Einstein and Culture

  1. Initial Popular Reaction

    1. While the 1905 papers began his fame, General Relativity made it explode

    2. American and British Press

      1. Both depicted Einstein's work as a kind of fight

        1. In England, it was Einstein vs. Newton

        2. In the United States, it was Einstein vs. the common man

      2. Both also described his work as incompressible, which contributed to his image a a genius

    3. The German press took a different view

      1. Einstein's work was presented as understandable, and not quite so revolutionary

      2. German papers carefully described hi theories, with all the math

      3. Initially viewed as a notable scientist, his image deteriorated as anti-Semitism grew

    4. While welcomed in US, the government was of mixed opinions

      1. Had a strong enough reputation that his letter to FDR helped to convince FDR to pursue nuclear weapons

      2. But he has not fully trusted

        1. Famously was both a leftist and a pacifist

        2. Because of this, he did not get a security clearance, and could not have worked on the bomb even if had wanted to

        3. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI investigated him extensively

  2. Einstein the Genius

    1. Came to be an icon of what it meant to be a genius

      1. Name used as an equivalent for genius - "He may be smart, but he's no Einstein!"

      2. Some his own characteristics become associated in public with "genius"

        1. The wild hair, in an age when such was not common

        2. General non-conformity, in his casual dress and apparent disregard for authority

      3. Many myths and legends were attributed to him or applied to him that became part of the popular image of genius

        1. He invented the fourth dimension and the nuclear bomb

        2. His ideas could only be understood by, ten, twelve, or twenty people

        3. He had been a slow learner, unimpressive student

        4. He understood the mysteries of the universe, but couldn't do simple arithmetic (meaning you and I could be a little smarter than Einstein on some things)

        5. He was absentminded and weird

    2. Shows up in art and literature as a symbol of genius

      1. Various plays, short stories, musical pieces movies have Einstein as a key figure ("Einstein on the Beach")

      2. Einstein-like figures also show up frequently (Young Einstein)

    3. Fame as a genius helps change the way academics and scholars relate to government

      1. His letter to FDR helps launch the bomb program

      2. But it is also at this time period that "brain trusts" start to be major players in shaping policy and programs

        1. Most notably the Manhattan Project itself

        2. Einstein's fame helps to bolster the notion that such people have concrete things to offer and should be consulted

  3. Relativity as a Cultural Concept

    1. Einstein's image is complex on the question of truth

      1. Frequently used God as a metaphor, and many seized on this as proof that he was a believer

        1. And since Einstein the genius was a believer, shouldn't everyone be?

        2. But in fact he wasn't

    2. Einstein's work showed that measurements and perceptions long thought to be absolute were not

      1. This was seen by many as damaging to the idea that there were absolute truths based on immutable natural laws

      2. For some, this was seen as a blow to faith

    3. Relativity and Relativism

      1. Einstein's work showed that how we perceive the world depends on where we stand

      2. While Einstein himself does not invent cultural, political, or moral relativism, for many, his understanding of nature bolstered those very ideas

        1. Cubism, Expressionism, and other 20th century art movements were all based on deconstructing and rebuilding perceptions

        2. Much of twentieth century literature involves the single individual seeking to interpret his world from his own unique perspective

      3. While Einstein was blamed or credited for much of this, his own beliefs were quite different

        1. He very much believed there were real truths (and wanted originally to call his ideas "invariance theory")

        2. Famously quipped "I cannot believe that God would choose to play dice with the universe” in the face of the quantum mechanics, witch sees the subatomic world as based on probablities