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mental invalid

He's Still Ready for His Close-Up (einstein)

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He's Still Ready for His Close-Up




ALBERT EINSTEIN, so the story goes, was playing the violin with a bunch of friends in a chamber group one afternoon, and it wasn't going well. Finally, after several false starts, the conductor turned to him scowling and asked: "Einstein! Can't you count?"


It's my favorite Einstein story, simply because I have heard it so many times, invariably recounted by a friend or relative of someone who was there, that I have had to conclude either that conductors bawled him out about once a month, or that he and his friends played in stadium-sized living rooms. It's an endearing anecdote (and maybe even true), one that we mortals cling to, perhaps out of wishful thinking that nature is somehow fair and democratic: surely what it gives to one man in the form of brains, it would take away in other ways. Einstein might have been the master of space-time, but here on Earth he was a naïve bumbler, the absent-minded professor, the kindly sockless wizard. We want there to be a price — preferably tragic — for genius.





That cuddly cosmic image has amazingly endured despite the ruthless grilling of history in the last 20 years, including revelations of an illegitimate daughter, a nasty divorce, girlfriends and lawsuits between his descendants, among other things. Yet the stream of calendars, coffee mugs and T-shirts keeps flowing.


In 1919, British astronomers returning from an eclipse expedition reported that they had measured the bending of light rays, thus confirming Einstein's revolutionary new theory, known as general relativity, which described gravity as the warping of space-time. At that moment, Einstein caught a wave that had been building for decades. The world was exhausted, materially, morally and intellectually, from World War I, a catastrophe that shattered the faith in progress and reason that had guided European civilization since the Enlightenment. Everyone was ready for something new. Einstein gave them a whole new universe.


And although few understood his theory, everybody could understand that the stars in the sky — the most ancient symbols of order in the universe — had apparently moved. "Lights All Askew in the Heavens" read part of a headline in this newspaper on Nov. 10, 1919.


Einstein proclaimed that the universe was not three-dimensional but had a fourth dimension, namely time. As it happened, the notion of a fourth dimension of space had been the object of mystical fascination since the late 19th century, even affecting modern art. As popularized by the writer Charles Hinton, among others, it was an ethereal realm where the bounds of ordinary space and time were transcended, a so-called astral plane where spirits dwelled.


The public already knew, then, that they weren't supposed to understand the fourth dimension, only to celebrate it. And so it was with relativity and its enigmatic creator, a sort of cosmic medium who was suddenly staring out of newspaper photos with dark eyes that seemed to look farther and deeper than mortals ever could. In touching him, the public was able to touch the cosmic mystery itself. It was a bonus that Einstein was a German whose theory had been confirmed by the arduous and dangerous efforts of Britons, thus helping to knit the tattered framework of international science.


The reporters came and never left. Virtually every word that left his lips (and a few that didn't) were written down, accounting for the abundance of Einstein aphorisms on all those calendars and posters. It helped that he wore his fame lightly, with humor and a cute accent, and without a trace of arrogance. He wasn't out for money or power — or even a good restaurant seat. All he wanted was to do his science. He liked to say that fate had punished him for his youthful disdain for authority by making him an authority himself.


IT is still Einstein's universe. Some 47 years after his death, he continues to make headlines, whether it's because of the revelations about his 1,500-page F.B.I. file reported last week, or because of news that modern science has confirmed yet another of his strange ideas. The dark energy that astronomers now think is blowing the universe apart, for example, was first postulated by him in desperation back in 1917 (and later renounced as a blunder) to explain why the cosmos did not collapse of its own weight.


His name has become a synonym for genius — "He's smart, but he's no Einstein" — in a way that Darwin and Freud, to cite two contemporaries, have not. In fact, neuroscientists are still studying his brain, and Hollywood has reportedly optioned the film rights to a book about his gray matter's posthumous travels.


But it is his humanity, with all its newfound flaws (and perhaps amplified by them), that ultimately binds us to Einstein. By the time he became famous, he was 40 and notorious in Germany as a pacifist. He was willing to invest his new celebrity in that and other causes, like a drive to set up a Hebrew university in Jerusalem. He was the original peacenik, and when he left Nazi Germany for the United States in 1933, the Wandering Jew as well. His outspoken desire that America live up to its ideals of tolerance and freedom made J. Edgar Hoover fear that the stars were going askew.


And then there is the bomb. Einstein forsook his pacifism in 1939 to write a letter nudging the United States into an atomic bomb project because he was afraid Germany might do it first. Later, he publicly rued that action and campaigned for nuclear disarmament, but the damage was done, and the full measure of haunted humanity, the last quantum step in his progress toward being Everyman, had overtaken him. In his later years, the eyes that saw farther than anyone could imagine seemed bagged by mushroom clouds and Promethean guilt: he became a symbol of both cosmic and moral mystery.


In the end, that weather-beaten face reveals a lonely soul, unsatisfied by his marriages and tumultuous personal life, isolated by fame and by the secret knowledge that makes the stars dance.


As Charlie Chaplin is said to have told him in 1931, when the pair attended the premiere of "City Lights" in Los Angeles and was besieged by mobs of adoring fans: "They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you."

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