Born March 14th, 1879, Albert Einstein was a prodigy in math and physics, as his plethora of later achievements would indicate. I’d happily write about his great scientific accomplishments but feel that there is no point. His life’s work has been as explored and commented on as any in human history, and in an age of information accessibility, anyone that wants to can read for hours, if not days, about his contributions to relativity, simultaneity, and quantum physics. Also, I was never particularly good at math and so most of my attempts at sounding intelligent regarding his theories would rapidly devolve into an implicit confession of my own limitations.
If you really want to get a learned impression of his output there is no shortage of brilliant work done by people who are not only smart enough to understand what he was saying, but actually capable of explaining it in a way that allows those of us who aren’t quite on their level to still obtain some general understanding of his ideas, even if the minutiae lie out of reach. When doing a little research for this piece I came across a number of well written articles which I was able to get through without sustaining permanent injury. The two that stood out for me are, “Relativity for Dummies – The Future Already Exists” and “Einstein’s Relativity Explained in 4 Simple Steps“. Both articles managed to address complex thinking in fairly straightforward ways. Which is not to say that I didn’t end up moving my lips while I was reading. I think I enjoyed those articles so much because they were written in a way that reflected his reverence for imagination and his tendency to think in pictures first, and to use math as an organizing tool instead of a founding principle.
As a child, my impressions of Albert Einstein were not terribly different than most people’s. His brilliance was so obvious and uncontested that his name had become universally accepted as a description of genius in and of itself. His mastery of his chosen field had been so overpowering as to allow him to transcend the world of physics and actually have a role in global affairs, via his correspondence with Franklin Delano Roosevelt regarding the growing menace of the Third Reich. His personal philosophy so nuanced that it allowed him to hold a strong Zionist perspective yet make repeated written attempts to call for a peaceful coexistence with the Arab population of Palestine. Truly this man was a giant of thought and deed. He had, as far as I could tell, authored the most famous equation in the known universe. Even now, I can’t think of a more familiar line of scientific shorthand than E= MC^2. For a kid who gravitated more towards reading and history there wasn’t much to identify with. He was clearly a towering figure in many ways. I, despite pretty good grades, was not on my way to any special kind of future. Twelve year old Einstein taught himself algebra and Euclidian geometry over the course of a summer. Twelve year old Goldberg had his hands full memorizing his Torah portion for his upcoming bar mitzvah. In short I was not, and could never be, anything like him. And that was fine. Over the years I read a bit about him and found myself beginning to recognize him as a person of greater dimension and complexity than I had initially given him credit for. His insights into the larger world around him and his perspective on what the most important elements of the human condition were fascinated and inspired me.
The first time I can remember having a sense of him as more than some distant icon of scientific complexity was when I came across a brief piece concerning the origins of his theory of relativity. The source is lost to the many years that have passed between reading it and now but as best as I can recall the author claimed that he first thought of it when sitting on a train that was idling at a station as another train came in across the tracks. For the briefest of moments Dr. Einstein could not tell which car was in motion. With that simple image I felt (rightly or not) that I finally had the barest understanding of what he was trying to say. At the time I had not yet been exposed to any of the quotes of his which are quite revealing of his humanistic approach to life in general, and to his work in particular. There was something comforting in knowing that even though his cognitive capabilities dramatically superseded my own, there was, if only for an instant, a time when we might look at something of scientific consequence in the same way. When he set about actually formalizing his thoughts on the subject he started by trying to imagine what it might be like to run along side a beam of light. That approach was something I could relate to. Of course, he was Einstein. I am not. He was able to successfully quantify all the ramifications of what began for him as an uncomplicated game of “what if?”. I just have to take his word for it. Still, even without the requisite education or intellect to fully internalize all that is implied by the theory, there is a quote of his that nonetheless connects with me on a more visceral level. When learning of the passing of a fellow physicist to whom he was close to he said “… the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Happy birthday professor, I wish I could’ve known you. Then again, maybe we are only just now meeting, tomorrow or yesterday to me, but always today for you.