Life with Einstein was not very bright

August 10, 1994|By Jon Anderson | Jon Anderson,Chicago Tribune

According to this biography, Albert Einstein, the father of relativity, was neither a good father nor a good relative, but he was certainly quick with a maxim. "Life," Einstein once advised his son, Eduard, who had been hospitalized with a mental disorder, "is like a bicycle. You have to keep moving or you lose your balance."

Growing up with a famous parent is seldom easy, perhaps because the stars in any field, even physics, tend to be self-absorbed. His European friends called Einstein (1879-1955) "the great stone face." Einstein himself once referred to "the dreamlike trance into which people like myself fall when immersed in scientific work." He was, he admitted, "indifferent to intimacy."

According to Roger Highfield, science editor of the London Daily Telegraph, and Paul Carter, deputy chief sub-editor of the London Daily Express, Einstein's personal life was pretty much a shambles. The two allege that Einstein was a "compulsive womanizer" who abandoned an illegitimate daughter, then destroyed his first marriage by carrying on with a second cousin whom he later wed and also cheated on.

Nor did Einstein, they suggest, spend much quality time with his two legitimate children, sons who lived in the shadow of their father's reputation as the greatest genius of the 20th century. Hans Albert, the elder, moved to America in 1937 and carved out a career in hydraulics and river management, becoming an international authority on sediments and flood control. But he once admitted that "the constantly repeated question, 'Are you related to Albert Einstein?' had become like the drip-drip of a Chinese water torture."

An assistant recalled that Hans Albert, a longtime professor at the University of California at Berkeley who died in 1973, rarely spoke of his famous father, his family or his private life. As the authors relate, "He hid his feelings behind a permanent slight smile, but his daughter, Evelyn, sensed a suppressed resentment that fed on the many family secrets that his father had left behind."

Among those was the fate of the younger son, Eduard, who spent most of his life in Swiss psychiatric clinics, rarely visited by his famed parent. Treated for schizophrenia, Eduard displayed "intense and contradictory feelings towards his father, feelings of love, even worship, curiously mixed with a sense of rejection and personal inadequacy." Eduard died, at 55, in 1965.

Einstein never failed in his financial responsibilities, always paying the bills for his ailing son and supporting his first wife, Mileva Maric Einstein. But the authors fault Einstein for minimizing her role, as a fellow physicist, in helping him develop the theory of relativity, Einstein's crowning achievement.

"Their marriage, from 1903 to 1919, spanned the most important years of Einstein's life, covering the majority of his creative activity," the authors note. "He referred to his early studies as 'our work,' casting her as his co-conspirator in what was to become a scientific revolution."

Einstein and his wife were divorced after he took up with his second cousin, a split that left his wife "with her spirit crushed and her own academic dreams abandoned." His behavior during the separation, when she suffered a mental and physical breakdown from which she never fully recovered, dismayed his closest friends. Though he pledged her the money he would win from a Nobel Prize in physics, which eventually came to him in 1922, he gave her no share of his fame.

Much of this may be tough reading for those who remember Einstein as a saintly figure, a popular epitome of the eccentric genius, poking his tongue out for cameras and wandering around without socks in Princeton, N.J., where he found a haven at the Institute for Advanced Study. With tangles of white hair and a famously wrinkled forehead, he had, as writer C. P. Snow put it, "the face of an inspired golliwog."

Philosopher Bertrand Russell, who knew Einstein, said that "personal matters never occupied more than nooks and crannies in his thoughts." That's perhaps necessary for work requiring extraordinary powers of concentration, but it can be tough on those around the Great One, as this case history attests.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Private Lives of Albert Einstein"

Authors: Roger Highfield and Paul Carter

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Length, price: 353 pages, $23.95

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