ALBERT EINSTEIN (1879-1955) relished explaining how his theory of relativity had revolutionised time. 'An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute,' he quipped, 'but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.' As an enthusiastic self-publicist, he would have agreed that exactly the right amount of time has now passed to justify some celebrations: it is fifty years since Einstein died, and a hundred years since his so-called annus mirabilis, 1905, when he published not one but three world-changing papers.
Einstein liked to think of himself as Newton's successor in the pantheon of scientific geniuses, as if some numinous power could be passed on from one to another. Scientific icons are often worshipped as other-worldly beings who float above the realities of daily life, yet Einstein's career demonstrates how even the most abstract thinkers do not match such visions. Einstein's theories were rooted in practical problems of clock co-ordination. And being a scientific figurehead posed political dilemmas: the pacifist became a Zionist and a target for antisemitic activists, and was persuaded to encourage research into the atomic bomb.
'Why is it,' Einstein asked a New York Times journalist in 1944, 'that nobody understands me and everybody likes me?' He was not, of course, expecting an answer, but it is an intriguing question. How did the obscure creator of an arcane cosmological theory become world-famous? Until he was forty years old, few outside a small circle of mathematical physicists had heard of him. He hit the headlines in 1919, when an expedition to investigate a solar eclipse confirmed his General Theory of Relativity. Although the New York Times evidently failed to recognise the significance of the event, since they sent their golfing correspondent to cover the story, within a few years Einstein's trade mark Brillopad hair and droopy moustache immediately identified the hero who had challenged Isaac Newton--and won.
Like Newton and his apple tree, Einstein himself originated some of the tales that have boosted his fame. He maintained that he was only a child when he made one of his first important discoveries: toes make holes in socks. After concluding that time spent darning was time wasted, he wore his shoes over bare feet, a life-long habit which contributed to his reputation of eccentricity. He cultivated this image of affable genius by dressing shabbily, proclaiming his passions for sail-boats and violins, and producing pithy aphorisms--his deceptively throw-away remark that 'God is subtle but not malicious' is now carved above a fireplace at Princeton University.
But Einstein could not control every aspect of his influence. To his disgust, cocktail parties buzzed with the catch-phrase 'Everything is relative', a mockery of his attempt to redefine that elusive concept known as time. His fascination with time was shared by artists, musicians and writers who also wanted to find new ways of representing the world, and who claimed to be stimulated by his physics. Among the early literary tributes was William Carlos Williams' poem 'St Francis Einstein of the Daffodils', inspired by Einstein's first visit to the United States in 1921. Williams hailed the physicist as a holy saviour in the spring-time of his career; Einstein had, he wrote, liberated the New World from the stifling shackles of old knowledge:
through the blossomy waters
under liberty's dead arm
has come among the daffodils
that flowers and men were created
Oldfashioned knowledge is
dead under the blossoming
Einstein insisted that relativity was more complicated than this, but his protest only reinforced the notion that he was a genius who had created a theory incomprehensible to normal mortals.
On the cover of Time magazine for July 1st, 1946, almost a year after two nuclear bombs were dropped on Japan, 'Cosmoclast Einstein', the iconoclastic cosmologist, looks weary and disillusioned--as if aware of being reviled as an alchemical Frankenstein who had wantonly unleashed the hidden forces of nature. …