Einstein: ‘Dopey’ to Star Physicist

Unnamed photo
Emma S Winer

President and CEO of the Aspen Institute Walter S. Isaacson ’74, right, talks about his book “Einstein: His Life and Universe” at the IOP Forum with Dillon Professor of Government Graham T. Allison Jr. last night.

As students in the popular course Science A-41, “The Einstein Revolution” worked through their last round of problem sets and paper drafts of the semester, another Einstein expert was on campus to weigh in on the innovative mind of the renowned physicist.

Walter S. Isaacson ’74, former chairman and CEO of CNN and managing editor for Time Magazine, spoke about Albert Einstein, the subject of his most recent book, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” at the Institute of Politics’ John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum yesterday evening.

Isaacson, who currently serves as president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, told a packed crowd that one of Einstein’s greatest attributes was his ability to excel despite being labeled “the dopey one in the family.”

“He was no Einstein when he was a kid,” said Isaacson, whose book was released this month.

It was Einstein’s imagination—not his superior knowledge or intellect, according to Isaacson—that helped the physicist shine in the early 20th century in the face of his “very rebellious” nature.

“He learned to marvel at what you and I would find ordinary,” Isaacson said. “This makes him the patron saint of all distracted school kids everywhere.”

Isaacson cited Einstein’s creativity as the driving force behind finding success during some of his life’s most important and difficult events, including his discovery of the theory of relativity—explaining in part that “gravity is simply the curving of space”—and his tumultuous marriage to mathematician Mileva Maric in 1903.

Unable to convince Maric to agree to a divorce, Einstein made a bet with his wife. According to Isaacson, if and when he won his first Nobel Prize, he would give the prize money to Maric in exchange for the desired split.

Unfortunately for Einstein, Isaacson said, he didn’t win the prize until 1921.

“They had a contemptuous relationship,” he said.

Einstein also weathered contempt because of his Jewish heritage.

“Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, so this gets labeled ‘Jewish science,’” Isaacson said of Einstein’s theories.

Once he overcame the label by proving his theories were sound, Isaacson explained, Einstein received the kind of attention that “visiting rock stars would be thrilled with.”

During the talk, which was sponsored by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Isaacson opened the floor to Baird Research Professor of Science Dudley R. Herschbach, a Nobel laureate in chemistry.

Herschbach called upon the students in the audience to emulate the creative aptitude exhibited by Einstein.

“Graduate students, undergraduate students, arise!” Herschbach exclaimed. “Revolutionize! Have the imagination of this guy.”

—Staff writer Malcom A. Glenn can be reached at mglenn@fas.harvard.edu.