AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII, No. 1, Spring 2000

 

Einstein as Person of the Century (or Not?)

When Time magazine named Albert Einstein as the Person of the Century at the end of 1999, the choice drew welcome attention to the role of physicists in our times. According to the newsmagazine’s editors, the century coming to its end “will be remembered foremost for its science and technology,” and Einstein “serves as a symbol of all the scientists—such as Heisenberg, Bohr, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Hawking...who built upon his work...” Other fields of human creativity, even other sciences despite their great achievements, got only a brief nod from Time in the century of the radio, the atomic bomb and the Internet.

Several columnists criticized the choice. David Broder wrote that it “sent a clear message: Science, not statesmanship, was the hallmark of the era just ended.” But to Broder, “the saga of the 20th century is one of enfranchisement and empowerment,” characterized by female suffrage, civil rights and the like. Charles Krauthammer similarly declared that not Einstein but Winston Churchill deserved the accolade. “If Einstein hadn’t lived, the ideas he produced might have been delayed.” But take away Churchill’s stand in 1940, and fascism might well have triumphed. No, “the originality of the 20th century surely lay in politics.” E.J. Dionne Jr. agreed. While giving “Three cheers for Einstein and his brethren,” Dionne insisted that “the most important achievement of the century... is the triumph of a certain view of politics and a certain set of principles...”

It is not surprising that political columnists stressed the importance of politics. In fact the Time editors had taken that into account, stating clearly that they found it hard to choose among scientific achievements, the triumph of democracy over totalitarianism, and the battle for civil rights as the hallmark of the century. (Indeed, those could be taken as the grand themes of the entire millennium that now comes to its close.) Einstein was chosen, said Time, not only because of his science but because he was himself an outspoken refugee from fascism, a “humanitarian,” and a “political idealist.” As columnist William Saletan of Slate.com explained it, “The ideal POC [Person of the Century] represents all the big themes... Einstein wins the triathlon because in addition to acing the science test, he prodded Roosevelt to build the bomb (10 points for defeating totalitarianism), fled Germany and immigrated to the United States (five more points for defeating totalitarianism and five for liberation and justice), and preached pacifism and praised Gandhi (10 more points for liberation and justice).”


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