Einstein for Dummies

By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, May 8, 2005

When we want to indicate that someone is a little dimwitted, we say, "He's no Einstein." But there were some moments when even Albert Einstein was no Einstein. He struggled for the last 30 years of his life searching for a Theory of Everything and barking up a lot of strange trees. Any day now someone will probably publish a book with a title like Einstein: The Dumb Years.

Genius is a tricky thing. Even geniuses, it turns out, need some luck. A genius has to step in front of a revelation before it zooms past and smacks into someone else. Geniuses need good colleagues, and sometimes a spouse who will say, Honey, that dog won't hunt.

One hundred years ago this spring, Einstein came out of nowhere with a string of scientific papers that changed our conception of time, space, matter, energy, gravity and light. In Einstein's universe, the speed of light is a constant, and everything else is negotiable. Objects dilate as they go faster. Simultaneity doesn't exist. There is no fixed point in space, no absolute master clock in the universe. You may have heard the one about Einstein in bed with a woman, and he says, defensively, "For YOU it was fast."

They call 1905 Einstein's "miracle year," which is English for annus mirabilis. Most scientists are lucky to have a decent week or two. Most of us ordinary folks would be blessed to have a miracle second. Just one moment of clarity! Just a peek at the Creation. The horrible lot of so many of us is to be smart enough to know how smart we aren't.

Einstein came up with a great second act in 1915 with general relativity, showing that gravity is a warping of four-dimensional space-time (forehead-smackingly obvious now, but mind-boggling back then).

But by the time he became an international celebrity, he had stopped being a revolutionary. The strange thing about Einstein's stupid phase (with all due respect) is that he refused to go along with the implications of his own youthful insights. For example, during his miracle year he proposed that light could be simultaneously a wave and a particle. The scientific establishment said, hold on, Sonny, you got to pick one or the other, particle or wave. Can't have it both ways. But nature does have it both ways, and from that insight, quantum theory took off. Quantum theory says that reality is full of uncertainties and dualities and ambiguities. For Einstein, the implications of that idea were just a bit too spooky.

Einstein still had one foot in the classical world, and he didn't want to believe that God would play dice with the universe. But experiments supported the quantum weirdness, and Einstein found himself strangely isolated, holed up at a pastoral think tank at Princeton, unable to produce any more hit singles. There comes a day in the life of a genius when you realize you'll never be a Beatle again. This is why historians refer to the later years of Einstein as "his Wings period."

I got an e-mail from a scientist at Princeton, someone who dimly remembers the old man, who says that while the young Einstein did amazing things, he eventually came to America, "and after that--nothing."

Nothing! Nichts! He put up a goose egg on the scoreboard. He whiffed! Sure, he was the greatest scientific genius in the history of the world for a while.

The picture of the elderly Einstein seems to get harsher and harsher by the year. Used to be that people paid homage to this kindly man in his rumpled sweaters, but lately I am getting the sense of a guy who couldn't calculate the tip for a waiter. I can see him in his dotage trying to bend spoons with his mind, and taking apart televisions to look for the little people inside. So tragic: Here was a guy who revolutionized our understanding of time but couldn't manage to reset the flashing "12:00" on the VCR. I'm just saying that's what I hear on the street.

Maybe this modest man was seduced by his press clippings into thinking that he could still outsmart the competition. He could outthink everyone else. He was different. The rules didn't apply to him. He had that big brain! His hair flew off his head from the hurricane-force winds of his intelligence!

When you're an artist, as Einstein was--an artist of physics --you have a moral obligation to believe in your art, to keep working on your Theory of Everything. There is no other choice. You can't retire. You can't shrug and say the other folks might be right. You have to keep trying to paint another masterpiece. He painted plenty of them, which is why, in a relative universe, he is an absolute immortal.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company