Vanshika Dhyani asks Why is Einstein still the poster child for a scientific temperament? 

Einstein is universally welcomed as the magazine cover for ‘genius’- the face of Modern Physics, one of the most formidable scientists of the last centennial. Globally known for his mass-energy equivalence formula:E=mc2, Einstein’s celebrity has been celebrated throughout the years. In fact, on December 31, 1999, Times Magazine recognized the German-born Jewish Theoretical Physicist, Albert Einstein as the person of the century. The editors of the magazine reckoned that the 20th century “will be remembered foremost for its science and technology”, and Einstein “serves as a symbol of all the scientists—such as Fermi, Heisenberg, Bohr, Richard Feynman, …who built upon his work”. 

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, published the first account of his therapeutic technique, in the year 1905, while James Joyce completed his first book, Dubliners. In the same year, Pablo Picasso bid goodbye to the blues and greens as he began his reign over-what is now, better known as-the Rose period. The revolutionary year also saw the discovery of novocaine- a local anesthetic and Elara- Jupiter’s natural satellite. And yet, 1905, will always be remembered as ‘Einstein’s miracle year’- an ode to the radical transformation of our understanding of the Universe. 

The 2005 General Assembly of the United Nations declared the year (2005) to be the ‘International Year of Physics’. This declaration was scheduled to coincide with the centenary anniversary of physicist Albert Einstein’s “miraculous year.” In 1905, Einstein presented the empirical world with three of his most remarkable scientific papers. Each of which would go on to form the basis of three fundamental fields in physics. 

From Antoine de Lavoisier to Donna Strickland, the modern world has seen many great scientists. And yet, it is Einstein’s name -from a century ago- that echoes in every household today. A testimony to Einstein’s great panjandrum comes from Brian Schwartz, a physicist at the City University of New York Graduate Center, “His name is synonymous with science,” Schwartz believes. “If you ask kids to show you what a scientist looks like, the first thing they’ll draw is wild white hair.” he said in a 2005 interview. But why is Einstein’s still so popular?

A slice of Einstein’s stardom can be attributed to the Special Theory of Relativity and how it emerged-seemingly-out of nowhere. In 1905, before he became somewhat of a luminary, no one had heard of Albert Einstein and he did not have any prior achievements. He did not work for a scientific establishment and had not collaborated with a physicist for his academic paper. Previously, he had failed to clear the university examination, and after graduation faced a long period of unemployment, before he started working as a clerk at the patent office. This sudden outburst of genius took the world by storm. In his paper, Einstein not only challenged Newtonian physics but also circled its plot holes. In a way, he single handedly re-wrote physics. 

By the same token, Einstein’s involvement outside the realm of theoretical physics substantially contributed to his ever-growing popularity. His open opposition to anti-Semitism and Nazi Germany was followed by public recognition. His letters to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States, eventually resulted in the Manhattan Project where the country developed the first atomic bombs. He later went on to criticize the hydrogen bomb, publically. Arthur C. Clarke, Science writer, credited “Einstein’s unique combination of genius, humanist, pacifist, and eccentric” persona for his fame. He was convinced that it “made him accessible – and even lovable – to tens of millions of people.” Fellow Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell remarked: “Einstein was not only a great scientist, he was a great man.” Jacob Bronowski, British mathematician said that “Newton is the Old Testament god; it is Einstein who is the New Testament figure…full of humanity, pity, a sense of enormous sympathy.”

Furthermore, the Nobel prize winner had a way with words, known to the reporters as the unconventional scientist with good quotes, Einstein was known for his simple analogy of difficult concepts. He described relativity as “An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.” 

One of his most popular quotes is “God does not play dice”. The quote made its first appearance in the Fifth Solvay International Conference. Einstein remarked “God does not play dice” (to indicate his refusal to accept quantum probabilities) , to which Niels Bohr, another brilliant physicist, replied “Einstein, stop telling God what to do” Later, in a 1942 letter to Cornel Lanczos, Einstein wrote “It seems hard to sneak a look at God’s cards. But that He plays dice and uses “telepathic” methods… is something that I cannot believe for a single moment.” Decades later, in an interview, Stephen Hawking stated: “Not only does God play dice, but… he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”

Einstein’s life was full of academic as well as non-academic achievements. He was awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 1921 and asked to be the president of Israel, in 1952.  He was also the subject matter of the FBI’s secret dossier from December 1932, that turned out to be 1,427 pages long by the time of his death in 1955. Whether we grasp general relativity or not, it is plausible to say that Einstein was a man of honor, excellence, and mystery. Perhaps it was the fact that Einstein, no matter how intelligent, was human- flawed and marred. When one tallies Einstein’s flair for scintillating apothegm in the media and his bizarre ideas to take physics by the horns,  his exceptional and perdurable prominence in today’s world does not seem all that mysterious.