The cheeky Nobel Prize winner loved being photographed, but wouldn’t often settle for convention
The world knows Albert Einstein as one of history’s greatest minds. Responsible for the theory of relativity, the renowned physicist changed how we think about time, space, gravity, and the universe around us.
But there was so much more to the Nobel Prize-winner than E=mc2.
Despite his eventual fame and success, the genius spent much of his life as an outsider. At age 15, he dropped out of school to avoid mandatory military service in Germany, renouncing his German citizenship at age 16. He was officially “stateless” until he became a citizen of Switzerland in 1901. Later, despite being a brilliant student, Einstein got poor reviews from his professors at Zurich Polytechnic, due to his rebellious personality and penchant for skipping classes. It took him ten years to find work as a college professor—after publishing E=mc2.
“One of the most significant scientific photographs ever taken—capturing Einstein at a critical moment for his thought: pondering the implications of Hubble’s expanding universe for his own Theory of General Relativity. To our knowledge, this is the only known signed copy of this important image.”
A passionate socialist and supporter of civil rights, Einstein spent his life advocating for peace. However, this was a bad time in history to be a leftist in America— President J. Edgar Hoover actually advocated for Einstein to be prevented from immigrating to America due to his socialist views!
The FBI also began tracking Einstein’s movements as early as 1933, ultimately monitoring him for some 22 years. Agents listened in on the physicist’s phone calls, diverted his mail, and even rooted through his trash in the hopes of unmasking him as a subversive or spy. By the time of his death in 1955, they had amassed a file on him over 1,400 pages long.
Despite his internationally recognized status as a genius, in his private life, the father of the theory of relativity was goofy, lighthearted and a bit sloppy. Einstein hated wearing socks and was immensely proud of the fact that he didn’t have to wear them while giving lectures at Oxford in the 1930s. His penchant for going around barefoot apparently stemmed from a childhood annoyance.
“When I was young I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock,” Einstein reportedly said. “So, I stopped wearing socks.” As an adult, he typically wore an undershirt, baggy trousers held by rope, and a pair of (occasionally women’s) sandals.
This makes this photo of Einstein in an immaculate tux all the more rare.
“Photographed countless times during his three decades in the public eye, Einstein almost always appeared as he was on a day-to-day basis: wild hair, a sweater or casual suit, and a lively, mischievous expression on his face,” wrote RR Auction when the photo was up for sale in 2021, ultimately going for over $30,000. “This image, taken by New York socialite and photographer Sophie Delar in 1935, is the exception. Dressed to the nines in his finest tuxedo, hair (somewhat) under control, with a slightly subdued smirk on his face, the celebrity scientist takes on the dignified air of a world-renowned intellectual in his only known formal portrait.”
By contrast, perhaps no photograph of Einstein better captures his playful, rebellious spirit as the famous Tongue Photo.
Taken on his 72nd birthday in 1951, on March 14, Einstein was leaving his Princeton University party and got in the backseat of a colleague’s car, which was swarmed by photographers. Having taken copious pictures all night, Einstein reportedly exclaimed, “That’s enough!” and then cheekily stuck his tongue out at the cameras, before turning his face away. One photographer, Arthur Sasse, was lucky enough to capture it for United Press International.
But the enduring image, which the Guardian calls “arguably one of the best-known press photographs of any 20th-century personality,” almost wasn’t published. Sasse’s editors weren’t sure they should use the photo, given Einstein’s distinguished reputation as a public intellectual.
The iconic photograph likely wouldn’t have seen the light of day — if not for Einstein himself. He loved the image so much, he ordered nine prints directly from Sasse, cropped with his funny expression dead center. He sent several of them out to friends as postcards. In 1953, he sent one to Howard K. Smith, noted journalist and chief correspondent for CBS News.
“This gesture you will like, Because it is aimed at all of humanity. A civilian can afford to do what no diplomat would dare. Your loyal and grateful listener, A. Einstein ‘53.”
It was only after Sasse assured his editors of how much Einstein loved the image that they agreed to publish the photograph.
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