Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Einstein a name synonymous with genius, he was a man who with only his mind, and a pencil, accomplished more than any other scientist in defining our modern conception of reality. You would be hard pressed to have grown up in America having not encountered his iconic image. Whether it is on a coffee mug or t-shirt, in a TV documentary or high school science class, or even the bold characters of his most iconic formula reaching out through a grim covered bumper sticker in traffic we have all encountered the icon of Einstein. As, Einstein has been packaged and marked to generations of school children and adults around the world, he has become the global symbol of humanities ability of achieve the impossible. The globalization of Einstein has served to spread the ideal of the liberal scientific society. A society where education serves to help even the most down trodden of society raise to greatness. Goofy images of Einstein, hair standing on end and tongue extruding from his mouth, hang in many an American science class room. While Einstein’s globalization has turned him into an American icon for the values of scientific progress, the same globalization has concealed the actual culture which created and obscured the scientific ideas he gave birth too.
Einstein was the son of Hermann Einstein a salesman and engineer. He grew up in early 1900’s Germany. This was a Germany dominated by a monarchy and an educational system which valued technical ability above all else. Einstein had been exposed to mathematics and philosophy at an early age while reading the works of Euclid and Kant. He showed an endless curiosity for the world. Einstein quickly proved to be a adapt mathematician while teaching himself Euclidean geometry at an early age. He was in no way the product of anything close to a liberal society while in Germany but sought out a liberal education by moving to the Z├╝rich. If anything Einstein represented the struggle of one man against the overly militaristic society of his homeland. Einstein returned to Germany after gaining fame and a professorship as result of his work on relativity only to find himself surrounded my German scientists devoted to developing weapons of war such as mustard gas. Einstein would devote much of his life to the peaceful pursuit of science, only to later cap off his life by urging the United States to create the first Atomic Bomb. In these ways Einstein did not represent the ideal of educational success through scientific ideals as he does in the American class room of today. Instead he better represents the struggle between the ideals of science and societies lust for war.
Einstein’s most famous equation is most likely: E=mc^2. You may recognize this simple equation as relativity, but it is not actually relativity. It is Einstein’s theory of energy-mass equivalence. You may also assume that it was relativity that won Einstein the Nobel Prize. Not even this commonly held belief is true. Einstein actually won the Nobel for his paper on the photo-electric effect. Relativity is Einstein’s greatest claim to fame, even though, the two formerly mentioned theories are arguably more important to everyday people like us. Energy-mass equivalence gave birth to the atomic age and the photo-electric effect is what allows us to watch all those documentaries about Einstein on TV. A lot it seems has been lost in the dissemination of Einstein into a global icon. This may simply be because his ideas where so difficult to understand. The following is a description of the New York Times headline which first announced Einstein’s theory:
On November 10, The New York Times picked up the story with the headline, "Lights All Askew in the Heavens" and announced, "Einstein Theory Triumphs." The paper reassured its readers that no one need bother trying to grasp the new theory. Only "twelve wise men" would be able to understand it (NEFFE 2007).
It seems this attitude, first provided by the media, has lasted till today. We are told not to try to understand the complex internal working of Einstein’s thought. Instead we should simply stand in wonder and awe of the world of electronic gizmos which have resulted. As an icon like Einstein is converted into posters and t-shirts, or any other two-dimensional image, the three-dimensional human being that is Einstein is lost. With each coffee mug or bumper sticker we turn Einstein into a diminished entity one which is easily consumed and completely lacking in substance.
None of this is drawn from a coffee mug or a t-shirt. Or for that matter any other object with Einstein’s iconic image plastered over its surface. As American’s we find that for the most part our understanding of a man like Einstein is limited to the obscured grimy covered surface of a bumper sticker. Our grasp on this elusive man is only skin deep. Although the globalizing effects of mass marketing Einstein to the public has obscured the true relationship between Einstein and his culture, it may not have diminished the man himself. The public doesn’t know enough about Einstein. The public has, through its consumption of his iconic image and the countless documentaries and books on his life and work, demonstrated an endless desire to learn more. Human curiosity all ways wins over mass consumption. As Einstein becomes more and more tangled up in his image people will become more and more curios to understand what his life really meant to them. We can only hope that as Einstein is constantly re-disseminated to generation after generation we will all come to better know the real Einstein.
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