Almost 100 years ago, Einstein visited D.C.

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Albert Einstein poses for a snapshot during his time at Princeton University. File photo
Albert Einstein poses for a snapshot during his time at Princeton University. File photo

In 1919 two unrelated events occurred that led to Albert Einstein’s visit to Washington, D.C.

On May 29 there was a solar eclipse that provided the first opportunity to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, a theory that he had formulated four years earlier. Sir Arthur Eddington sent astronomical teams to Brazil and Africa to see if the position of stars would be displaced by the amount predicted by Einstein. The result, announced on Sept. 22, agreed with Einstein’s theory and Albert Einstein soon became the world’s most famous scientist. He was dubbed by TIME magazine “the person of the century,” even though very few people understood his theory. When Eddington was asked if he was one of only three people who understood relativity, he considered a moment and said, “I am trying to think who the third person is.”


The other event occurred on Sept. 12. Adolph Hitler joined the German Workers’ Party, which then changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party, with a swastika emblem designed by Hitler himself. The growing anti-Semitism in Germany alarmed Einstein. On Nov. 30 he wrote to a friend, “Where is this all supposed to lead?” and a year later (1920) he wrote “In Germany today hatred of the Jews has taken on horrible expressions.”

This growing anti-Semitism turned Einstein into a Zionist. He had been asked earlier to join the Zionist cause and refused, but he soon changed his mind. “I am, as a human being, an
opponent of nationalism,” he said, “but as a Jew, I am from today a supporter of the Zionist effort.”
In October 1919 he wrote, “The Zionist cause is very close to my heart. … I am glad that there should be a little patch of earth on which our kindred brethren are not considered aliens.”

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These two factors – Einstein’s fame and his support for Zionism – came together when he was asked to accompany Chaim Weizmann on a fundraising trip for the benefit of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the planned Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Einstein accepted, saying, “I realize that I myself am now part of the situation and that I must accept the invitation”.

And so on March 21, 1921, Einstein and Weizmann set sail for a two-month fundraising tour of the United States. During the tour, however, most of the attention focused on Einstein and his theory. Upon arrival in New York a reporter asked Weizmann if he understood relativity. Weizmann replied, “During the crossing Einstein explained his theory to me every day and by the time we arrived I was fully convinced that he really understands it.”


After three weeks in New York, with huge crowds wherever he went, Einstein went to Washington and visited President Warren Harding in the White House. During a press conference, the president was asked if he understood relativity, and he too confessed that he did not comprehend it at all. The Washington Post published a cartoon the next day showing Harding puzzling over a paper about relativity while Einstein puzzled over a political paper by Harding.

Meanwhile, the Senate was conducting a debate on Einstein’s theory, with two senators asserting that it was incomprehensible. The House also got involved, as Rep. J.J. Kindred of New York proposed to place an explanation of relativity in the Congressional Record. David Walsh of Massachusetts objected, asking if Kindred understood the theory. Kindred replied, “I have been earnestly busy with this theory for three weeks and am beginning to see some light.”

Einstein also visited the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis. Brandeis was a prominent Zionist who had recently broken with Weizmann and resigned as honorary president of the Zionist Organization of America. Einstein perhaps hoped that he might help heal the rift. Their meeting was very pleasant, and each came away liking the other. Brandeis wrote the next day, “Prof. & Mrs. Einstein are simple lovely folk,” but despite Einstein’s efforts, the Weizmann-Brandeis rift continued.

An ironic coda to the Brandeis visit occurred in 1948. Einstein’s support of education led him to help raise funds for a Jewish university near Boston; in fact, the organization was named the Albert Einstein Foundation for Higher Learning. However differences grew between Einstein and the administrators, and when they asked to name the university after him, he refused. The school was then named after the second choice, and Brandeis University is now one of the leading liberal arts universities in the country.

In 1933 Einstein moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he spent the rest of his life trying, unsuccessfully, to develop a unified field theory. In September 1946 he spent two weeks at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland. This time there was no hoopla; in fact, the visit was made in complete secrecy. It wasn’t even reported in the local Cumberland newspaper until 1979. He took daily walks along the lake and enjoyed sailing on the lake – his favorite sport because “it demands the least energy,” he said. He was deeply concerned then about the aftermath of WWII, and while in Maryland he wrote a letter to the newly formed United Nations about the importance of maintaining world peace. He also continued work on his unified field theory. He said that his visit to Deep Creek Lake was “one of the most restful and zestful vacations.”

While vacationing in Maryland, Einstein was invited by the president of B’er Chayim Congregation in Cumberland to attend the High Holiday services. Einstein, who always said he was a Jew by ethnicity and not by religion, wrote back, “Despite being [regarded as] something like a Jewish saint, I have been absent from a synagogue so long that I am afraid God would not recognize me. And if He did it would be worse.”

It is now almost a century after Einstein’s 1921 tour and a lot has happened. Hitler was defeated after killing 6 million Jews and the state of Israel was created in 1948. Sixty-six years later Israel is a thriving country that Einstein would surely be proud of.

While he supported Zionism, Einstein also expressed concern for the Arabs, saying “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation … with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering.”

While there is certainly room for improvement, Israel’s treatment of its minority citizens shines like a beacon of light compared with many other countries, especially its Arab neighbors. In fact, most Israeli Arabs would rather live in Israel than in a Palestinian state. I think Einstein would be “relatively” happy with this cooperation. However, he did not foresee the implacable opposition to Israel from Arabs who even today consider Jews to be “aliens” and who refuse to accept a Jewish state in what was once the Jewish homeland.

He would surely understand that this lack of “cooperation” is not the fault of Israel.

Einstein died on April 17, 1955, leaving an unfinished draft of a speech he was to deliver for Israel Independence Day that began, “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being.”

Rodney A. Brooks is a retired physicist and author of Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein (see quantum-field-theory.net). It is available in print or ebook at amazon.com and other online vendors.

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