Monday, March 14, 2011

Why Do We Love Einstein?

Today is Einstein's birthday and as I put the finishing touches on the manuscript, Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, I am thinking about the question in the last chapter -- why do we love Einstein?

On the one hand, it must have something to do with the theory of relativity. Even if most of us have no idea what it really says, the idea that someone smart has told us that reality is like an M.C. Escher print is appealing in a number of ways. On the other hand, it is the man -- or at least the icon we have made out of the man -- that we love. The hair, the lack of socks and belts, Einstein represents non-conformism. Everything that we are told we have to do by the society, but on some level we know is just so much fluff, Einstein is the epitome of the person who sees BS and calls it what it is.

Or maybe it is the combination of the two: he represents in the cultural mind the idea that rejecting mindless formality can lead to progress. Think of the Einstein quotations we see on bumper stickers: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance.” “Great thinkers have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Einstein is our image of the open mind and the open mind both comes to see reality more clearly in all its bizarre beauty and it sees through that which is pointless socially-enforced silliness masquerading as moral, intellectual, or cultural necessity.

Of all the smart people who have ever lived, why is it Einstein we love like Einstein?