Brian Viner's Icons of the 20th Century; No 6: Albert Einstein

Sometime in the early Fifties, it is said, Marilyn Monroe, who had a thing for brainy men, asked to meet the brainiest of them all, Albert Einstein. The Nobel prize-winning physicist was well into his seventies by then, but he was just as impressed by a substantial cleavage as Monroe was by a substantial intellect. Apparently they got on rather well, and the comedian Arnold Brown has worked their improbable encounter into a sweetly whimsical tale, which has Einstein and Monroe returning to her hotel room after dinner and making themselves comfortable on the sofa. "Albert," says Marilyn. "Vot is it, my dear?" "I hope you don't mind me asking, but would you try to explain to me your theory of relativity?" Einstein pats Monroe's leg. "I'm terribly sorry, my dear," he says, "but I neffer go zat far on a first date."

Einstein was born 120 years ago, in Ulm, Bavaria. He went to university in Zurich, took Swiss citizenship and then got a job as an examiner at the patent office in Berne. He had been fascinated by maths and physics since early childhood and quietly continued his research into various scientific phenomena without letting his colleagues know the depth of his passion. Consider, therefore, how astonished they must have been when, in 1906, Einstein became a scientist of international renown practically overnight. One day he was processing patents in Berne, the next his paper on relativity was earning plaudits from academics all over the world.

In 1916, by now a professor at the Royal Prussian Academy in Berlin, Einstein published further material on relativity, revolving around the famous equation e=mc2. This concerned the relationship between energy, mass and velocity, and remains bewildering to those of us who do not know our kilojoules from our megawatts. However, it was revolutionary stuff, and in 1919 there was further excitement when a solar eclipse confirmed his theories about light rays being deflected by the sun's magnetic field. In 1921 he won the Nobel prize.

Fortuitously, Einstein was away from Berlin lecturing at the California Institute of Technology when the Nazis came to power in 1933. He remained in the US, became a professor at Princeton and took American citizenship, and by the Forties his name was synonymous with brainpower. Indeed, my mother recalls referring to a particularly swotty classmate as "an Einstein" - which is rather humbling because, by the time I was at school, a brainy person was merely "a bit of a Bamber Gascoigne". Now, they are "a right old Carol Vorderman". How standards slip.

Just before the Second World War, American scientists learnt that their counterparts in Germany were close to developing an atomic bomb. Alarmed, Einstein wrote his historic letter to President Roosevelt, insisting that America should push ahead with its own nuclear research. Roosevelt took heed. However, when this research led to the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki Einstein was horrified, and deeply troubled by his own role in the affair. He duly became chairman of a committee of nuclear scientists that campaigned for a ban on nuclear weapons. Giving the atomic bomb to politicians and soldiers, he said, was like handing a razor to a three- year-old child.

In 1952, Einstein, not an observant Jew but a keen Zionist, was invited by the Israeli prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, to become president of the infant state of Israel. He was extremely flattered but said that he did not consider himself worthy of such a position. It is hard to imagine anyone worthier.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test