How Albert Einstein Became a Celebrity

Chrystia Freeland, on pages 124-125 of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich and the Fall of Everyone Elsewrites:

The Scientist who best exemplifies the self-fulfilling power of fame is, ironically, the one most of us would immediately name as the twentieth century’s brightest example of pure intellectual genius: Albert Einstein. Einstein was indeed a groundbreaking physicist, whose theory of relativity ushered in the nuclear age and transformed the way we think about the material world. But why is he a household name, while Niels Bohr, who made important contributions to quantum mechanics and developed a model of atomic structure that remains valid today, or James Watson, one of the discoverers of the double helix structure of DNA, is not?

According to historian Marshall Missner, Einstein owes much of his power as one of the most influential men of the twentieth century less to his theoretical papers and more to the trip he made to the United States in April 1921 as part of a Zionist delegation led by Chaim Weizmann. Before the ship made landfall, Einstein was already known–and feared. His theory of relativity, first put forward in 1905, had been dramatically confirmed in 1919 by the observation of the deflection of light during the solar eclipse in May of that year. The discovery captured the American popular imagination, but not in a good way. The twenties were a fraught decade. The Bolsheviks were consolidating their power in the Soviet Union. Germany was struggling under the weight of punitive World War I reparations. The U.S. economy was still booming, but income inequality was higher than it had ever been and elites were frightened both of homegrown populist protesters and of revolutionary ideas crossing the Atlantic. It was also a time of intense xenophobia and mounting anti-Semitism.  

In that climate, America’s arbiters of public opinion decided that Dr. Einstein and his theory of relativity were sinister and subversive. It became a truth universally acknowledged that only “twelve men” in the world understood the theory of relativity. Pundits worried that this small, foreign cabal could use this knowledge to bend space and time and to enter a “fourth dimension” and thereby achieve “world domination.” Even the New York Times warned of the “anti-democratic implications” of Einstein’s discovery: “The Declaration of Independence itself is outraged by the assertion that there is  anything on earth, or in interstellar space, that can be understood by only the chosen few.”

Then came the Weizmann delegation. Zionism was growing in popularity among New York Jews, and thousands came to the pier to greet the visitors. But the press thought the crowds were Einstein groupies. The Washington Post reported there were “thousands at the pier to greet Einstein.” The New York Times wrote that “thousands wait four hours to welcome theorist and his party to American.” Its interest piqued, the press pack descended on Einstein. Instead of the “haughty, aloof European looking down on boorish Americans” they had expected, he turned out to be a modest, likable guy who “smiled when his picture was taken, and produced amusing and quotable answers to their inane questions.” No longer a threat to the Declaration of Independence, “Professor Einstein,” the New York Times editorial page declared, “improves upon acquaintance.” The scribblers loved him, and they loved the frisson of overturning their readers’ expectations, and a scientific legend was born. From that moment on, a great deal of Einstein’s power in the world, particularly outside the lab, but also within it, was derived from his celebrity.