At the time of his death on the 18th April 1955, Albert Einstein was one of the most famous and popular men in the world. His very name was synonymous with genius and his humanity had earlier been recognised with an offer of the presidency of Israel. A cartoon by Herblock published in the Washington post some days after his death neatly highlighted his fame it shows the earth with a sign pinned to it saying Albert Einstein lived here.
Since his death, Einsteins fame has deepened and he is now an icon to rival any pop hero. He stares at us from any number of tee-shirts, magazines and posters. Time magazine named him the man of the twentieth Century and there is a small industry producing books to explain both his theories and life.
Why is he so famous? After all, fame in our age is rarely a reward for achievement or genius. If it were, then the answer to such a question would be an easy one. There is no doubting Einsteins genius and his achievements were great. Much of what marks our modern world as distinct from past ages is touched or influenced by his work. Quantum theory, for which he was a founding father, has given us the gifts of our electronics and computing revolutions. The television and the laser, with its myriad of social and medical applications, not to mention its contribution to the telecommunications industry, are directly derived from his work. Relativity, his master work, has given us the big bang, black holes and a famous little equation that explains how our sun works and lies at the heart of our most destructive weapon.
Scientists continue to marvel at his work and creativity. What might once have been thought of as small morsels of Einsteins larger works are now independent areas of research and are earning Nobel prizes for the scientists who investigate them.
However, for most of us, it remains a forlorn attempt to truly understand his theories, despite all the books on the market that attempt to explain them in simplistic terms. So his fame does not depend on our appreciation and understanding of his work. For the most part we are told of its importance and we accept the message.
Perhaps though, it is within the complexity and difficulty of his work that the answer to Einsteins fame is found. We may not understand the theories, but we know they contain something of the mystery of life. At the time he published his revolutionary works, physics had become dominated by the practical application; Einstein turned everyones eyes to the heavens again. When he hit the publics attention, with the verification of his General Theory of Relativity by the eclipse of 1919, the slaughter of the First World War had just ended. The world and its war weary population were ready for the transcendence that lay at the heart of Relativity.
We all feel the majesty of the universe when we look at the stars on a dark night. We all wonder and speculate what is there; what might be just beyond our site. Albert Einstein took the mystery of such questions out of the sky and brought them down to earth and he even provided some of the answers. It is little wonder then that we have feted him. Einsteins fame rests on the simple fact that he put a little piece of magic in our lives.