A Personal Tribute to Albert Einstein

(14 March 1879 - 18 April 1955)

by Ralph Dumain

I was raised in the Sputnik era under the banner of liberal humanism, which was so second nature, I assumed it to be common sense, even though I knew it was under attack from conservative forces, and later from New Age and later from postmodern and fundamentalist directions. Though I knew that retrograde thought existed, it was never quite real for me. In January 1980, after living through a decade of the counterculture (which persisted in my home town Buffalo well beyond the '60s) and involved with the arts community, upon returning into the realm of mainstream ideological life, I discovered something very bizarre was happening—a wave of irrationalism in academia—which had not been evident to me as late as 1977 but was well under way in the year of Reagan's election. Then I decided I needed to nail down what I really believed in. That is another story. The story here is that Albert Einstein was my boyhood hero. Through all changes in society and in my personal life and thinking over the decades, I remained a consummate Einstein buff without degenerating into mystification and fetishism as most people do.

In recent months I had occasion to plow through Einstein literature in search of quotes for this web site. I had to retrieve some books from deep storage, including my ancient copy of Albert Einstein's Ideas and Opinions, which I hadn't touched since 1973. In the process of reviewing Einstein's writings, I became reacquainted with his thoughts and personality for the first time in a quarter century and with a mode of thought I don't see much in evidence anymore, reflective of the independence of the free-standing individual.

This time around I paid attention to certain things to which my past decade of work has attuned me. Of course I already knew all the legendary anecdotes, but this time I was especially struck by Einstein as a man, the ultimate, unquestioned #1 insider in his field, yet totally indifferent to institutions, looking at the world as if he had no status at all. This was not a pretense of being just a guy, not humility in the popular sense of the word, but an objective and often ironic observational standpoint of the world: of Einstein's unsought-after role as the center of attention, trying to communicate precisely his attitude on a number of subjects. I remember the old quaint anecdote of Einstein tutoring some little neighbor girl in math, but this time I took a look at Einstein's correspondence with ordinary people who wrote to him asking him for advice, expressing their opinions, trying to show their appreciation of him. I marvel not only at the forthrightness of his responses, but at the fact that he could even find the time to answer the mail he did, given the demands on his attention, and his well-known introversion and love of solitude. Always he emphasizes the need for independence of thought and imagination above all else—self-directedness of one's interests even if one must resort to getting paid for one's work—always encouraging individual initiative and independent study even while discouraging dilettantes from trying in vain to make careers out of specialties for which they lack sufficient talent. And the fact that people of all kinds—everybody including children and farmers—felt the need to reach out to him even though they could not possibly understand his contributions to physics, bespeaks a human need that touches me so. Yes, Einstein was a celebrity in a fame-crazed society, but there is something in the way Einstein's "public" related to him that seems to go much deeper than the usual fetishism of celebrity, something that suggests that Einstein tapped into a much deeper need among the populace. I thought about this as I read the correspondence, and was moved to tears.

Einstein's stature is such that Time magazine had to canonize him as the man of the century, not because the editorial board of Time is capable of appreciating him, but because it had do so to in order to preserve its own credibility, in order to give its own squalid presence some dignity. Yet the enigma at the center of the official portraiture of Einstein is Einstein's fundamental psychological indifference to institutions, not only his political contempt for the social institutions that Time upholds, but his indifference even as a scientist to formal institutional structures of learning and research, always emphasizing the pursuit of fundamental questions, keeping thought fresh, alive, and independent. Another day we can discuss Einstein's scientific accomplishments, philosophy, and political views and actions. On this occasion, let's push institutions out of the way; in this commemoration let it just be about Einstein and us, the people.


Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: Avon, 1972 [originally World Publishing Company, 1971].

Einstein, Albert. Einstein on Peace; edited by Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden; preface by Bertrand Russell. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.

Einstein, Albert. The Expanded Quotable Einstein; collected and edited by Alice Calaprice; foreword by Freeman Dyson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions; ed. Sonja Bargmann. New York: Laurel [Dell], 1973.

Holton, Gerald. Einstein, History, and Other Passions: The Rebellion against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1996.

7 March 2001
©2001 Ralph Dumain

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Uploaded 7 March 2001
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