Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Pitfalls of Fame

“With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.” —Albert Einstein

From a letter to Heinrich Zangger, December 24, 1919. Zangger, a professor of physiology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), had been instrumental in Einstein’s appointment as professor of theoretical physics at the ETH. Einstein wrote to Zangger regularly, mostly on scientific subjects and as an intermediary with his family in Zurich.

Some background: Two months earlier, Einstein had made headlines around the world. The New York Times proclaimed: “LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS. Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations.” According to Einstein, gravity resulted from the curvature of space-time and large objects such as stars warp the geometry of space. Einstein challenged astronomers to use an eclipse to test his claim that light passing near the sun would be deflected by its gravitational field. The British astronomer Arthur Eddington took up Einstein’s challenge and on November 6, 1919 announced that starlight was indeed warped by the sun, proving the theory correct. Sir Joseph John Thomson, the president of the Royal Society, said it was “the most important result obtained in connection with the theory of gravitation since Newton’s day”, and “one of the highest achievements of human thought”.

Einstein’s life would never be the same again. Journalists and photographers hounded him, all desperate for a snappy one-liner on relativity. Einstein’s name had become synonymous with genius. However, Einstein would learn that one of the pitfalls of fame is getting too candid with journalists. In one interview, Einstein remarked that American’s were attracted to the Einstein craze by “the magic of non-comprehension”. The New York Times picked up on the story, reporting indignant protests at these remarks. Einstein complained that his words had been distorted and tried to set the record straight, but his efforts fell short of a rebuttal. Lesson learned. At least Einstein was able to keep his wonderfully ironic sense of humor, as this quote shows.

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