Albert Einstein: Humor, happiness and everything in between

True brilliance is rarely inspiring.

There are the prolific larger than life figures that teach us the power of consideration and precision. And then there are the wholly incomprehensible giants that leave behind legacies at once momentous and beyond our grasp.

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Anyone, with the time and drive no doubt, could learn to turn a phrase well enough, but no amount of study or dedication could fund the skill quite as electrically as it was expressed in the late Christopher Hitchens. You can’t learn to be funny the way Groucho was funny and you can’t teach yourself to get away with dense, long-winded prose the way Virginia Woolf did.

Albert Einstein (the most ubiquitous shorthand for genius) however, happens to be a perfect amalgam of both descriptions; a singular, imaginative oddball dedicated to research and persistence.

Mileva Marić Einstein and husband, 1912. Credit: ETH Zurich Archives (CC BY-SA 4.0)

“A calm and modest life”

It’s unfortunate that Einstein’s legacy is so frequently companioned with that corny anecdote reveling in his inability to speak as a child. Never-mind the fact that experts can’t seem to make up their mind about whether or not it’s true, even it was, the intended implication is a little misguided.

His inability to speak, his mediocre career as a student, the volume of academic rejections that preluded his revolutionary miracle year, all belie the impression that the kind of progress he achieved is anything resembling mimicable.  Einstein’s early failures owe themselves principally to errors of focus rather than aptitude.

More importantly (and less cynically), we shouldn’t be so quick to abandon the gifts possessed by the physicist, outside the realm of academia. Charismatic intellectuals, like Bertrand Russell, Voltaire, and Sam Harris are answers to one of the most persistent attacks on reason. This idea that adhering to science and mathematics, as a rule, sacks one of relatable, human qualities. While it is true that Einstein’s mind was the prologue to lasers, automated vehicles, and the atomic bomb, it was also the nucleus of a charming funny guy.

A comical illusion is reported to have occurred to him when he became overwhelmed by inquiries regarding the most famous equation in the world: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.” A quote that concurrently recommends his humor and his reputation as a witty Casanova.  It’s often said that the mathematician could’ve been an accomplished musician in another life by reason of his mastery of the violin.

My appreciation for Einstein is informed by a similar awe that informs my love of Van Gogh.  I’m not an academician, nor I’m a gifted painter, yet the sheer force of their imaginative brilliance makes their work observable through the eyes of a layman like me.

Theories on everything

Occasionally, the human, behind the germinal impacts on physics and technology, peaks from beneath their shadow, in the form of letters and endearing anecdotes.

Einstein’s theory of happiness reminds us of the value of self-love and cautions against the unyielding demands of external validation. His letters to Mileva Marić, disguise his pension for a considered approach, in the sweet, at times clumsy, admiration for an intellectual equal. The physics boffin wasn’t above putting his foot in his mouth, though cogency seemed to come easier to him than most. Even the occasional insensitive remark is animated by a poet’s heart.

Credit: Copyright The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

A year before his death in 1953, Einstein was offered the Presidency of Israel. He ultimately declined, saying, “I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it.”

Words of a man that was certainly spiritually complex. His $2.9 million dollar missive, the one alternatively known as the “God letter” famously denounced the Bible as “a collection of primitive legends.”  Although Einstein was said to have been disenchanted by ecclesiastical affairs pretty early in childhood, he wasn’t an atheist. He subscribed to pantheism; a quasi-scientific discipline that aims to bridge the gap between logic and divinity. It denounces superstition and the idea that the virtuous are rewarded with immortality.

“One life is enough for me,” Einstein once said. It’s compelling to know that his well-regarded empathy wasn’t fired by the imagined wraith of some celestial autocrat, but an intimate-sober understanding of the human condition.

In order to avoid conscription, Einstein became a Swiss citizen in 1901.  His concerns regarding burgeoning Nazi sentiments was again evidenced in a letter to his son Hans that was recently uncovered by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem:

“I read with some apprehension that there is quite a movement in Switzerland, instigated by the German bandits. But I believe that even in Germany things are slowly starting to change. Let’s just hope we won’t have a Europe war first … the rest of Europe is now starting to finally take the thing seriously, especially the British. If they would have come down hard a year and a half ago, it would have been better and easier.”

Many of the lost hand-written documents have yet to be available to the public. They’re composed of notes on the theory of everything, various mathematical calculations and personal letters to family and friends. The 101-page manuscript the University acquired, additionally features a humbling admission. After five decades of consideration Einstein concedes that he doesn’t really understand the quantum nature of light. A flicker that further illuminates the fundamental difference between theology and schools of reason. The humility of ignorance energizes the road to discovery.

Notations jotted down by Einstein would go on to influence fiber optics and speculations that aim to unify all the physical aspects of the universe.

For any aspiring physicists that might feel dispirited by achievements so crucial and far-reaching, remember the parietal lobe in Einstein’s brain was significantly larger than that of an average brain. Post-mortem research has revealed this abnormality to grant the German-born genius a biological license to mathematical prowess; a license he eagerly employed. His continued influence on physics and advancements in technology serves as a proud affirmation of a mind radically unparalleled.

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

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