The Age Of Einstein
He became, almost despite himself, the emblem of all that was new, original and unsettling in the modern age


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For Einstein to become a modern icon, especially in America, required a total revision of the definition of a hero. Anti-intellectualism has been as integral a part of American culture as the drive for universal education, and the fact that both have existed concurrently may account for the low status of teachers. In America it is not enough to be smart; one must compensate for one's intelligence by also showing the canniness and real-world power of the cowboy and the pioneer. Einstein did this. He was the first modern intellectual superstar, and he won his stardom in the only way that Americans could accept--by dint of intuitive, not scholarly, intelligence and by having his thought applied to practical things, such as rockets and atom bombs.

The recognition of the practical power of his ideas coincided with a time when such power was most needed. Einstein came to America in 1933 as the most celebrated of a distinguished group of European intellectuals, refugees from Hitler and Mussolini, who, as soon as they arrived, changed the composition of university faculties (largely from patrician to Jewish), and who also changed the composition of government. Until F.D.R.'s New Deal, the country had never associated the contemplative life with governmental action. Now there was a Brain Trust; being an "egghead" was useful, admirable, even sexy. One saw that it was possible to outthink the enemy. Einstein wrote a letter to Roosevelt urging the making of a uranium bomb, and soon a coterie of can-do intellectuals convened at Los Alamos to become the new cowboys of war machinery. Presidents have relied on eggheads ever since: Einstein begat Kissinger begat Rubin, Reich and Greenspan.

As for the appeal of his intuitive imagination, it helped that Einstein was initially not associated with a brand-name institution of higher learning and that his stature did not depend on official accreditation--both of which Americans at once insist on and do not trust. To the contrary: he was eagerly adopted by ordinary folks, though he spoke the obscure language of mathematics, because he seemed removed from snooty trappings. In fact, he seemed removed from the planet, to be out of things in the way the public often adores: a lovable dreamer.

So strong was the image he created that he affected both culture and politics in ways that were sometimes wholly opposite to his beliefs and intentions. That his theory of relativity was readily mistranslated as a justification for relativism says more about the way the world was already tending than about Einstein. His stature gave an underpinning to ideas that had nothing to do with his science or personal inclinations. The entire thrust of modern art, whether it took the form of Expressionism, Cubism, Fauvism or fantasy, was a conscious effort to rejigger the shapes of observable reality in the same spirit of liberation and experimentation that Einstein brought to science.

But relativism--that is, the idea that moral and ethical truth exists in the point of view of the beholder--owed nothing to Einstein (who believed the opposite), except a generalized homage to revolutionary thought. Art's elimination of semblances to the physical world corresponded vaguely with Einstein's way of seeing time and space, but it really sprung from an atmosphere of change, in which Einstein was yoked with Freud, Marx, Picasso, Bergson, Wittgenstein, Joyce, Kafka, Duchamp, Kandinsky and anyone else with original and disruptive ideas and an aggressive sense of the new. By that tenuous connection did the discoverer of relativity become a major figure of a world consisting of individuals interpreting the world individually. He was similarly associated with the pluralism of modern music and the eclecticism of modern architecture.

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