Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)
Albert Einstein reshaped our cosmos by supplanting long-treasured concepts of physics with shockingly counterintuitive ideas about the nature of space and time. It is no accident his name has become a synonym for genius. Yet, throughout his life the seeming contradictions of this complex man made him a controversial figure. (Dukas: 33) An ardent pacifist, he not only warned President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 that the Nazis were probably developing a weapon of hither-to inconceivable power, he stressed that America should follow suit quickly. Though he consorted with dignitaries, heads of state and queens, he maintained a serene simplicity that won the hearts of children and appealed to the childlike inquisitiveness in us all. (Dukas: 55) Born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, Einstein died in Princeton, New Jersey in 1955 and during those 76 years, his life was full of triumphs and tragic ironies. Here was a humanist who showed compassion and concern for the children of strangers [but] neglected his own sons and kept the existence of his first, illegitimate child a secret. Here, too, was a dedicated democrat who, after immigrating to the United States, was constantly accused of being a Communist or a Communist dupe. (Dukas: 7) In 1903 Einstein married the mother, Mileva Maric, whom he had met while both were studying physics at the Federal Polytechnic University in Zurich. Some Einstein biographers suggest this relationship never fully recovered from the trauma associated with giving up Lieserl, his daughter from this union, among other difficulties. Nevertheless, the marriage lasted until 1919 and embraced his most productive years. In 1903, following a period of penury, Einstein landed his now legendary job at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. Stimulated by notions in the patent applications and spurred in part, by animated discussions with an informal and jokingly named "Olympia Academy" of like-minded friends, he began developing epoch-making ideas. By 1905 he had arrived at his special theory of relativity, his famous E = [mc.sup.2] formula, and a conceptualization of light that helped spawn quantum mechanics and would win him a Nobel prize in 1921. (Libbon: 26) After a 1919 observation proved that gravity could alter the path of light, just as relativity predicted, Einstein became without question the world's most famous and celebrated scientist, as well a the most loved and most hated. The passions he stirred were intensified by his not hesitating to take strong political and social stands. In 1919 he began to help Jews who had fled to Germany from Eastern Europe, even as a powerful lobby in the German government agitated to kick them out . ." A 1920 edition of the Berliner Tageblatt carried an article by Einstein that condemned the inhumanity of those urging the deportations and provided a penetrating analysis of their hostility. He argued, "anti-Semitism was being aroused to account for social conditions, when the true cause of the problem was the devastating economic depression." (Libbon: 121) Einstein himself was sometimes the target of anti-Semitic outbursts. At the University of Berlin, where he was a faculty member, one student interrupted a lecture of his with a death threat. As Germany's economic and political turmoil accelerated and organizations such as Hitler's National Socialist German Workers, Party (formed in 1920) grew in influence, Einstein's situation became ever more dangerous, especially since he was now decisively asserting his identity as a Jew. He had not felt part of the Jewish race, until he saw and felt the sting of anti-Semitism, particularly in Germany. (Holton: 44) In 1921, Einstein agreed to accompany Chaim Weizmann to America on a fundraising tour for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1933, with the Nazis consolidating their power and conditions becoming increasingly intolerable for Jews, he finally immigrated to the United States. (Holton: 102) At War's end, Einstein became involved in Zionist efforts to create a Jewish homeland. Testifying on January 11, 1946, before a joint Anglo-American Committee on the British Mandate in Palestine, he displayed a sophisticated grasp of the political dynamics of the situation. He harshly criticized British mandate policy as contrary to the interests and harmony of Palestine. Zionists in the audience were alarmed, though; when he offered that, a Jewish state need not be established if an international entity kept the peace between Jews and Arabs. He subsequently clarified this view in a statement drafted by his friend Rabbi Stephen Wise. Jews, it said, should be able to immigrate "freely within the limits of the economic absorptive possibilities" of Palestine, which in turn should have a government that made sure there was no "`Majorisation' of one group by the other." Pressed to go further by Wise, Einstein replied that a "rigid demand for a `Jewish State' will have only undesirable results for us." Radical journalist I. F. Stone praised him for rising above "ethnic limitations." However, after the fact Einstein called the founding of the State of Israel "the fulfillment of our dreams." (Holton: 27) Einstein charted a similarly idiosyncratic course in the political minefield created in America by the Cold War. What was seen as his "Socialist bent" attracted the FBI's attention not only to him but also to his secretary, Helen Dukas. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was alarmed by unsubstantiated charges that the scientist had ties to Klaus Fuchs, a German-born Briton convicted in 1950 of passing atomic secrets to Russia. (Dukas: 20) Einstein deepened Hoover's suspicions with his criticisms of the Red Scare during the McCarthy era, and his 1953 plea that Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who had been linked to Fuchs and convicted of espionage, not be executed. Some took as evidence of a pro-Soviet bias his initial silence that same year at the news that nine Soviet doctors, six of them Jewish, were to be executed on trumped-up charges. After receiving a telegram "from an anti-Communist magazine, THE NEW LEADER," he did speak out against the doctors, death sentences. However, he went on to stress that he thought it was futile to try to influence internal affairs in the Soviet Union. (Pais: 39) Since the early 1980s, a dispute concerning Mileva's role in her husband's achievements has been simmering in the pages of publications ranging from Physics Today to the New York Times. Some view Einstein's decision to give Mileva the money from his Nobel Prize as acknowledgment of her contribution to his work. Others accept the mainstream scholarly position that she "merely helped by looking up data and checking calculations," contends that his largess was mainly part of an effort to get her to agree to a divorce. (Pais: 86) The dispute goes on. Revisionist journalist Andrea Gabor added fuel to the flames with her 1995 book, Einstein's Wife, arguing that Mileva was an equal partner in her husband's breakthroughs. By contrast, physicist Abraham Pais in his 1994 book, Einstein Lived Here, stresses "that at no time in her life did Mileva herself lay claim to shared fame with Einstein, as others . . . have seen fit to do on her behalf." The evidence, in this author's perspective, is clear at least on one point: At a time before Einstein was comfortably established within the scientific community, he shared his scientific hopes and ideas with Mileva. Those who dismiss the possibility of her influence, overlook the fact that the process of making science is often one of "collaborative understanding," of passionately debating ideas. Perhaps they also fail to recognize that trying to understand how Einstein arrived at his brilliant theories need not be an attempt to denigrate his genius. (Gabor: 89) However, what were the roots of Einstein's genius? Einstein himself attributed his achievements to a childish innocence that most of us lose on transition to adulthood, but which he retained to the end of his life. Certainly, the unorthodoxy and resistance to authority needed to challenge conventional wisdom made them known from an early age. (Pais) The historical context of Einstein's life is well described by many biographers, who document his emergence as a public personality, his pacifism and his moral dilemma over whether America should develop the atom bomb ahead of Hitler. However, considering that much new material has emerged from the Einstein archives, there is little here that does not conform to the Einstein myth. When Einstein is described as "brimming with paradoxes", all that is meant is that he rebelled against human authority but was intrigued by the rules of mathematics. What emerges is a rather unsympathetic portrait of a man who presented his repressed emotions as a form of saintliness and who was highly disdainful of women - yet desperately in need of mothering. It has long been known that Einstein experienced many of the problems of lesser mortals in his early life: a teacher who said he would never amount to much, unemployment, divorce and wrangles over child support. What stunned the scientific community in 1990 were claims that his first wife, Mileva Maric, may have been the major contributor to the theory of relativity. While it now seems almost certain that Maric provided emotional support rather than scientific input, the revelations by her Serbian biographers focused attention on Einstein's first marriage. (Gabor) Maric was certainly a scientific high-flyer, but a promising career and a passion for the emerging discipline of psychology were cut short when she gave birth to Einstein's illegitimate daughter in 1902, an episode suppressed by his supporters. There are hints that Einstein pressurized Maric to have the child adopted, but her eventual fate remains unknown. The couple married the following year and went on to have two it seems that Maric never came to terms with giving away their daughter. The marriage soon soured, and Einstein began an affair with Elsa, his cousin, who was a woman in the mold of his dominating mother, Pauline. Some of Einstein's letters from this time suggest that, in his view, Maric's mind had been poisoned by her study of science. It was certainly important to him that Elsa was his intellectual inferior, content to cosset him and protect him from the outside world. (Libbon) Meeting a female mind as formidable as his own was an unnerving experience. Although Einstein valued his friendship with Marie Curie, he confessed to friends that he felt repelled by her. "Madame Curie is very intelligent but has the soul of a herring," he complained. Meanwhile his flirtations with female admirers were to undermine his second marriage. His relations with his sons (one of whom died in a mental hospital) remained at best uneasy after his divorce from Maric. Sources: Dukas, Helen and Banesh Hoffman, "Albert Einstein Creator and Rebel" New American Library Trade 1989. Gabor, Andrea, "Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women" (August 1996) Penguin USA (Paper) Holton, Gerald and Yehuda Elkana (Editor) "Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives: The Centennial Symposium in Jerusalem", Dover Publications; 1997. Libbon Robert P., "The Ultimate Einstein" Pocket Books; 1997. Pais, Abraham, "Einstein Lived Here: Essays for the Layman" Oxford University Press Trade 1994.
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