In the fine (?) tradition of headlines like this, the answer is “no”: Einstein was not superhuman. However, no single figure is more associated with the word “genius” in popular culture, and there’s no denying he contributed a great deal to 20th century physics. Therein lies the paradox of dealing with Einstein: as with Richard Feynman, the myth of the man is larger than the scientist himself, to the point where people confuse the two. From the theft and hoarding of his brain to his visage on random coffee mugs, he’s still the focus of a cultural obsession. (While driving through northern Wisconsin, I even saw a billboard depicting Einstein in a go-kart. Unfortunately I was driving, so I didn’t get a photo.)
In a new article in Aeon Magazine, I tried (as many have before) to get to the meaning of Einstein-the-genius.
Einstein’s work also led to the discovery of exotic physical phenomena such as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon mots he didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain. [Read more…]