universe has become an almost religious icon, a powerful brand. His wise, aged face, surrounded by a shock of white hair and paintbrush mustache, sticking out his tongue in a childish pose, has netted the Hebrew University – which holds the copyright on all his writings and images – a substantial sum of money.

Albert Einstein’s refusal to contain himself within the confines of science and his widespread correspondence and interventions are befitting of a man who declared that “all religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” These enabled him to become not just a pioneering scientist, but a cultural phenomenon crossing genres and mediums. He not only strived and succeeded in describing the way in which the world works, but also changed the way in which it views and expresses itself. In marking 100 years since his theory of relativity, it can be said that outer space is the limit to the impact of the man who believed that “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”