Peter Dizikes: Writings on Science and Society

Picturing Einstein
Why the iconic images of Albert Einstein as an aging, eccentric genius distort our understanding not only of the scientist, but of science itself
By Peter Dizikes. The Boston Globe, March 20, 2005
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Albert EinsteinTime, Albert Einstein taught us, is not a fixed quantity. The faster you move, the more time slows down. Perhaps this concept has a cultural corollary pertaining to Einstein himself. Today we send pictures of Einstein whizzing around the world in seconds, yet his mass-media image remains a nearly timeless fixture. In photos and drawings, Einstein is almost always the detached, elderly professor with unruly white hair, a lined face, sloping shoulders, and a contemplative gaze, occasionally given to bemusement.

Indeed, the elderly Einstein is one of modernity’s essential icons. This Einstein is the oracle staring at us from the cover of Time magazine’s “Person of the Century” issue in 1999, the sage in Apple’s “Think Different” ad campaign, the wizened elder of classroom posters, postage stamps, and his own bobble-head doll. It is the Einstein currently greeting pedestrians from a large cartoon ad in Harvard Square, on behalf of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Casual observers could be forgiven for believing Einstein was born in front of an equation-filled chalkboard, wild hair and wrinkles already in place.

Einstein’s has become the all-purpose face of genius. “Like a logo,” says Peter L. Galison, a historian of science at Harvard and author of “Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps” (2003). Used this way, adds Galison, “Einstein is voided of any meaning at all. He’s just smart or wise.” A recent article wondering if New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick could be considered a genius featured photos of two people: Belichick and Einstein.

This iconography, though it may seem harmless enough, obscures the Einstein who actually revolutionized physics. In this, the 100th anniversary of the year Einstein announced his Special Theory of Relativity, the disparity between the aging celebrity scientist and the formidable young figure upending our conception of the universe seems especially jarring. In 1905, Einstein was an intense, even feisty young man of 26 with many worldly concerns, including a wife and a job. He had dark hair and a solid build. “A massive body, very heavily muscled,” the English writer and physicist C.P. Snow noted years later.

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My work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Slate, Salon, Technology Review, and numerous other publications. You can learn more about me here.


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Photo credit: Flickr user alb Marcos, via a Creative Commons license