Yet when Einstein attended the Hollywood première of City Lights in 1931, the movie’s star and director, Charlie Chaplin, offered him an explanation: “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.” Maybe Einstein achieved his peculiar brand of immortality not in spite of his inscrutability but because of it. Social scientist Bernard H. Gustin has suggested that an Einstein assumes godlike status because he is “thought to come into contact with what is essential in the universe.” Holton recently elaborated on this comment: “I believe this is precisely why so many who knew little about Einstein’s scientific writing flocked to catch a glimpse of him, and to this day feel somehow uplifted by contemplating his iconic image.”
The halo has helped maintain the myth, keeping Einstein a presence on magazine covers and newspaper front pages, on posters and postcards, coffee mugs, baseball caps, T-shirts, refrigerator magnets and, based on a Google search, 23,600 Internet sites. But what we’re celebrating this year is more than a myth. In reinventing relativity, Einstein also reinvented nothing less than the way we see the universe. For thousands of years, astronomers and mathematicians had studied the motions of bodies in the night sky, then searched for equations to match them. Einstein did the reverse. He started with idle musings and scratches on paper and wound up pointing toward phenomena previously unimaginable and still unfathomable. “The general theory of relativity is one man’s idea of what the universe ought to be like,” says Einstein scholar Arthur I. Miller of UniversityCollege, London. “And that’s pretty much what it turned out to be.” It’s this legacy of Einstein’s that the World Year of Physics is commemorating, this lasting contribution to the modern era: the triumph of mind over matter.
THE LAST WORD ON ENERGY
It may be the world’s most famous equation, but what does E=mc2 actually mean?
Shortly after completing his paper on special relativity, in 1905, Einstein realized his equations applied to more than space and time. From the point of view of an observer standing still relative to an object moving very fast—approaching the speed of light—the object would appear to be gaining mass. And the greater its velocity—in other words the more energy that had been spent in getting it moving—the greater its apparent mass. Specifically, the measure of its energy would be equal to the measure of its mass multiplied by the speed of light squared.
The equation didn’t help scientists engineer an atomic bomb, but it does explain why smashing atoms can release mushroom clouds’ worth of power. The speed of light, or c, is a big number: 186,282 miles per second. Multiply it by itself, and the result is, well, a really big number: 34,700,983,524. Now multiply that number by even an extraordinarily minute amount of mass, such as what one might find in the nucleus of an atom, and the result is still an extraordinarily tremendous number. And that number is E, energy.
Prompted by two nuclear physicists, Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 2, 1939, that “extremely powerful bombs” of a new type were now “conceivable.” Historians tend to think the letter played a “strictly subsidiary role” in the decision of the Allied powers to pursue the nuclear option, says physics historian Spencer Weart. But the fact that Einstein and, indirectly, his equation played any role whatsoever has forever linked a lifelong pacifist and utopian with mankind’s ability to destroy itself.
Einstein later realized that his assessment that German scientists would be capable of building an atomic bomb—the opinion that drove him to write to FDR—was mistaken. “If I had known that these fears were groundless,” he wrote to a friend late in life, “I would not have taken part in opening that Pandora’s box.” But open it now was, never to close, as Einstein himself had acknowledged elliptically, almost poetically, back in August 1945, when he first heard the news about Hiroshima. “Oh, Weh”—using the German word for pain. “And that’s that.”