Albert Einstein Was a Ladies’ Man

Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man
When he was working on his universal plan
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a genius. — Warren Zevon, “Genius”

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. — Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1

My friend and occasional coblogger Louis wrote yesterday about the challenge of picking a favorite physicist in the face of their humanity. It’s no wonder he has this dilemma: Einstein treated his first wife very badly and ran around on his second wife; Richard Feynman was a notorious womanizer; J. Robert Oppenheimer had affairs and was an alcoholic; Marie Curie carried on an affair with her graduate student. The list goes on and on—and that’s just 20th century physicists. Newton was paranoid (possibly exacerbated by mercury exposure), Cavendish who first measured both the gravitational and electrical forces of attraction was a recluse (how many of you have even heard of him?), Galileo was quick to exploit his inventions for financial gain.

I don’t fault people for seeking heroes, and I have a few myself. The problem is that the more you know about somebody, the less admirable they become. You can only believe someone to be perfectly admirable if you admire them from a great distance. As with many other things, the more realistic the view of a person, the messier and more complex they are. So maybe we have to be a bit forgiving of our heroes, just like we’re forgiving of our friends and family. Otherwise, what other choice do we have than utter pessimism about human nature?


7 Responses to “Albert Einstein Was a Ladies’ Man”

  1. 1 Cedar Riener February 8, 2011 at 20:55

    Very nice post. I think accepting the humanity of our heroes is a necessary step towards seeking success ourselves. If they are human, then we might be able to have an impact on the world ourselves, despite also having the same handicap of humanity.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis February 8, 2011 at 21:51

      When I toured Monticello, the tour guide said he wouldn’t talk about Sally Hemings because there were children present and “children need heroes”. That rubbed me the wrong way. I think the kids might feel more betrayed down the road if they’re raised to think Jefferson was perfect, instead of a profoundly complex human being with a lot of moral ambiguity. (Not that they necessarily need to know everything at a young, just that they shouldn’t be taught to idolize.)

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