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Topic section 3: Icon of the incomprehensible
TOPIC SECTION:
Icon of the incomprehensible
On Friday 7 November 1919, readers of the English morning papers had a range of topics to peruse over breakfast: the forthcoming anniv
Image: Albert Einstein, German mathematical physicist, 1933

Famous face: bust of Einstein by Jacob Epstein
Credit:Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

ersary of the Armistice, rising food prices, reported sightings of a giant turtle lumbering across the beach at Cleethorpes... and a new scientific worldview. ‘Revolution in science - New theory of the Universe - Newtonian ideas overthrown’, trumpeted The Times. ‘Greatest discovery since that of gravitation’, proclaimed the Daily Express.

Reporting on the previous day’s Royal Society meeting discussing the experimental confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, journalists commented that none of the assembled astronomers was confident of ex
‘the genius among geniuses’
plaining the theory in language that could be understood by non-scientists. However, the lack of popular explanation proved no barrier to popular demand, and in the following days the story spread around the world. ‘Lights all askew in the heavens - men of science more or less agog’, announced the New York Times. The public love affair with Einstein had begun.

In the aftermath of the Great War, with the world in a state of uncertainty, the idea of a new universal order captured the imagination. Einstein’s theory concerned concepts that could be couched in everyday language: space and light, the nature of time, the fabric of the universe. While the exact implications of the theory were unclear, it was obvious that they were profound. Coverage provoked reactions ranging from acclaim to mistrust.

Einstein, as prophet of these mysteries, became the recognised figure of wisdom, his mass appeal aided in no small part by his gift for coming up with sound bites. From 1919 until his death in 1955, not a year passed without his name appearing in the press - more often than not, in relation to non-scientific topics. In his later years, images of Einstein with his shock of white hair became synonymous with the stereotype of absent-minded genius. Over the years, Einstein and his work have been portrayed by physicists and philosophers, painters and playwrights; sometimes misunderstood, sometimes misrepresented, but always a fig
Image: Stephen Hawking, English theoretical physicist, 1990s
The new icon? Stephen Hawking is another celebrity scientist Credit:Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
ure of fascination.

In 1999, Time magazine declared Einstein its Person of the Century, ‘the genius among geniuses’. The person chosen to explain Einstein’s theories to readers was the British mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking. While his influence on physics hasn’t yet matched Einstein’s, his influence in publicising physics has been immense. Like Einstein, Hawking wrestles with big questions about the nature of our universe; like Einstein, he knows how to work the media; and like Einstein, he is physically recognisable. It seems that we still need a friendly figure to represent what we don’t understand.
 
 
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Topic section: The young Einstein
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There are many legends surrounding Einstein’s life. What we can agree on is the fundamental importance of his early work.  > more

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Topic section: The master of physics
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Einstein’s work is often portrayed in terms of unique discoveries. But other scientists helped to make a new picture of our universe, and continue the work today.  > more
 
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