Cognitive celebrity

Albert Einstein was a genius, but he wasn’t the only one – why has his name come to mean something superhuman?

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Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) at home in Princeton, New Jersey, 1944. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) at home in Princeton, New Jersey, 1944. Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images

Matthew Francis is a science writer and speaker specialising in physics and astronomy. He blogs at Galileo’s Pendulum and is the physics and math editor at Double X Science. He lives in Richmond, Virginia.

Before he died, Albert Einstein requested that his whole body be cremated as soon as possible after death, and his ashes scattered in an undisclosed location. He didn’t want his mortal remains to be turned into a shrine, but his request was only partially heeded. Einstein’s closest friend, the economist Otto Nathan, disposed of his ashes according to his wishes, but not before Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who performed the autopsy, removed his brain. Family and friends were aghast, but Harvey convinced Einstein’s son Hans Albert to give his reluctant permission after the fact. The eccentric doctor kept the brain in a glass jar of formalin inside a cider box under a cooler, until 1998, when he returned it to Princeton Hospital, and from time to time, he would send little chunks of it to interested scientists.

Most of us will never be victims of brain-theft, but Einstein’s status as the archetypical genius of modern times singled him out for special treatment. An ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius – and his grey matter – belongs to the world. Even in his lifetime, which coincided with the first great flowering of mass media, Einstein was a celebrity, as famous for his wit and white shock of hair as he was for his science. Indeed, his life seems to have been timed perfectly to take advantage of the proliferations of newspapers and radio shows, whose reports often framed Einstein’s theories as being incomprehensible to anyone but the genius himself.

There’s no doubt that Einstein’s contributions to science were revolutionary. Before he came along, cosmology was a part of philosophy but, thanks to him, it’s become a branch of science, tasked with no less than a mathematical history and evolution of the Universe. Einstein’s work also led to the discovery of exotic physical phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon mots he didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain.

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Many people have wondered whether genius is a physical attribute, a special feature that could be isolated in the brain, and Einstein’s grey matter is considered a fertile experimental ground for testing this claim. Unfortunately, as the psychologist Terence Hines has argued, the published studies that were carried out on Einstein’s brain are flawed in important ways. In each case, researchers compared parts of Einstein’s brain to people assumed to be ‘normal’, but in most of these studies the scientists knew which brain sample was Einstein’s. They set about looking for differences – any differences – between Einstein and the control brains and, when you approach science in this way, it’s very easy to find differences.

After all, there was only one Einstein, just as there’s only one ‘you’ and only one ‘me’. The only way to be sure that Einstein’s brilliance was due to his anatomy would be to analyse his brain alongside many other people like him, in contrast to people unlike him. Otherwise, it’s impossible to tell the difference between the unique physiological characteristics of his genius and random variation between individuals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate his genius. For while we might not have good studies of his brain, we do have the story of his life, and the contents of his mind, in the form of his research.

Einstein is often remembered as a harmless, other-worldly figure, detached from mundane problems. Certainly he had his eccentricities: he wore sweatshirts that grew rattier over the years, because wool sweaters made him itch. He didn’t like socks, and sometimes wore women’s shoes on vacation. But the conventional narrative of Einstein as tweedy eccentric ignores his radical politics and occasionally troubled personal life. After all, Einstein was a socialist and advocate for one-world government and, until Hitler rose to power, championed demilitarisation and pacifism. He was also passionately anti-racist, hosting the African-American contralto Marian Anderson at his house when Princeton hotels refused to serve her in 1937, and after.

if we expect a genius to be somehow fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, studying Einstein’s life and opinions will disappoint

But Einstein was no saint. He cheated on his first wife Mileva Marić with his cousin Elsa Einstein, whom he later married and cheated on in turn. He was known to write sexist doggerel in letters to his friends, and he had difficult relationships with his children – though he could be extremely kind to other people’s children, and even helped youngsters in his neighbourhood with their homework.

In other words, Einstein was – like all of us – a bundle of contradictions, someone who behaved well sometimes and badly at others. As a world-famous scientist, he had a louder amplifier than an ordinary person, but if we expect a genius to be somehow fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, studying Einstein’s life and opinions will disappoint.

Which leaves us with what established Einstein’s reputation: his science. Like Isaac Newton before him, Einstein sometimes had trouble recognising the implications of his ideas, to the point where it’s likely that he would have trouble recognising the way general relativity is researched and taught today. In 1939, he published a paper intending to show that black holes didn’t and couldn’t exist. The term ‘black hole’ wasn’t around back then, but several physicists proposed that gravity might cause objects to collapse on themselves. Einstein’s usually excellent intuition failed him in this case. His calculations were technically correct, but he hated the idea of black holes so much that he failed to see that, with enough density, gravity overwhelms all other forces, making collapse inevitable.

To be fair to Einstein, general relativity was still an esoteric theory in 1939. Very few researchers used it, and the observational methods required to show that black holes exist – radio and X-ray astronomy – were in their infancy. But black holes weren’t Einstein’s only weakness as a scientist. He was also justifiably modest about his mathematical ability. He relied on others, including his first wife Mileva and his good friend, the physicist Michele Besso, to help him work out thorny problems. Today they would receive co-author credits on Einstein’s papers, but that wasn’t the practice at the time.

Thanks to the diversity of human experience and human talents, we know that genius isn’t a monolithic quality that appears in identical form everywhere we find it.

And as is always the case with scientific geniuses, Einstein’s theories would exist even if he had not. Special relativity, general relativity, and the photon model of light might not have been developed by the same individual, but someone would have sussed them out. Henri Poincaré, Hendrik Lorentz and others worked out much of relativity before 1905, just as Gottfried Leibniz independently worked out the calculus in parallel with Newton, and Alfred Russel Wallace developed natural selection in isolation from Charles Darwin. Historians of science once subscribed to a ‘Great Man’ theory, but we now know that transformative ideas emerge from the work of many talented individuals, instead of emerging ex nihilo from one brilliant mind.

Nor was Einstein the only physicist to make brilliant discoveries in the early 20th century. Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg all accomplished the same, and so did many others. Were they lesser geniuses than Einstein? Curie won two Nobel Prizes and contributed directly to research that led to several others, yet she isn’t considered the archetype of genius – despite having crazy hair to rival Einstein’s. But of course there are two unfortunate biases against Curie: her gender and the fact that she was an experimentalist, not a theoretician.

This difference is instructive. Thanks to the diversity of human experience and human talents, we know that genius isn’t a monolithic quality that appears in identical form everywhere we find it. Einstein’s genius was different from Curie’s, and scientific genius is different from musical genius. Celebrity, on the other hand, tends to follow more predictable patterns. Once a person becomes famous, they tend to stay that way. Had he lived in another era, Einstein might have been a decent physicist, but he wouldn’t have been the Einstein we know. But because he lived in a special sliver of time, after the lights of fame had begun to shine bright, and before science came to be seen as a team sport, he has become our genius.

Read more essays on cognition and general culture

Comments

  • Anarcissie

    Possibly Einstein's case is similar to what used to be called the One Negro Syndrome. That is, for an esoteric category, one individual is publicly acknowledged and all the others ignored. Now that Black people are less esoteric, there are lots of celebrities among them, but at one time it was just Booker T. Washington (or someone like that). Just so, as far as the mass media are concerned, there is one radical: Noam Chomsky. There was one great gambler: Nick the Greek. For a while there was one big-ticket artist: Picasso, later Andy Warhol. (The slot now seems to be empty.) Einstein's theories were very important, and he had a big mane of curly hair, and said funny things, so he got the post of the One Scientist.

    • Xbillion

      They made Stephen Hawking the heir to Einstein for decades, his story one the media lapped up for obvious reasons as did the public. Meanwhile dozens of physicists did work of relatively important significance.

  • Bruis

    I suggest reading Majorie Garber's excellent essay from 2002 "Our Genius Problem" - December issue of The Atlantic. Genius really is a useless term, and it doesn't do the people it gets applied to any favors.

  • Samaway

    For a more in-depth study of the collective nature of scientific practice, I recommend Hélène Mialet's "Hawking Incorporated." Mialet disentangles the "genius" from the "material network" that make his research, presentations, writing, speaking, etc., possible.

  • kmoser

    This article really should have mentioned Driving Mr. Albert, a book about the history of Einstein's brain and what ultimately happened to it.

  • laserfuzz

    So are you saying that Einstein was only famous if you look at the time frame?

    • bobgrumman

      He's saying Einstein was the world's most famous scientist mainly because of the time frame. I would add that the connection of e = mc2 to the atomic bomb had a lot to do with it, too.

  • joe average

    Einstein had many brilliant, accomplished contemporaries who helped him create modern physics, but his imagination and physical insight exceeded theirs. That's why he's "our genius".

  • pcmankey

    First, he contradicts himself on the Madame Curie statement--if she had biases against her she never would have been awarded any Nobel Prizes let alone two, and of course an experimentalist is not heralded the same as a theorist who thinks the stuff up in the first place. And he has no idea what Einstein would or would not have done in a different era he presumes that Einstein would still have been born and raised in his time then thrust into another era...he would have been privy to all the known physics of the new time. And he obviously has no idea about General Relativity--sure there were lots of people on the trail of Special Relativity but not one single person I've ever heard of was even in the galaxy pursuing GR so who knows when it would have came about or if it would have at all--there is more than one way to explain the same thing--ask Schrodinger and Heisenberg and Feynman. GR is still not required by PhD Physicists--most of them have never solved anything in GR and it's 2014. And it's not just some simple next step from Special Relativity...not even close. Plus, he left out the most important thing of all the land mark year 1905 that that Einstein published his 4 papers excluding GR. Einstein even explained Brownian motion. Genius comes as ideas not who can grind out the most mathematics. That's why Einstein is called a genius, the volume and the variety and the uniqueness of his work not because he had a shock of hair. And even mentioning that Curie had a lot of hair too, well she was a woman, but it's so superfluous it's embarrassing. How is it possible to leave out 1905 when talking about Einstein's genius but mention his hair 10 times? The whole thing sounds more like the dumbing down of everything so we can say "We're all geniuses in our own special way." Vomit.

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    • Albert Heisenberg

      Totally agree, this article is pure crap. He has a tendentious thesis "Einstein was overrated" when in FACT, Einstein contributed MORE to quantum mechanics than he did to even relativity. His intellect was inimitable.

  • wrong

    First of all, he found the undeniable evidence that light
    consisted of small particles (quanta). Planck had already proposed the
    proportionality. But, Einstein came up with the last and the most important
    piece of evidence. I don't even have to mention the importance of relativity.
    He is a true genius. I definitely disagree with your opinion here: "Had he
    lived in another era, Einstein might have been a decent physicist, but he
    wouldn’t have been the Einstein we know." It's probably the one of the
    most important advances in physics. In fact, Edward Teller wrote that it is the
    second important step in physics.

    I also don't think that Curie was a genius. She was a great experimenter as you
    say. She was stubborn and she loved science so much that she ruined her health
    with her studies. You should also mention that her husband was not an ordinary
    scientist. He did pioneering work in several areas. It is obvious that they
    both put some thought into their joint work. I am sure she had great
    difficulties throughout her life as a woman in science. But, she won the Nobel
    Prize twice in early 20th century. In fact, she faced great difficulties
    because of her relationship with a married physicist. But, she was able to win
    the second Nobel prize. She was the only woman scientist at 1911 Solvay
    conference. Moreover, she could be the only one at the next 3-4 conferences. I
    haven't checked.

    I still don't see any bias against Curie especially in our time. She's loved by
    everyone and her name is always pronounced respectfully. It looks like Marie
    Curie has become the "Einstein" of women that you discuss in your
    article.

    I believe Lisa Meitner was one of the "real" geniuses and it is
    widely accepted that it has been one of the worst decisions of the Nobel
    committee. I am sure her gender and politics played a great role in this.

    • Zaoldyeck

      So you think no one else would have been able to write about the photoelectric effect? As you mentioned, Planck already had proposed the math, if Einstein hadn't had done it, it wasn't like we didn't have physicists just as capable as Einstein back then who would have been able to do the same. Who is to say Max Born couldn't have just as readily published the same paper had he just been a couple of years older?

      Hell, even relativity, with Michelson-Morley having pretty much sealed the fate of the Aether theory, and the likes of Lorentz or Minkowski before him, the framework of relativity existed well before Einstein. I'm not willing to say Hilbert, had he been more interested in physics rather than math, would have been just as capable as Einstein for having published his 1905 paper, and I'd CERTAINLY argue that once Hilbert took an interest in relativity, he was just as bit if not more capable a 'genius' as Einstein.

      I respect Einstein, but it's hard to think of Einstein as a sole single model of 'genius' when compared to other INCREDIBLY brilliant minds back in the early 20th century. Einstein's contributions are important, it's hard to deny that he was also a dogmatic individual who often ignored evidence when it didn't suit what he wanted the universe to be like, especially in his later years.

      Let us please not hold Einstein so far beyond other brilliant minds of the time. There's no excuse at all for Einstein being a household name, but Dirac is about as obscure as it gets. I mean I hope you aren't going to say Dirac falls anything short of 'genius'.

  • UrDaddie

    Are we sure that black holes exist? Maybe Einstein will be proved right on that after all.

  • Robyn Sheppard

    I wish I could spend a lot of time explaining all of the reasons for his fame, but I'm no Einstein.

    I think it's more a mater of habit these days, in much the same manner as all these years after TWO space shuttle disasters, we still use the terms "rocket science" and "rocket scientist" as the be-all and end-all of brilliance. Which is silly, when you consider that we were able to put a man on the moon, but then took another 30 years before we figured out how to put wheels on suitcases.

    Just sayin'...

  • Xbillion

    Wittgenstein is one of the more interesting poster boys for genius, I'll say. I always think of him when Einstein's poster boy for genius status is brought to my attention. Not to say Wittgenstein's work is comparable in significance (and not to say it should exactly be compared anyway).

  • Albert Heisenberg

    This is a terrible article, your biases are showing. Einstein's genius was UNIQUE and incomparable. Your talk on his mathematical abilities are also flawed: michele besso, his good friend at the Zurich Polytechnik, helped teach him riemannian geometry (he skipped his senior math lectures to read about physics at the odeon cafe), but virtually all of the math in general relativity is Einstein's. Hilbert had attempted to get to GR first but his equations were NOT generally co-variant Einstein's were. To be more mathematically precise than one of the 10 greatest mathematicians of all-time (Hilbert) suggests that his modesty about his mathematical ability was pure humility. Heck, he was ingenious enough with mathematics to use the statistics of thermodynamics and apply it to Brownian motion. Einstein is arguably a more brilliant physicist than Newton, but don't take my word for it, take an expert in condensed matter physics: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/a-douglas-ston/einstein-fantasy-physics_b_4948045.html

  • Albert Heisenberg

    Nonsense. Mcmc you don't know your science history well. Hilbert ONLY "worked out" some of the equations for GR because Einstein had done the skeletal work on GR already and was giving a speech in Gottingen, the university that Hilbert and Max Born taught in. It's dubious Hilbert would have even had an inkling on how to approach GR had he not been attendance in that lecture, and this much is historically certain (see: Abraham Pais's Subtle is the Lord). After the lecture Hilbert had the kinematic and mathematical framework to try and create the field equations before Einstein but he failed. One of the top 10 greatest mathematicians of all-time FAILED to make his equations generally co-variant while Einstein did (and published it before Hilbert's), that should tell you all you need to know about Einstein's excellent mathematic abilities: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/11/18/science/findings-back-einstein-in-a-plagiarism-dispute.html

    Before Einstein, NOBODY was close to General Relativity, nor was anybody close to the photoelectric effect:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/a-douglas-ston/einstein-fantasy-physics_b_4948045.html

    Poincare and Lorentz both, and even after 1905, believed in the "ether", and this is shown by papers subsequent to 1905 from both Lorentz and Poincare that still discuss light as flowing through the "ether", a fact suggesting neither of them were willing to make the conceptual leap Einstein was willing to make to correctly theorize SR.

    Euler and Gauss use Leibniz's calculus and not Newton's does that make Newton useless? No. Einstein's GR supplanted Newton's superficial understanding of gravity and motion. Sorry but there will never been another Einstein. Period.

  • Albert Heisenberg

    U forgot about the LASER (no Einstein, no laser)...His work on gravitational lensing...his work on the quantization of chaos (1919)...His work on the A&B co-efficients...his work on probability waves (3 years before de broglie)....Einstein is the greatest physicist EVER. This article is almost blasphemously in how historically inaccurate it is. Madame Curie to Einstein? No comparison (Curie was a genius in her own right but her work is not as fundamental to science as Einstein's is).

  • ApathyNihilism

    Truly? No other individual had any influence on a century of progress and regress?

  • ApathyNihilism

    Your rude.

  • Michki067

    I quickly hit the "comments" so I could say the exact same thing that the comment ahead of me said, so I'll let it go at that because I'm not nearly as artikalet. Thank you, pcmankey.

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  • Charles

    The article begins with a startlingly incomplete statement of Einstein's scientific achievements. It doesn't mention his two greatest achievements special and general relativity, and the amazing fact that time flows faster or slower depending on other physical factors.These seminal discoveries are left out in favor of the superficially sexier and more current obsessions with black holes and such, phenomena which Einstein did not discover himself. As for quantum entanglement, Einstein argued AGAINST it in a famous paper and is ironically credited with making the case for it, which he did by being spectacularly wrong.

    If the author knew more about what Einstein actually accomplished perhaps he would be better at evaluating the nature of his genius.