Asked about a book in which 100 Nazi professors charged him with scientific error, Albert Einstein replied, "Were I wrong, one professor would have been quite enough."
The professors are forgotten, while Einstein is reverentially remembered. But what also survives, from his lifetime and now into his legend, is the impulse to respond extravagantly to a man whose genius was accompanied by personal modesty, a distaste for being celebrated, and a profound concern to alleviate the tragedies of his time.
The latest manifestation of this impulse is the National Academy of Science's plan to observe the centennial of Einstein's birth by erecting a gargantuan bronze statue of him on its grounds in downtown Washington. The statue, in the "chewinggum-surface" style of its sculptor, Robert Berks -- best known for his mammoth Kennedy bust at the Kennedy Center -- will depict Einstein seated on a circular marble step, holding a tablet containing his most famous formulas, and looking at a floor of polished black granite in which a star map composed of 3,000 stainless steel studs will replicate the constellations at the moment of his birth.
The figure of Einstein is 21 feet high from head to toes, but in its seated position is only 12 feet high. The cost: $1,664,405, toward which the academy has borrowed $1 million to get on with construction so that the dedication can take place next April. Meanwhile, the venerable institution, whose 1,250 members represent the elite of American science, is cup-rattling among the rank and file of the scientific community, and is also seeking "relatively large contributions" from selected prospects.
Now, the quality of statuary on the Washington landscape is not so sublime that the addition of still another piece of intellectually pasteurized metalwork represents a new threat to the senses. What ought to be of concern, however, is the egregious discordance between the chosen memorial and the man it attempts to memorialize.
Academy President Philip Handler, with whom the memorial plan as well as the selection of the Berks' statue originated, explains that the thrice-the-size-of-life scale for the Einstein figure represents "the fact that he was 'a giant among men.'"
There is no need to speculate on how the wry, ironic, instinctively reclusive but politically engaged Einstein would have responded to that triteness. As Ronald W. Clark, in his biography, "Einstein: The Life and Times," records, Einstein was asked in 1955 to join in celebrating the 50th anniversary of the special theory of relativity. Declining for reasons of poor health, he added:
"... I am not sorry, for anything resembling a personality cult has always been distasteful to me. In the present case, moreover, many people have contributed to the advance of this theory, and it is far from completed.... "
Obviously appalled by the celebrity worship that surrounded him, Einstein, as death approached, instructed, "Do not let the house become a museum." And he insisted that his office at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, not be preserved, but, rather, should continue in use.
That he is now to be expensively memorialized in four tons of bronze is so grotesquely inappropriate that Einstein's old friend and literary executor, Otto Nathan, among others, has protested the scheme, and other protests are in the works.
What is also questionable is the process whereby this mammoth work is being bestowed upon the capital city. Berks, who sculpted a head of Einstein in 1953, had for many years afterwards unsuccessfully sought to find a customer for a full-length statue. Meanwhile, academy President Handler, learning of the impending centennial just two years ago, and looking for a quick response, was put on to the sculptor by Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.). Handler explains that "A photograph of the model affected me deeply." Whereupon, whithout public announcement of what was under consideration, the proposal was rubber-stamped by the academy's council, the money was borrowed, and Berks was told to go ahead.
As an exercise in poor taste and historical incongruity, the statue rates high, but it is so in harmony with the bigger-is-better spirit that pervades American science that perhaps some gratitude is in order for the relatively modest decision on scale.
Though a member of the venerable academy, Einstein took little part in its activities. His best-known remark concerning the institution that now seeks to memorialize him came in the course of a ceremonial dinner there marked by longwinded speeches. The suffering guest of honor confided to a tablemate: "I have just got a new theory of eternity."
He also told the academy that "when a man after long years of searching chances upon a thought wich discloses something of the beauty of this mysterious universe, he should not therefore be personally celebrated. He is already sufficiently paid by his experience of seeking and finding."