CUNY Recalls Einstein's 'Miracle Year' and His Life
In 1905, the scientist whose name would come to connote genius published a series of papers that overturned long-held theories about physics.

Indeed, Albert Einstein's achievements in 1905 were remarkable, especially when you consider that he was only 26. For within one year, not only did this lowly patent clerk come up with the special theory of relativity made famous by the E=mc2 equation, but he also explained the Brownian movement of molecules. It was his groundbreaking work on the photoelectric effect, published that same year, that won him the Nobel Prize.

Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, standing, hosted a CUNY-TV program on the life of Albert Einstein and interviewed two Einstein associates–Frederick Seitz (left), president emeritus of Rockefeller University, and William T. Golden, chairman emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History.

"It was an extraordinary year that obviously turned physics upside down, and the world has not been the same," said Chancellor Matthew Goldstein. The chancellor recently hosted a discussion on Einstein for CUNY-TV with two men who knew the scientist and gave first-hand accounts of their encounters with him - William T. Golden, chairman emeritus of the American Museum of Natural History, and Frederick Seitz, president emeritus of Rockefeller University.

What emerged was a portrait of a man of supreme intellect who loved, laughed, played the violin and sailed. A declared pacifist, he nevertheless did his part in World War II, becoming an adviser to the U.S. Navy and playing musical concerts to raise money for the troops.

But he had his quirks, too: He reveled in his celebrity, cultivating his disheveled "mad scientist" appearance, which bordered on the theatrical.

In this centennial of Einstein's "annus mirabilis," or "miracle year" in which he published his landmark papers, the Chancellor's TV program was not the only CUNY event reexamining and reflecting on Einstein's life and his impact.

"Einstein - the man and the scientist - continues to fascinate people, and CUNY has been illuminating various aspects of his life in our annual Science & the Arts series," said Adrienne Klein, director of special projects for The Graduate Center. "This is the first time that we at CUNY have devoted an entire semester in our series to one subject, but Einstein deserved the credit."

On Einstein's birth date in March, a retired restaurant owner replied to a call for Einstein look-alikes, made the day festive and helped blow out the candles of a birthday cake. Latif Rashidzada looked "exactly as Einstein might have had he, too, been born in Kabul, Afghanistan," the New York Times' Clyde Haberman opined in a column the following day.

Retired restauranteur Latif Rashidzada, judged an Einstein look-alike, is pictured here on the 126th birth date of the E=mc2 genius.

City College - where Einstein activities included a special opportunity for students in the sciences to present their research - claims a notable connection to Einstein. On April 7, 1921, Einstein lectured at City College on general relativity, his first such scientific lecture on a college campus in the United States, where he was reported to have said: "I never realized that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis."

Seitz, an eminent physicist who came to know Einstein when they were both colleagues at Princeton University in the mid-1930s, recalled that Einstein "had an inner strength and modesty that allowed him to do things few other people could have done. He was a modest man, but he knew he was great."

Indeed, so confident of his abilities was Einstein that he promised his first wife that he would win his first Nobel for her.

Yet, the man who was "regarded as a great scientist on matters not understandable to the general public or even other scientists" could be extraordinarily kind and down-to-earth. Golden, an early architect of American science policy, said he was "impressed with [Einstein's] warmth and depth of feeling and human kindness."

Although Golden had the opportunity to spend only part of one day with Einstein, it was an experience he will never forget. In June 1947, Golden, who was on the newly formed Atomic Energy Commission and who was a science adviser to Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, was invited to visit Einstein at his Princeton home to discuss what the scientist called an urgent matter. Over afternoon tea, Einstein warned that the world was on the brink of nuclear war and proposed the formation of a world government, complete with a world military, that would be headed by the United States.

"He said the war would come within two to 10 years and that it would result in the destruction of civilization as we knew it. That's where the great Einstein was wrong," Golden said. "Many of the things he said were unrealistic politically."

For his part, Seitz fondly remembered the time he and wife took a Cub Scout pack through the university's physics department, and Einstein took the time "to pat each child on the head, which I'm sure each of them remembered for the rest of their lives."

As the years went by, Einstein became isolated from the scientific community that had once so enthusiastically embraced his theories and became so involved in politics that after World War II he was offered the presidency of the newly established State of Israel, a post he politely declined.

Seitz attributed the estrangement and lack of interest in teaching in great part to the recurring illness, an abdominal aortic aneurysm that eventually killed him in 1955. "His peers revered him and encouraged him to continue, but they didn't feel he was in the mainstream as they were," Seitz said.

His peers may have lost interest in him, but, today, 100 years after Einstein produced his most significant work, the world is still hungry for details about the most celebrated scientist of modern times. "As a scientific figure, he is so vivid in our minds that there are films, plays and books about him," Klein said. "It is our hope that the CUNY programs have brought to life this most fascinating, idiosyncratic figure who changed the history of not only physics but also the world as we know it."