Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Photoeccentric Effect


When I was in grade school, the standard comeback would have been, "No thanks, I use toilet paper." Of course, you really shouldn't say that to one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century. But then, why is one of the greatest scientific minds of the 20th century sticking his tongue out in the first place? Well, you first have to look at the...

...bigger picture.

It's March 14, 1951, Albert Einstein's 72nd birthday. Princeton University's Institute of Advanced Study, his place of employment for the past 18 years, had thrown a party for him. Also in attendance were two friends of Einstein's, Frank Aydelotte, a former director of the institute, and his wife Marie. Once the party had wound down, the three of them walked out of the institute to a waiting limousine, followed all the way by a group of reporters and photographers, the reporters asking Einstein (but not the Aydelottes) for quotes for the next day's editions, the photographers asking him (but not the Aydelottes) to just stop and smile for the cameras. But, you know, before we go any further, maybe we should look at the reason why these reporter and photographers were so interested in Einstein (but not the Aydelottes) in the first place.


Albert Einstein had been a celebrity, a household name, ever since a 1919 solar eclipse had shown the stars to be in a different place in the sky than they had been hours earlier, thereby proving Einstein's theory of a few years before that starlight doesn't travel in a straight line, that there's no such thing as a straight line in the larger, gravitational scheme of things, that outer space is less like the Great Plains, where you can have your car (or starship) set on cruise control for days on end, and more like San Francisco, with streets that go up and down, the lights in the sky, not just the stars but also comets, meteors, and natural satellites, all just runaway cable cars, relatively speaking. Now you may be wondering if this has something to do with Einstein's famous equation  E = mc2. While one begat the other, they're really two different theories, though both with the word "relativity" in their names (probably to emphasize the begetting.) E stands for energy, = stands for equals, m stands for mass, and c2 stands for the speed of light squared. Basically energy and mass are two sides of the same electrodynamic coin, and the speed of light squared is a calculation on just how much potential energy can be derived from a particular object. Say somebody rubs two sticks together at 186,282 miles per second. The resulting flame would be visible from low Earth orbit. Fortunately for anybody in the vicinity, not least the person holding the sticks, nobody can move their arms that fast. However, a person can rub the sticks just fast enough for some of the wood to whittle away and cause a spark to appear: mass converted into energy (of course, people were rubbing sticks together to start fires some one hundred thousand years before Einstein came up with his equation, but they didn't know the science behind it, and instead paid homage to the god of camping.) Einstein coined the term E = mc2  in 1912 (though the theory itself preceded it by seven years.) While it was well-known among physicists, the phrase didn't become part of the layman's vernacular until 1946 when Time magazine put the equation on its cover along with an illustration of Einstein himself and a fungus-shaped cloud. This was a bit unfair to Einstein as he wasn't anywhere near Los Alamos in the 1940s (some of his left-leaning political statements had cost him a security clearance), but it certainly contributed to his fame. And maybe to his notoriety as many readers of Time were left wondering if American citizenship had been granted six years earlier to a mad scientist.

 Getting back to his 72nd birthday, that notoriety wasn't about to stop that group of reporters and  photographers waiting outside the Institute of Advanced Study, much to Einstein's annoyance. As I said before, they followed him and the Ayedollets all the way out to the car. One photographer, Arthur Sasse of the United Press wire service, was particularly persistent. And insistent. "Professor, smile for your birthday picture!" he shouted out after a by-now weary Einstein and the Ayedollets had climbed into the back seat but had not yet closed the door. Instead of smiling, the scientist stuck out his tongue, and Sasse instinctively snapped the picture. Then the door closed, and the limo drove off into the New Jersey night.

The photo almost didn't get published. As Sasse himself remembered, "The assignment editor liked it but the chief editor didn't. So they had a conference with the big chiefs upstairs. The picture got okayed and we used it." United Press, today United Press International, has fallen on hard times in recent years and is now owned by Moonies, but back in 1951 it was a pretty big deal, the second-largest American wire service behind the Associated Press. That meant Einstein and his tongue appeared in a lot of papers. The response was uniformly positive. This scientist wasn't mad, just madcap! Surprisingly, given the moment of pique that had produced the picture, Einstein himself approved. A German-born Jew who took flight once he got wind that the Nazis had him in their crosshairs, he seemed to accept, and at times even encouraged, his adopted country's latter-day view of him as a dotty but lovable academic, America's cuddly genius. And this was one of the times he encouraged, requesting and receiving from United Press nine copies of the photo, which he turned into greeting cards that he sent to friends, sometimes with a caption that said the picture summed up his political views. Just another way he was ahead of his time.

The media of the day chalked it up as just another one of his "eccentricities", along with riding a bike, wearing sweatshirts in his off-hours, and hanging around ice cream parlors with a cone in hand. Of course, those aren't eccentricities at all but commonplace character traits. Even sticking out a tongue is something we've all either done or felt like doing (perhaps Sasse should feel grateful that he didn't get the finger.) I suspect the press and public seized upon those traits because it was an easier way of relating to Einstein than what were, for the layman at least, his true eccentricities: theories that said the universe was one big putt-putt course; that you can lose a few pounds outrunning a beam from a flashlight; that if a passenger in a rickshaw looks at his watch and a passenger on the Earth-to-Alpha Centauri Express looks at her watch, both watches are going to tell a different time even if both passengers are looking at their watches at the same time which they can't do anyway because there's no such thing as the same time; that the speed of light is the only thing you can count on in this Universe because everything else including time, distance, and solid objects are open to interpretation; and that all of reality is made up of itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny tinderboxes that, once opened, can wipe out entire population centers.

Albert Einstein died in 1955. A Princeton Hospital pathologist named Thomas Harvey who had done the autopsy decided the great scientist's brain was too important to waste, so, without telling anybody,  took it home with him. Einstein's heirs eventually found out about the theft, but after hearing Harvey out and becoming convinced that his motives were scientific and not monetary (which seems to have been the case) cut some sort of deal with him. Harvey died in 2007. His heirs donated the sliced and diced remains of the brain, along with many photographs of it intact, to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland, near Washington D.C.

As for Einstein's tongue, I'm afraid that was cremated along with the rest of his body, though, in a sense... has achieved its own kind of immortality.

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