Not Always an Einstein
When Albert Einstein arrived in America at age 54, pulling into New York Harbor on the ocean liner Westernland on October 17, 1933, an official greeting committee was waiting for him. Einstein and his entourage, however, were nowhere to be found.
Abraham Flexner, director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, was obsessed with shielding his celebrity professor from publicity. So he'd sent a tugboat to spirit the great man away from the Westernland as soon as it cleared quarantine. His hair poking out from a wide-brimmed black hat, Einstein surreptitiously disembarked onto the tug, which ferried him and his party to lower Manhattan, where a car would whisk them to Princeton. "All Dr. Einstein wants is to be left in peace and quiet," Flexner told reporters.
Actually, Einstein also wanted a newspaper and an ice cream cone. As soon as he checked into Princeton's Peacock Inn, he walked over to a newsstand, bought a newspaper and chuckled at the headlines about his mysterious whereabouts. Then he entered a local ice cream parlor and ordered a cone. The waitress making change for him declared, "This one goes in my memory book."
Winner of the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his contribution to theoretical physics, Einstein was given an office at the institute. He was asked what equipment he needed. "A desk or table, a chair, paper and pencils," he replied. "Oh, and a large wastebasket, so I can throw away all my mistakes."
He and Elsa, his wife, rented a house and settled into life in Princeton. He liked the fact that America, despite its inequalities of wealth and racial injustices, was more of a meritocracy than Europe. "What makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people," he would later marvel. "No one humbles himself before another person."
The lack of stifling traditions, he noted, encouraged more of the sort of creativity he'd relished as a student in Europe, where his constant questioning of established wisdom led to the special theory of relativity, as well as the best-known equation in all of physics: E=mc2. Einstein, however, was no Einstein when he was a child.
Growing up in Munich, Germany, the first of two children of Hermann and Pauline Einstein, he was slow in learning how to talk. "My parents were so worried," he recalled, "that they consulted a doctor."
Even when he began using words after age two, he developed a quirk that prompted his nursemaid to dub him the dopey one. "Every sentence he uttered, no matter how routine," recalled his younger sister, Maja, "he repeated to himself softly, moving his lips." His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one German schoolmaster to send him packing. Another declared that Einstein would never amount to much.
"When I ask myself how it happened that I discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance," Einstein later explained. "The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have."
Encouraged by his genial father, who ran a family business, and his music-loving mother, Einstein spent hours working on puzzles and building towers with toys. "Persistence and tenacity were part of his character," his sister remarked.