The Magazine

Genius on Parade

Einstein comes to America.

Mar 31, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 28 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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Albert Meets America

How Journalists Treated Genius During Einstein's 1921 Travels

Edited by József Illy

Johns Hopkins, 320 pp., $29.95

You must, perhaps, have been born no later than 1940 to recall the exalted standing Albert Einstein enjoyed in American popular myth. He died in 1955 and left no successor, not even the ill-fated "father of the atomic bomb," J. Robert Oppenheimer.

A brief personal memory: In the early winter of 1953, initiates of the freshman honorary Phi Eta Sigma at Chapel Hill were addressed by Dr. Archibald Henderson, retired professor of mathematics, authorized biographer of George Bernard Shaw, and (to the present point) friend and interpreter of Dr. Einstein. Dr. Henderson was said to be one of the 12 people in the world who understood Relativity. When his dazzling and erudite address ended, a half-dozen of us retired to decide what he had said and write a collaborative account for the student newspaper. Such was the mystique of the new physics in that more innocent age.

Albert Meets America is a documentary chronicle, drawn from newspaper accounts, of a signal episode in the building of the Einstein legend: the great physicist's first visit to America in the spring of 1921. He came with Dr. Chaim Weizmann and others to raise funds for the Zionist enterprise, and specifically for the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

At the time, the present configuration of the Middle East was unformed, in flux. The Arab Revolt had helped the British drive the Turks from Palestine and, at Versailles, the British had assumed a Palestinian "mandate" that would prove far more troublesome than anyone then imagined. But hopes were high. Dr. Weizmann's work on high explosives in the Great War--he was popularly, if rather inexactly, identified as "the inventor of TNT"--had helped win the Balfour Declaration.

But it was not Weizmann, the stolid Manchester chemist, but Einstein the mathematical magus (surely the word fits) who captured most of the headlines as the Zionist party shuttled among New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Boston, and Hartford. Einstein lectured (at the City College of New York and at Princeton, which awarded him an honorary degree) and was lionized and interviewed by an awed press and public.

His moxie was extraordinary. The Theory of Relativity, general and special, was for lay people a mystery from the abstract realm of bodies moving at or near the speed of light, epitomized in the most famous of physical formulae: E=mc2. Its implications for the common-sense world were elusive, although it inspired learned speculation about the nature of gravity and the shape and size of the universe. Elusiveness, however, merely intensified public fascination. It was, again, a fixed superstition, a canard that refused to yield to Einstein's own laughing demurrers, that "only" a dozen earthly highbrows understood Relativity. (In Brooklyn there was discovered a 16-year-old lad who made 13!)

As usual, when the esoteric stirs popular fascination, the subtext is unease. This usually took the form of jokey references to Dr. Einstein's appearance and manner. His hair, his eyes, his posture, speech, and dress (even his floppy, outsized hat, which blew off on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan and was "athletically" chased down by Dr. Einstein himself) were objects of remark. The intimation was that this theorist of the Fourth Dimension of space/time was, after all, homely and unthreatening. It was a relief to find that the "father" of Relativity (as if the good doctor had collaborated with the Creator on Day One to stage the Big Bang) was a jolly, elfin figure with long, curly locks and soft eyes who resembled more a Bohemian musician or painter than a dangerous Dr. Frankenstein.

But on the evidence displayed here, the pawky effort of newspaper scribes to convey the subtleties of Relativity were a princely waste of paper and ink. Rarely in this heaping blizzard of old clippings, retrieved by their editor from the Einstein archive, does one encounter any engaging popularization: nothing at all like Lincoln Barnett's The Universe and Dr. Einstein, a lucid exposition of the 1950s. In the spring of 1921 most of the reporting was, with rare exceptions, coy and patronizing, although in The Freeman Gertrude Besse King wrote perceptively, and with Shakespearean overtones:

It is the necromancy of these strange theories, not their science, that catches the gaping crowd. Reporters .  .  . instinctively .  .  . know that most of us are essentially children still clamoring for fairy tales .  .  . restless with the prison-house of this too, too solid world.

There was occasional worry about the ethical implications of the Einstein theory. It implied that there was no fixed "hitching post" in the universe which, though finite, had no boundaries, space/time being curvilinear. But philosophers assured their fretful audiences that Relativity was no threat to moral truth; and there were no fulminations (none, at least, recorded here) from holy-roller pulpits. America was struggling manfully to make friends with modern science.

This book is a good idea, but would have been better had it been more selectively edited. As it stands, the reader must hack his way through wildernesses of lists, long-forgotten names, and endlessly duplicated schedules of greeting and reception. If both the New York Times and the New York Post reported the same events, the editor democratically includes both overlapping accounts. At half the length this could have been a more reader-friendly chronicle.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is a former editor and columnist in Washington.