Albert Einstein was a celebrity. Albert Einstein is probably most well-known as a scientist and mathematician – the man who discovered E=mc2 (the theory of relativity) and helped discover atoms, which led to the development of the atomic bomb and the end of World War II. However, Einstein was a celebrity, too, on the scale of a Madonna or Lindsey Lohan today. He was recognized around the world, he was controversial because of his discoveries, and he was popular. He might not have had a fleet of paparazzi chasing him through Beverly Hills, but he was a superstar all the same.
Scientists rarely achieve rock star status, but Albert Einstein wasn’t just any scientist. One journalist notes, “Scientific celebrity has a relativity all of its own. Some scientists are celebrated by their peers; some are treasured by their students, while others are lionized by the public at large. But very few are given the burden of being a celebrity to everyone, everywhere, all the time. Albert Einstein achieved that universality.”
What is even more amazing is he achieved it at a time when websites, television, and MySpace did not exist, a feat few could accomplish so skillfully today. There are those who say Einstein never appreciated his celebrity, and those who say he gleefully encouraged it. Whatever the truth, Einstein drew crowds wherever he traveled. Another writer states, “By the 1920s he had achieved international popular renown on a scale that would not become usual until the rise of the contemporary celebrity saturated tabloids and cable news channels.”
Looking at Einstein’s life, it’s difficult to see, from the early years, how the man managed to garner so much attention. He was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Wurttemberg, Germany. Just six weeks later, his family moved to Munich, and that’s where he began his education, at the Luitpold Gymnasium (school).
As a youngster, fame wasn’t something that seemed to follow Einstein. He was smart and opinionated, but he was never a standout in school or in life, he simply fit in with the rest. When he was only 16, he moved to Switzerland to continue his education. He graduated with a degree in mathematics and physics. He wanted to teach, but couldn’t find a job, so he began working as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office.
By 1909, he’d acquired a teaching position, and he continued teaching at various universities in Europe. A Swiss citizen, he became a German citizen in 1914, and taught and lived in Berlin until 1933, when he denounced his citizenship due to the Nazi takeover of Germany, and immigrated to America, where he settled in as a professor at Princeton University. He gained American citizenship in 1940, and taught at Princeton until he retired in 1945. On the outside, a pretty unremarkable life, the? Of course, on the inside, Einstein made some astounding discoveries that elevated him to superstar status, whether he liked it or not.
His landmark scientific discoveries brought him to world attention. In 1916, he published his now famous general theory of relativity, which was absolutely mind blowing at the time, (he published the special theory of relativity and thoughts on quantum mechanics in 1905), and he continued working on other, extremely important projects throughout his life. Everyone seemed to know who Einstein was, and his fame followed him for the rest of his life, but if you asked people what he did, only a handful could answer. Few knew what his voice sounded like, or had seen anything but a black and white picture of the man. And yet, he was a rock star of the time.
How did that possibly happen?
Einstein didn’t achieve celebrity status overnight. In fact, it wasn’t until 1919 that the world began to see and hear about Einstein, thanks to a British organization confirmed his ideas about the Sun bending light. Journalist Barrow continues, “This was headline news and in the years following the misery of the First World War it recreated a sense of order and hope about the Universe and human enquiry.”
By the 20s, everyone seemed to know who he was, and he received the Nobel Prize in 1921, which only elevated him further in the world’s eyes. He also encouraged attention by his increasingly vocal protests about war, the Nazis, and anti-Semitism, which brought even more awareness toward him and his beliefs. Author Simon continues, “Opposing the mounting racist and jingoist violence and ultranationalism in Germany in the 1920s, he worked for European unity and supported organizations seeking to protect Jews against .”
He continued his outspoken behavior after he came to America, where his fame just continued to grow and spread, until he became one of the most well-known scientists of all time.
Einstein enjoyed close relationships with other scientists, and he championed the downtrodden and subjugated. Of course, he always spoke out against fascism and anti-Semitism because he was Jewish, and he faced persecution in Germany as Hitler took over and spread his anti-Semantic views throughout the population. He was a supporter of creating a new land for Jewish refugees, and saw the creation of Israel as a great triumph. In fact, he helped create the University of Jerusalem after Israel’s creation. That’s largely because he faced persecution at home in Germany for his religion. Two other authors write, “Just before he and Elsa left Germany for the last time in December 1932, he received a ‘friendly warning’ from a top German general that his life ‘is not safe here anymore.’”
Thus, the Nazis were his bitter rivals, denouncing one of the greatest scientists of all time, but he faced criticism from others in his field, too. He befriended people from all walks of life, including blacks, at a time when that was not popular, and he always fought against prejudice and ignorance, something that did not endear him to everyone.
Some scientists and colleagues criticized Einstein because of the company he kept. He often walked through the black neighborhood of Princeton, and he walked and talked with the black residents. Taylor and Jerome continue, “Ms. Satterfield’s story is not the only one about Dr. Oppenheimer and the Institute frowning on fraternization between its scientists and those in “lower-level” positions (usually non-whites).”
They weren’t happy with Einstein’s visits, and the press ignored his friendship with prominent blacks like Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, too. However, many prominent scientists of the time criticized Einstein and his work, despite the popular belief that Einstein’s work was infallible. Another writer notes, “There are many sources of technical critiques of Einstein’s work, such as the dissident journals Galilean Electrodynamics, Physics Essays, Apeiron, Journal of New Energy, etc., as well as books by thoughtful critics.”
Thus, Einstein enjoyed extreme popular celebrity, but many of his colleagues had criticisms of his theories and works, and by the way, those criticisms continue today, as some scientists believe that many of his theories will one day be disproved.
Einstein is well-known for his connection to the atom and the eventual development of the atomic bomb due to his works. He did not work on the bomb itself, and he did not condone the use of the bomb, but his name is continually linked with it, just the same. Some people might know him for that link even today, but his theory of relativity seems far more relevant as a way to remember the scientist, and it seems to be what most people remember about him – that and his wild, unruly hair and his rumpled clothing. He looks a little like the typical “mad scientist” in his later years, and those looks signify genius to many, which just continues his legacy.
What is most interesting to note is that Einstein’s fame and celebrity have continued to grow unchecked since his death in 1955. In 1999, Time Magazine named him the “person of the century,” and even today, his face graces posters, postage stamps, calendars, and any number of “genius” products. Journalist Barrow continues, “Most amazing of all is that — despite the hullabaloo and the inevitable cynicism about celebrity in our age, especially in response to media-created icons — Einstein’s scientific legacy is greater than ever.”
In fact, the word genius is often applied to him, and people seem to think of him when using the word. He was a celebrity before it became such a household word, and it was a lot like celebrity is today, but on a smaller scale. People recognized him when he walked through Princeton, but he could still walk freely. People ostracized him in Europe because he was an outspoken Jew, but he was welcomed in the United States. Princeton offered him a lifetime appointment because of his status, and he spent the rest of his life researching and working there. He traveled widely and was always recognized, but he could still travel on public transportation. In other words, he was a celebrity when it was still possible to live a normal life and be a celebrity at the same time.
Today, being a celebrity is more than just about being larger than life. Celebrities today begrudgingly accept the fact that their lives are going to be turned upside down because of their celebrity. They’ll be hounded by paparazzi, their children won’t have any privacy, crazed fans will hunt down their homes and hotel rooms, and they’ll have very little solitude or peace in their lives. It is doubtful that Einstein would have enjoyed or encouraged that kind of celebrity. As it was, there are many who said he didn’t appreciate the limelight, and that he would have rather gone through life unrecognized. Others maintain his persona was deceptively simple for a reason. Another writer notes, “He cultivated this image of affable genius by dressing shabbily, proclaiming his passions for sail-boats and violins, and producing pithy aphorisms — his that ‘God is subtle but not malicious’ is now carved above a fireplace at Princeton University.”
Perhaps some of his celebrity was a calculated attempt to gain more attention to his work, but one thing is certain. Einstein is a celebrity, and speculation won’t change that fact.
In conclusion, Albert Einstein is still one of the most celebrated scientists in history. He came to world attention because of his work, and maintained that attention at a time when communication and public relations was far different than it is today. He’s a publicist’s dream, because he garnered the attention of the world without the usual fanfare and fluff that follows today’s celebrities.
Barrow, John. “Einstein as Icon.” Plus Magazine. 2005. http://plus.maths.org/issue37/features/Einstein/index.html
Editors. “Albert Einstein – Biography.” The Nobel Foundation. 2008. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/einstein-bio.html
Fara, Patricia. “The Maestro of Time: Patricia Fara Marks Two Significant Einstein Anniversaries and Points out Some Contradictions in the Reputation of This Great Scientific Hero,” History Today, April 2005.
Jerome, Fred, and Rodger Taylor. Einstein on Race and Racism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Mallove, Eugene F. “The Einstein Myths — of Space, Time, and Aether.” Infinite Energy. 2008. http://www.infinite-energy.com/iemagazine/issue38/einstein.html.
Simon, John J. “Albert Einstein, Radical: A Political Profile.” Monthly Review, May 2005, 1+.
John Barrow. “Einstein as Icon.” Plus Magazine. 2005. http://plus.maths.org/issue37/features/Einstein/index.html (accessed 24 Oct. 2008).
John J. Simon, “Albert Einstein, Radical: A Political Profile,” Monthly Review, May 2005.
Editors. “Albert Einstein – Biography.” The Nobel Foundation. 2008. http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1921/einstein-bio.html (accessed 24 Oct. 2008).
Fred Jerome, and Rodger Taylor, Einstein on Race and Racism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 6.
10 Eugene F. Mallove. “The Einstein Myths — of Space, Time, and Aether.” Infinite Energy. 2008. http://www.infinite-energy.com/iemagazine/issue38/einstein.html (accessed 24 Oct. 2008).
13 Patricia Fara, “The Maestro of Time: Patricia Fara Marks Two Significant Einstein Anniversaries and Points out Some Contradictions in the Reputation of This Great Scientific Hero,” History Today, April 2005.