Friday, June 16, 2017


Flynn and Rush as Einstein, young and old

Not so long ago, if you asked anyone in the world to name a famous scientist, he or she would respond with a single person: Albert Einstein. The physicist who developed the theory of general relativity (captured by a simple equation—E=MC²) was well known and loved in his later years as much for his gentle humor and his pacifist philosophy as for his groundbreaking theories. In fact, he was so well known his name had become synonymous with genius.

Of course, overturning the accepted Newtonian laws of gravity and physics as Einstein did earned him nothing but enmity in the beginning. Acceptance came much slower than we’d like to believe. The conservative academic world condemned him at first, especially because there was no experimental way to prove his theory (at least until astronomers observing the effect of gravity on light during a solar eclipse provided the needed observations).

Worse, a determined number of his German colleagues worked hard to deny his theories based solely on a single aspect of his character: the fact that he was Jewish. Led by one man in particular, physicist Philipp Lenar (who later headed the Nazi physics program), this group denied Einstein the Nobel prize for his work year after year, carrying out a publishing war throughout the 1920s and early 1930s to discredit Einstein’s theories.

All of this has been part of the fascinating story told in the National Geographic channel’s GENIUS series, just wrapping up now. The series stars Johnny Flynn as the scientist as a struggling young man and Geoffrey Rush as the more familiar figure with the wild hair and eccentric habits. 

Those of us who are science geeks may know parts of this story—that the young genius did poorly in school and was denied a teaching position at universities in Berlin or Zurich (both places in which he’d studied); that he was forced to take a position as a patents clerk to support his family. What I didn’t know about was the tragedy of his early marriage to a brilliant, but unstable fellow student, his dalliances with other women, and the fact that he came up with his major theories (of photo-electrics, molecular motion and relativity) before age 23 and spent the rest of his life trying to expand them to create a unified field theory of physics.

The most recent episode, set in turbulent pre-Nazi Germany, struck close to home. The Nazi Party, not yet in power but growing in strength, was making life difficult for Jews in all walks of life, but particularly at the higher levels of academia, business and professional circles. After Einstein himself was attacked on the street by armed “brownshirts,” he made the difficult decision to emigrate to the United States. 

But though he had a longstanding job offer from Princeton University, the process of entering the U.S.was not easy. He was called into an interview with American Consul General Raymond Geist at the U.S. Embassy, on orders of Director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover wanted to know if Einstein was a member of the Communist Party. Or a Socialist. Or a Zionist. Or had any of the people who had attended his lectures belonged to these organizations.

At first Einstein was angry and defiant. But his wife, Elsa, was a calming influence. And, gradually, he began to connect with his interviewer. Geist was basically a decent man, someone who joined the U.S. government in the first place “to be of service.” The scientist, a man of conscience, helped the agent see that in order to be of service, he must help innocent people escape a truly horrific situation—the oncoming Nazi holocaust. 

Despite Geist’s positive recommendation, Hoover was determined to keep Einstein out of America due to his reputation as an advocate for the Jewish cause. He denied the scientist’s visa application. But “somehow” the U.S. press got wind of Einstein’s plight, and the public forced the government to reverse the decision. (Geist, it turns out, had a permanent change of heart. A note at the end of the episode indicated that he personally was responsible for approving 50,000 applications for visas from beleaguered German Jews, saving them from the gas chambers.)

I could only wonder what might happen if a Muslim man of Einstein’s genius were to apply for a U.S. visa today from Syria or Iraq. Would there be a Raymond Geist to help him? And would that man be there for his new country later in an hour of desperate need, as Einstein was at the Manhattan Project? 

We think of Albert Einstein as our own beloved scientist. But in truth we adopted him, just as we have adopted so many others who have enriched this country and the world.

Cheers, Donna


  1. It's a wonderful story. At least the public pressure got him in. You've asked a good question about the current political scene, too.

  2. Great post, Donna. I didn't know a lot of this backstory. Thanks for the heads-up about GENIUS!

  3. Wonderful background information on Einstein, Donna. (I wanted to watch that Genius series and forgot to record it.) So often we think life was easy for these legends because we're looking back from the perspective of knowing their ultimate successes and how much they ended up contributing through their endeavors.

    I'm afraid I can't agree entirely with your last statement, though. Yes, Einstein was probably subjected to scrutiny that wasn't at all warranted, but if he'd ended up bombing a children's concert or a marathon, we'd have a very different view of him today.

    1. Hang on, the post refers to a hypothetical scientist of Muslim faith, not an Islamist extremist. Blocking Muslims from the US is as effective as blocking Catholics from my home state because Timothy McVeigh was a Catholic. Crazy doesn't have a religious preference, and neither does genius.

    2. I was responding to this particular statement made in the post: "I could only wonder what might happen if a Muslim man of Einstein’s genius were to apply for a U.S. visa today from Syria or Iraq." I think 'Syria or Iraq' are the key words here, not 'Muslim,' as I stated in my comment below. And granted, we can never predict who will carry out acts of extremism. They can be executed by persons from any background or nation, including our own, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't exercise caution with those traveling from areas that are known hotbeds of radicalism.

      The point I was making was that using Einstein's plight to make a case for not attempting to identify individuals who may become terrorists wasn't a fair comparison. We have the advantage of looking back on Einstein from the perspective of the future. We already know that he became a great man of science and didn't end up committing acts of violence that killed innocent people.

      If the hypothetical scientist of Muslim faith has no such ties or connections, then no, I agree, he shouldn't be blocked from entering the US. But that isn't to say we shouldn't verify his background has no such connections.

  4. Yes, my point was that the scrutiny Einstein was subjected to was entirely because of his religious beliefs. He was a Jew, and at the time, many people, including J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI, believed his religion AUTOMATICALLY meant he was a direct threat to the safety and security of the people of the U.S. Similar beliefs hold today about people of the Muslim faith, and they are just as prejudiced and wrong. Are there Islamic terrorists? Certainly, just as there were Zionist terrorists in 1932. Does that mean all Jews were terrorists? No, just as all Muslims are not terrorists today. Individuals deserve to be judged on their own merits, of which, of course, Einstein had plenty.

  5. I absolutely agree we shouldn't discriminate against any person solely based on their race or religion, but I also believe that with the current state of the world and with such horrific acts of violence being carried out against innocent citizens, that active due diligence is necessary to protect innocent lives. Taking a closer look at persons traveling from the specific areas that are cultivating the majority of these violent terrorists is one way of doing that. Those practicing the Muslim faith live throughout the globe and are not the intended target--the violent extremists are. I think there's a very clear distinction.

    But anyway...back to SFR. :)


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