Was Albert Einstein really a poor student, did he almost become the president of Israel and what, if anything, did he have to do with the development of the atomic bomb? Separate Einstein myth from reality and explore some of the most startling chapters from the life story of the 20th century’s preeminent intellectual.
Is it true that Einstein helped invent the atomic bomb?
No. In 1939, when he learned that scientists in Berlin had figured out how to split a uranium atom, Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to do whatever it took to make sure American scientists were the first to build an atomic bomb. (He was a committed pacifist, but the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of the Nazis was so terrifying, he later wrote that “I did not see any [other] way out.”) However, because of his left-wing political beliefs, the U.S. Army denied Einstein the security clearances he needed to be a part of the Manhattan Project, and so his role in the development of this deadly technology was an indirect one.
Is it true that many American officials believed that Einstein was a Soviet spy?
Yes. Because of his controversial political beliefs-his support for socialism, civil rights and nuclear disarmament, for example-many anti-Communist crusaders believed that Einstein was a dangerous subversive. Some, like FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, even thought he was a spy. For 22 years, Hoover’s agents tapped Einstein’s phones, opened his mail, rifled through his trash and even bugged his secretary’s nephew’s house, all to prove that he was more radical (as his 1,500-page FBI dossier noted) than “even Stalin himself.”
Did Einstein really almost become the president of Israel?
Yes. In 1952, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, asked his friend Albert Einstein (“the greatest Jew alive,” Weizmann said) if he would be willing to lead the young nation. Though the Israelis assured him that “complete facility and freedom to pursue your great scientific work would be afforded by a government and people who are fully conscious of the supreme significance of your labors,” Einstein turned down the offer. Einstein was, however, very sympathetic to Israel. In 1947 he expressed his belief in Zionism as well as the importance of ‘friendly and fruitful’ cooperation between Jews and Arabs. Despite his dedication to political issues, Einstein worried that he lacked the interpersonal skills to be a world leader. Still, Einstein added, “my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world,” and he was “deeply moved” by Weizmann’s offer.
Is it true that Einstein was a lousy student?
In some ways, yes. When he was very young, Einstein’s parents worried that he had a learning disability because he was very slow to learn to talk. (He also avoided other children and had extraordinary temper tantrums.) When he started school, he did very well—he was a creative and persistent problem-solver—but he hated the rote, disciplined style of the teachers at his Munich school, and he dropped out when he was 15. Then, when he took the entrance examination for a polytechnic school in Zurich, he flunked. (He passed the math part, but failed the botany, zoology and language sections.) Einstein kept studying and was admitted to the polytechnic institute the following year, but he continued to struggle. His professors thought that he was smart but much too pleased with himself, and some doubted that he would graduate. He did, but not by much—which is how the young physicist found himself working in the Swiss Patent Office instead of at a school or university.
Is it true that Einstein’s first wife contributed to the discoveries that made her husband famous?
Some researchers think that she did (for example, in 1905 she told a friend that “we finished some important work that will make my husband world famous”), but most agree that, while Mileva Maric was a talented physicist in her own right and a valuable sounding-board for her husband’s ideas, she did not make substantial contributions to his most famous work. However, her scientific ambitions were certainly belittled and overlooked, especially by her husband. Einstein actually treated his wife quite badly: He had (and flaunted) many affairs; he was distinctly unhelpful around the house and he made Maric obey a long list of humiliating rules (“You must answer me at once when I speak to you,” for example.) The two divorced in 1919 and Einstein married his cousin Elsa (yes, really). Einstein gave Maric a portion of his Nobel Prize winnings as part of their divorce settlement.