Einstein set standard for pure genius


By: Packet Editorial
   Every once in a great while, our world is blessed with the presence of a truly great person — someone who has a special gift, or an extraordinary talent in a particular field, that leaves a mark for generations to come.
   This person is the one who sets the standard against which all subsequent people are judged. A promising new playwright could be the next Shakespeare. A musical prodigy is hailed as the next Mozart. A budding artist is touted as the next Leonardo. A great public speaker could be the next Cicero. A talented inventor may turn out to be the next Edison.
   As brilliant as these great men were, however, each set a standard in a particular field or subject area: literature, music, art, oratory, invention. There is only one person who comes to mind when the subject, transcending any specialized craft or calling, is sheer intellectual brilliance. The person who possesses this quality will be the next Einstein.
   Albert Einstein, whose death 50 years ago we commemorate Monday, set the standard for pure genius. His "discovery" of the theory of relativity — not so much an invention as a revelation — defined space and time in ways that had never before been contemplated, much less identified, and set mankind on a course toward understanding the universe as it had never before been understood.
   As his colleague and friend, J. Robert Oppenheimer, wrote on the occasion of Einstein’s death (in a brief piece for The Packet reprinted elsewhere on this page): "Unlike most great discoveries in science, Einstein’s general theory could well have lain undiscovered but for his genius."
   The genius of Einstein belongs to the world, of course, along with the enormous contributions he made to its inhabitants. But Einstein, the person, also belonged to Princeton, where his public appearances back in the ’40s and ’50s had almost a rock-star quality to them. Einstein "sightings" were a fairly common occurrence along Mercer Street and at the Institute for Advanced Study, and more occasional in downtown stores or eateries, but they almost always caused a double-take, a dropped jaw or a brief stir. That familiar wild shock of white hair left a memorable impression on anyone who chanced to spot it, because it represented — even if only for a passing moment — a physical closeness to greatness.
   Einstein’s presence in Princeton brought more than celebrity with it. It also attracted many of the best and brightest minds to the Institute, as well as Princeton University and surrounding institutions engaged both in learning and in research. It wasn’t so much that people came to worship at the feet of Einstein — he was a private man, who shared his knowledge more through his writings than through lectures or tutorials — but rather that his affiliation, association or even proximity testified to the superior quality of the institution.
   For as far back as anyone can remember, there has been a great debate in Princeton about whether some public tribute should be paid to Einstein in his adopted town. The Landaus have had an informal exhibit honoring him in their Nassau Street store for years, but efforts to erect a suitable monument in a more public place faced resistance from those who argued that Einstein himself, a humble and private person, would not have wanted it.
   But now, a half-century after his death and on the 100th anniversary of the publication of five of his most influential papers (including the one that introduced the theory of relativity), Princeton is finally ready to pay public tribute to its most illustrious inhabitant. A simple, bronze statue of Einstein will be unveiled at 10 a.m. Monday in front of Princeton Borough Hall — and we count ourselves among those who think he probably would have approved. After all, Einstein made no secret of the fact that he dearly loved Princeton. It seems only fitting that Princeton should express, in a suitably low-key but decorous way, that it loves him back.