April 18 marked the 60th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s death. The scientific community is also celebrating this year the centennial of his masterly general theory of relativity, which described gravity more comprehensively than did Sir Isaac Newton and set off a revolution in our understanding of the universe.
Though many decades have passed, Einstein has remained an iconic figure – the very emblem of genius. His probing eyes, creased face, mop of unruly hair and warm smile express the inviting side of science. Even those who find physics enigmatic and unapproachable take comfort in the friendliness and familiarity his memory conveys.
In Einstein’s lifetime, however, public treatment of him was decidedly mixed. While for some he was a prophet to be revered, to others he was a radical enemy of the state. Ironically, the suspicion with which his pacifist beliefs were viewed carried over from Germany, where anti-Semitic student protesters hounded him throughout the 1920s, to the United States, where a right-wing group known as the Woman Patriot Corporation called for his deportation.
While Einstein was fortunate to have left Germany before the start of the Nazi regime, he witnessed from abroad the assassination of his character and threats against his life and property. But over here, he met with a different kind of intimidation.
Recently released FBI files show how, during the McCarthy era, the agency monitored his activities and addressed a stream of correspondence questioning his patriotism. Although clearly his fate under the Nazis would have been horrendously worse, he couldn’t truly feel secure on either side of the Atlantic.
One of the most prominent threats against Einstein – an attempted assassination – took place on Jan. 31, 1925. Marie Dickson, a deranged Russian widow, forced her way into his Berlin apartment brandishing a weapon (according to some reports a revolver, in others a hat pin). Luckily, Elsa Einstein found a ruse to protect her husband, upstairs in his study, while she called the police and had Dickson arrested.
At times, Einstein felt besieged even by those purporting to be sympathetic. Like many celebrities, he had to flee from paparazzi. While he had great interest in conveying his ideas, he stressed that his personal matters should be off limits. When he turned 50, he publicly released a new “theory of everything,” and privately retreated to an estate in the Berlin suburbs to celebrate with his family. Nevertheless, a reporter tracked him down and offered the public a complete rundown of his birthday party.
Not even Einstein’s hospital stays were off limits. In 1949, he had abdominal surgery in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. After the operation, he tried to leave quietly via its back exit. Newspaper photographers found out, surrounded him and tried to take his picture. He begged for them to leave him alone and ended up having to get a police escort.
Before Einstein died in 1955, he stressed that he wanted no memorial and asked that his body be cremated. Even in death, however, his expressed wishes for anonymity were violated when physician Thomas Harvey removed his brain for study. Slices of his brain have been on exhibit at various museums. Einstein’s desire simply to be left alone remained unfulfilled.
Einstein’s prominence served him well in getting his ideas across and in mustering support for the social causes he advocated. Yet due to his fame, he was forced to wage an endless battle for the right to a private life. His struggle raises many questions about the rights of celebrities, politicians and other public figures to carve out corners for themselves where they are out of view of the camera.
An iconic photo of Einstein shows him sticking out his tongue, purportedly to ruin the shot. With humor, he illuminated the fight for privacy that he grappled with for much of his adult life.
Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and author of a book about Einstein.