Einstein and Me


The Editor won’t let me take you to Bali, or Tasmania, Agra or Ushuaia, this month simply because, when we first met, I happened to drop a name that intrigued him. I’ve been prevailed upon to get this story on record before I’m allowed to dwell on any other travel tales. So be it.

A bit of background…

In 1942 I entered Princeton University, one of the few who came directly from a public high school– not a private school preppie. Annual tuition was $450 at the time, but that was still a financial stretch for my dad so I worked as a waiter in the dining halls for my board.

The Institute for Advanced Study, located in the town of Princeton, New Jersey, is a center for theoretical research best known as the academic home of Albert Einstein and John Van Neumann as well of other distinguished scholars who have worked there since its founding in 1930, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer and George F. Kennan. As noted in Wikipedia, the Institute has no formal links to Princeton University; however, since its founding, it has enjoyed close collaborative ties with the university.

Albert Einstein lived at 112 Mercer Street. He did not have to walk across campus to get to work since the Institute was within a mile of downtown Princeton and on the same side of town as his home. However, he was often seen walking on campus, either to visit friends among the faculty or perhaps to visit the library. At the end of my first year, I enlisted in the service– along with about two-thirds of my class - and was ordered to the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, for further studies under the Navy’s V-12 officer training program. During that entire first year, I never had the opportunity of an encounter or glimpse of the Nobel Prize physicist.

During a liberty break from studies and drills at Stevens during a Sunday in the summer of 1944 (June 25th), I borrowed my father’s car and drove down to Princeton from my folks’ home on Staten Island to visit civilian friends still on campus. It was shortly after fire destroyed the Jadwin Gymnasium judging from the photos in my old album. It had frustrated me that I’d never seen Dr. Einstein while a student so, with camera in hand, I ventured down Mercer Street that Saturday afternoon to at least take a picture of his home. It was no problem locating #112.

On a whim– a dare to myself– I crossed the street and knocked on the door. I was in uniform. His housekeeper opened the door.

 “Excuse me, I understand that Dr. Einstein lives somewhere along this street. Could you tell me which house it is?”

 “Ya, he lifs heer, vud you like to meet mit him?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Coom en sie in.”

With that, I was led into his study and introduced to Professor Einstein. He looked exactly like his photos…gray-white unkempt hair, Teddy Roosevelt mustache, wrinkled sweatshirt, sad but twinkling eyes, baggy pants, sandals, curled pipe in hand. Papers and books were piled on shelves, tables, and chairs everywhere. He cleared a space and motioned for me to sit down, asking if I would like to join him for some tea and crumpets that he was about to be served. I said that would be great. (I might have said“neat;”“cool” wasn’t known as anything but a temperature observation 65 years ago.)

For some reason, I don’t recall being a bit awed or nervous in his presence. It was like having a natural conversation with my beloved German grandfather. Though he had a heavy accent, he was not hard to understand. He put me completely at ease at the outset. He asked about the math courses that I was taking at the time. I told him about my experience at Princeton in that area of study when, during that first year after America entered WWII, with most of the best faculty drafted into the service or engaged in war production, we had many young foreign instructors who had difficulty with the language to begin with and who had limited teaching experience. I told him how different it had been at Stevens where they had the good sense to encourage some of the retired faculty to return to teaching“for the duration” and still had many of the old-timers around. For math, we had Professor Charles Otto Gunther. He had been on the faculty for over 40 years except for a stint as a colonel in World War I, an expert on the subject of ballistic trajectories. Our class had been drawn from over thirty different colleges in the East; all but two were now in the Navy; all had one year of college under our belts and few among us had really understood differential calculus. Charlie Gunther had been known as a tough, cranky, taskmaster over the years at Stevens. For some reason he“took to” our group as a unique challenge…and we soon“took to” him. He told us he would assume we knew nothing about calculus (quite true); he would start from scratch and patiently explain until everyone was up to speed. It was a revelation to watch the eyes light up with understanding and a new-found respect for the subject matter. He guided us similarly through integral calculus and differential equations in the long months ahead, all good preparation for graduate work and on through LaPlace transforms.

Just before we went on to Midshipmen’s School, nearing the end of several semesters of math with Charlie, we threw a memorable party for our favorite teacher; at the end of our testimonials, he cried. One member of our class later married his granddaughter.  One of my good friends in the class was a jovial Jewish lad by the name of Elliott Feinstein. He would always try to be the first to raise his hand whether he had the right answer or not. Charlie more often would simply shake his head and comment good-naturedly,“Feinstein, you’re no Einstein.”

Einstein chuckled heartily over that story, and even seemed genuinely interested in all my responses to his searching but simple questions about my family, my studies, and the Navy. Here’s the man who had written to President Roosevelt just five years earlier (not known to me– or the world– until many years later):

“…that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated.”

He was taking time out to chit-chat with an apprentice seaman for a half hour while the world would soon be changed forever by the mind that was his only laboratory. He left it to others to eventually prove that his theories of how our universe behaves were indeed factual and actual.

I asked for his autograph and he gladly obliged on the reverse of my liberty card. (See likeness that I drew many years later with the card attached.) I didnotask him to play the violin that was resting on the couch. He asked if I’d like to have my picture taken (with my camera) by his housekeeper.Would I?!! Unfortunately, that good soul was not very familiar with cameras; it turned out to be the only double exposure on my film that day and totally unrecognizable, merged with the previous shot of the charred remains of the University’s gymnasium. Still, I wish I’d kept it. (Oh, for a digital camera back then!) I thanked them both, we shook hands, and a happy sailor walked back up Mercer Street toward the campus.

 [An amusing sequel to this tale deserves a few lines. When I returned to the Stevens campus, I immediately went to the Navy office to request the issuance of a new liberty card for the balance of the weekend since Einstein had signed the one I was carrying and I wanted to preserve it. The officer approved, and ordered the quartermaster to prepare a new one…but neglected to tell him the reason. When I saw that the quartermaster in the adjoining office was on the verge of ripping up the old one, I literally threw myself across the desk to stop his arm from reaching across to carry out this intention. It was good for laughs later, but the bruised hip wasn’t too funny at the time. Because of my great respect for Professor Gunther– and probably to impress him with my story– I asked him to sign his name beneath that of Albert Einstein. I now wish he hadn’t signed so close to it; it has probably diminished any eBay value it might have acquired over the years.]

In retrospect, I can’t help but feel shaken by the knowledge that I had the colossal nerve to knock on the door of the figure who was to be acknowledged as TIME’s– and Everyman’s -Person of the Century, the only individual in history immediately associated with and identifiable by a simple equation that has shaken– and still shakes– the world; to have had the rare privilege of meeting this relatively reclusive man (during his two decades in Princeton, he participated in only one public event); to have felt comfortable conversing (not onhislevel but mine, of course) with the Leonardo da Vinci, the Galileo Galilei, the Isaac Newton of our time. Over the years that followed, I’ve read about his life, his accomplishments, his humility, his quotable philosophy, and his humorous anecdotes. His place in history is unchallenged. His shining place in my memory will never dim.