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Jan 2006 Journal

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Albert Einstein, Man of the Century (review)

Polymath, Renaissance Man, scientific genius, humanist, secular Zionist, family man, musician, biker and sailor. How many more adjectives can define the indefinable man of the twentieth century - Albert Einstein? He is hardly the stuff of contemporary portraiture, but then consider his extraordinary features, those mournful bulldog eyes, the Chaplinesque moustache beneath an enormous nose, and the hair like a flying buttress bearing comparison with his equally hirsute contemporary, David Ben-Gurion.

On the centenary of the publication of his three cosmological papers, the Jewish Museum in Camden Town chronicles his life and times in its exhibition, Albert Einstein, Man of the Century. A supporting programme of events found parallels between Einstein's theories and those of Maimonides, and discussed another contemporary 'degenerate scientist' - Sigmund Freud.

Art may not be the main purpose of this exhibition on the work of the man whose theory of relativity shook the foundation of Newtonian physics. But in the case of Einstein it is difficult to know where science ends and creativity begins. Some of the charisma of his genius arises from his most memorable face, which is shown in a massive cartoon as you enter the gallery: his hair flies around his head like shards of scientific thought, or atomic particles. You feel driven by the sheer energy of his brain. And his humour. A life-size cut-out of him shows him riding his bike and grinning like a schoolboy; elsewhere he poses for his 72nd birthday by sticking out his tongue. Drawings include a 1929 etching by John Philip, who also painted Pope Pius XI. There's a cartoon of his meeting with George Bernard Shaw where the playwright asks: 'Do you really understand yourself?' To which the scientist tartly replies: 'No, Bernie, do you?' Portraits of Einstein are now considered collectable. I even have one myself by the expressionist artist, Joe Rose, which shows the physicist shedding tears of blood following the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But there is no evidence linking Einstein to the development of the A-bomb. His famous formula E = mc was apparently not crucial to the building of bombs. He was shaken by the dropping of that bomb as he was by the Holocaust, which caused him to declare he would never return to his native Germany.

Einstein defined Judaism as a 'culture of shared historical past and common ethical values'. His belief that the divine reveals itself in the physical is no surprise, but his liberal stance on political and social issues and his support of ethical Zionism were based on the creation of a spiritual model society in which the Palestinian conflict could be resolved by mutual consent. Indeed, he warned of a narrow nationalism.

Einstein rejected any Jewish attempt at assimilation, however, after his experiences of antisemitism during the Second World War. Proposed as successor to Chaim Weizmann as Israel's president in 1952, he apparently heeded Ben-Gurion's warnings - if he accepts we are in for trouble! He rejected the offer while expressing himself much moved by it.
Gloria Tessler

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