Albert Einstein, celebrity physicist

In Einstein’s later years, although his contributions to physics became increasingly marginal and abstract, the press continued to trumpet his far-flung unification schemes as if they were confirmed scientific breakthroughs.

 

Early in Einstein’s career, the press attention he garnered was an outgrowth of a true breakthrough: the eclipse observations of 1919 that helped confirm his general theory of relativity. The scientific community and the press agreed that Einstein’s work altered perceptions of space, time, mass, energy, and gravitation. Moreover, during a time of xenophobia, globally minded Americans gravitated to him as an outspoken foreign scientist expressing an international outlook.1 From that point on, Einstein was a celebrity, heralded for his quirky personality and passionate activism in addition to his scientific achievements.

That celebrity status inspired the media to continue publicizing Einstein’s theoretical meanderings, even when they had little support from other scientists. The scientific community largely ignored his idiosyncratic search for a unified field theory, which increasingly veered from the mainstream consensus and which other physicists came to view as unproductive and outré. The press, however, continued to trumpet his supposed breakthroughs, depicting Einstein as the quintessential eccentric scientific genius.

The relationship between Einstein and the press is a case in which a scientist’s fame triumphed over the substance of his work. Einstein’s unified field theory attempts were discredited again and again because of the lack of viable solutions, let alone experimental evidence. But they received far more coverage than many of the important experimental and theoretical results by other physicists during the same period, such as advances in nuclear and particle physics. Exaggerated reporting misled readers about the value of Einstein’s research.

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)

Albert Einstein, celebrity physicist

In Einstein’s later years, although his contributions to physics became increasingly marginal and abstract, the press continued to trumpet his far-flung unification schemes as if they were confirmed scientific breakthroughs.

 

Early in Einstein’s career, the press attention he garnered was an outgrowth of a true breakthrough: the eclipse observations of 1919 that helped confirm his general theory of relativity. The scientific community and the press agreed that Einstein’s work altered perceptions of space, time, mass, energy, and gravitation. Moreover, during a time of xenophobia, globally minded Americans gravitated to him as an outspoken foreign scientist expressing an international outlook.1 From that point on, Einstein was a celebrity, heralded for his quirky personality and passionate activism in addition to his scientific achievements.

That celebrity status inspired the media to continue publicizing Einstein’s theoretical meanderings, even when they had little support from other scientists. The scientific community largely ignored his idiosyncratic search for a unified field theory, which increasingly veered from the mainstream consensus and which other physicists came to view as unproductive and outré. The press, however, continued to trumpet his supposed breakthroughs, depicting Einstein as the quintessential eccentric scientific genius.

The relationship between Einstein and the press is a case in which a scientist’s fame triumphed over the substance of his work. Einstein’s unified field theory attempts were discredited again and again because of the lack of viable solutions, let alone experimental evidence. But they received far more coverage than many of the important experimental and theoretical results by other physicists during the same period, such as advances in nuclear and particle physics. Exaggerated reporting misled readers about the value of Einstein’s research.

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)

Albert Einstein in 1921. (Photograph by Ferdinand Schmutzer; courtesy of the National Library of Austria.)