- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2005


Fifty years after his death, his shock of white hair and droopy mustache still symbolize the genius of Albert Einstein, who remains the foremost scientist of the modern era. Looking back 2,400 years, only Newton, Galileo and Aristotle were his equals.

This year, universities and academies worldwide are celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s “miracle year” when he published five scientific papers in 1905 that fundamentally changed the grasp of space, time, light and matter. Only to top himself about a decade later with his theory of general relativity.

In 1905, he published five landmark papers without footnotes or citations. It marked the beginning of an unrivaled, two-decade intellectual burst.

His theories of relativity developed at this time, laid the foundation for all kinds of discoveries and theories, such as the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe and black holes. Yet relativity is both so profound and confounding that even other physicists have had trouble grasping its nuances.

Einstein described relativity this way: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”

Born in the era of horse-drawn carriages, his ideas launched a dazzling technological revolution that has generated more change in a century than in the previous two millennia. Today, computers, satellites, telecommunication, lasers, television and nuclear power all owe their invention to ways in which Einstein peeled back the veneer of the observable world to expose a stranger and more complicated reality underneath.

And, he began an intellectual quest for a single coherent law that governs the universe. Einstein said such a unified super-theory of everything, still unwritten, would enable us to “read the mind of God.”

“We are a different race of people than we were a century ago,” says astrophysicist Michael Shara of the American Museum of Natural History, “utterly and completely different, because of Einstein.”

Yet there is more, and it is why Einstein transcends mere genius and has become our culture’s grandfatherly icon. By the time he died at age 76 on April 18, 1955, his FBI file ran 1,400 pages.

And, yes, he was eccentric. He famously stuck his tongue out at photographers — that is, when he wasn’t wearing a American Indian war bonnet or some other get-up. Cartoonists loved him.

He never learned to drive. He would walk home from his office at Princeton University, sockless and submerged in the pursuit of the “eternal riddle,” letting his umbrella rattle against the bars of an iron fence. If his umbrella skipped a bar, he would go back to the beginning of the fence and start over.

In those solitary moments, he unconsciously demonstrated the traits — intense concentration, disregard for fashion and innate playfulness — that would rescue him when, inevitably, he would be interrupted by both presidents and passers-by to explain the universe.

“Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something,” Einstein once said, “wearing stripes with plaid comes easy.”

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