Everyone is familiar with his outstretched tongue, but when it comes to grasping the complexity of his ground-breaking theories in physics, Einstein has most people tongue-tied.
A famous man with an equally famous tongue
Since Germany is making this year "Einstein Year" to honor the 100th anniversary of the invention of the physicist's theory of relativity, people are bound to ask themselves every now and then, exactly what the fascination surrounding this genius is all about. Exactly why, compared to many other 20th century experts, is this scientist considered an idol, a pop icon, and at the same time a citizen of the world, a rebel and a pacifist?
While names like Pointcare, Heisenberg and Bohr are little known to anything more than a small group of experts, Albert Einstein enjoys almost global fame and reverence. Even during his lifetime, he was a media star, for whom it proved possible to remain in touch with the world public in spite of his highly specialized scientific activity.
It is possible that his popularity was connected to the fact that nobody was really able to explain his theories. Instead it was his whims, his unconventional ways and his trademark wild hair which were the focus of media reports.
Equipped with a good dose of self-irony and a quick wit, after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, Einstein mocked himself with the words "from now on I'm a model!" It was one way he groomed his fame.
In the 1920s, Einstein was as much an attraction in Berlin as the city zoo, the palace, or the double-decker busses. But this man was not all sweetness and light. The loveless manner in which he treated his wives, on whom he constantly cheated, and the neglect of his children was nothing short of heartless and would draw him seriously bad press in this day and age.
Albert Einstein played violin and loved music.
But in his time, more than anything, he nurtured his image of a reckless anarchist, who only managed to get behind so many secrets because he never lost his alleged childish naiveté.
Einstein, "the eternal child," is a further puzzle piece which serves to make his myth even more dazzling. But will the fuss surrounding this Einstein year in Germany help people to understand the genius any better, or will it distance him even further and mystify him more than is already the case?
What can we learn?
With numerous events, conferences and exhibitions scheduled to pay tribute to the man and his work, we should be asking ourselves what can we learn from this genius. For one thing, Einstein showed us that scientists should definitely be interested in what political leaders do with the results of their research.
In 1999, US magazine "Time" named Einstein the most important man of the century.
Einstein may have been involved in the development of the US atomic bomb, but only in order to put an end to Nazi megalomania. He later fully rejected the bomb.
We can also see that his unconventional career as self-confident lateral thinker and autodidact, and his belief in independent rather than institutionalized thought, led to ground-breaking discoveries. Would that be possible today? Many experts say no and point out the complexities of modern physics. But the interdisciplinary approach remains valid.
More than anything else, this Einstein year should be a chance to question the significance of research in Germany today. Does it get enough financial backing from the political world? Affected research institutes would answer that although there is more on offer than in times gone by, it is still not enough, not least because public research contributions are in decline.
So what would Einstein make of this simultaneous celebration of himself and reluctance to open the state budget purse a little wider for the sake of innovation? He'd probably just poke his tongue out at us from his grave.