Saturday, April 19, 2008

Einstein relaxed

It is comforting that high profile scientists are human too.

"Einstein in Western Maryland"


Francis M. Tam

Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD

The Physics Teacher, Vol. 43, No. 4

April 2005

©2005 American Association of Physics Teachers. All rights reserved

Albert Einstein vacationed for two weeks in September 1946 at Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland. It was a well-kept secret. This paper describes his ordinary and yet so extraordinary visit, its historical context, his daily routine, and some interesting stories that reveal his simplicity, humanity, and unique sense of humor.

The year 1946 was one Einstein might rather have forgotten. It was right after World War II. Atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. On December 10, 1954, Einstein remarked: "The war was won, but peace was not." He was the man pictured next to a mushroom cloud on the front cover of TIME magazine July 1, 1946, despite his having made clear on many occasions that he had nothing to do with the manufacture of the bomb. Einstein was a pacifist. He was against any kind of war or violence. Alarmed by the Nazi threat, he did sign a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt dated August 2, 1939, urging him to initiate a nuclear research program. He was, however, not actively involved in the development and production of the bomb, known as the Manhattan Project. His famous E = mc2 equation was first proposed in the formulation of special theory of relativity in 1905, and the idea of transforming mass into energy was basic to the understanding of how the fission bomb worked. But Einstein could not really be held morally responsible some 40 years later for an application he did not foresee. Yet he expressed deep regret for having signed the letter to Roosevelt.

In 1945, Einstein had just retired from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Tired of unwanted publicity and mass media, he was longing for a place of solitude and peace. The late John Steiding of Midland, MD, invited Einstein to visit Deep Creek Lake. Steiding worked for the Celanese Fiber Company as a chemist. He came to know Einstein through a co-worker's wife, who was sculpting a bust of Einstein. Einstein, who wasn't very tall, found it uncomfortable to pose for the artwork since his feet would not touch the floor. John Steiding, being a handyman, made a footstool for Einstein.

Few people know of Einstein's vacation at Deep Creek. As a matter of fact, his visit wasn't revealed in the local Cumberland newspaper for more than 30 years—not until 1979. Einstein was guaranteed complete privacy at Deep Creek, where he was protected from reporters and media. He was to seek the advice of Dr. Frank Wilson, a prominent local surgeon, on an undisclosed ailment, which we now know was an aneurysm of the aorta of the abdomen.

Einstein stayed for two weeks at Dr. Wilson's summer cottage, Mar-Jo-Lodge, in the Long Neck section of Deep Creek Lake. He led a simple life, spending a great deal of time reading and meditating in front of the fireplace. He loved the tranquility and solitude of western Maryland.

He took daily walks along the lake, frequently stopping to chat with strangers who had no idea who he was. He was sometimes seen fishing and also bird-watching with binoculars. He never skipped a meal but was a light eater. He drank a lot of water and lemonade; his favorite vegetable was fresh corn-on-the-cob from Garrett County.

Einstein loved sailing because it was "the sport which demands the least energy." Despite the fact that he could not swim, he refused to wear a life jacket. Sailing gave Einstein a sense of peace and freedom. There were times when "people would realize that he wasn't around, go searching for him, and find him in Harry Muma's little sailboat, `single-handing,' on the Turkey Neck inlet".

Einstein also loved children. He took the time to respond to letters from children all over the world. In his words, his secret was "to be like a child."

There were many interesting stories of Einstein during his stay in western Maryland. These stories not only capture Einstein's simplicity but also his unique sense of humor. During his visit, Fred Steiding, brother of John Steiding, asked him to explain relativity in layman's terms. "Put it this way," said Einsten, "if you sit on a park bench with your sweetheart, an hour seems like a minute. If you sit on a hot stove by mistake, a minute seems like an hour." There is also a charming story having to do with the invitation Einstein received from Isaac Hirsch, president of B'er Chayim Congregation in Cumberland. Hirsch wrote in 1946, "Knowing he was of my faith, and our high holidays would soon be here, I invited him to attend our services and be my guest." Einstein's response in a letter dated September 24, 1946, read, "Despite being 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 would it would be worse."

At the end of his visit, Einstein gave a $50 gratuity in an autographed envelope to Blair Thompson, also known as "Man Friday," who was employed by Dr. Wilson to serve Einstein as personal attendant. Fifty dollars in 1946 was quite generous indeed, considering that it would be equivalent to more than $1000 in 2005. Thompson admitted in 1998 that he had spent the $50, and regrettably lost the autographed envelope.

Was it all rest and play and no work for Einstein at Deep Creek? Surely not. He must have been thinking about his unified field theory, on which he published papers in 1950 and 1953. And, of course, he was deeply concerned about world peace. In May 1946 he became chairman of the Emergency Committee for Atomic Scientists. In October 1946 he wrote a letter to the United Nations urging them to form a world government to maintain world peace under nuclear threat.

Einstein loved the simple life he lived in western Maryland. He was immersed in the beauty and solitude of the mountain scenery: "Liking for moderation and beauty was for him relaxation after the exaggerated glorifications and animosities he had experienced." He was friendly and unassuming, humble and yet so famous. He was simple and yet so complex. In a letter Einstein wrote to fellow Nobel laureate Max Born on April 12, 1949, he stated, "You ask me what my attitude is towards the simple life. I simply enjoy giving more than receiving in every respect, do not take myself nor the doings of the masses seriously."

In Einstein's words, the visit to Deep Creek Lake was "one of the most restful and zestful vacations." Memories of it will long continue to live in western Maryland.


1. J. Suter Kegg, Cumberland News, September 13, 1979. first citation in article

2. Ze'ev Rosenkranz, The Einstein Scrapbook (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 141, 146–147. first citation in article

3. Ibid., pp. 146–147. first citation in article

4. Deep Creek Lake, Past and Present (Garrett County Historical Society, 1999), p. 9. first citation in article

5. Evelyn Einstein, foreword to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein's Letters to and from Children, edited by Alice Calaprice (Prometheus Books, 2002). first citation in article

6. Isaac Hirsch, My Story, printed by Daniels Photo Offset (April 1955). first citation in article

7. Linda Browning, Luke Mill Report (Westvaco Corp., Summer 1979) and the Glades Star (Garrett County Historical Society, Sept. 1981). first citation in article

8. Ze'ev Rosenkranz, The Einstein Scrapbook (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), pp. 76–77. first citation in article

9. Philipp Frank, Einstein: His Life & Times (The Alden Press, London, 1949), p. 198. first citation in article

10. Einstein: A Centenary Volume, edited by A.P. French (Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 276. first citation in article

"Albert Einstein's Long Island Summer"


Chuck Rothman

einstein.jpg (207818 bytes)

Einstein and David Rothman

In the summer of 1939, Albert Einstein spent his summer on Nassau Point, in Peconic, NY on eastern Long Island. My grandfather, David Rothman, was owner of Rothman's Department Store in nearby Southold.

One June day, Einstein came into the store. Of course, my grandfather recognized him at once. He decided, though, to treat him just like any other customer.

"Are you looking for something in particular?" he asked

"Sundials," Einstein said in his thick German accent.

Now, Rothman's has always had a large variety of items -- just about everything from housewares, to fishing tackle and bait, to hardware, to toys, to appliances. But no sundials. Not for sale, anyway. But...

"I do have one in my back yard," my grandfather said.

He led Einstein -- who seems a bit bewildered -- to the back yard, to show him the sundial. "If you need one you can have this."

Einstein took one look and began to laugh. He pointed to his feet. "No. Sundials."

Sandals. Those, he had.

As he was ringing up the sale, Einstein heard the classical music playing on the record player. Talking about it, my grandfather mentioned he played the violin.

Einstein lit up. "We must play together some time."

They set a date. As he prepared, my grandfather wasn't sure which music to bring, and finally decided on an assortment from simple to a Bach piece that was the most difficult thing he played. When he arrived at the summer cottage Einstein rented (still referred to as "The Einstein House"), he was welcomed warmly. Einstein looked over the music and chose the Bach.

They began to play. It was obviously quite quickly that my grandfather was out of his league; Einstein was just too good. After a couple of minutes, Einstein set down his violin. "Let's talk instead."

The rest of the evening was spent out on Einstein's front porch, just talking. My grandfather only had grade school education, but was intensely interested in science and philosophy, and the two men found they had some common ground.

After several hours, Einstein's housekeeper came out and scolded my grandfather. "You are keeping Dr. Einstein awake," she said.

"No," Einstein said. "I am keeping Mr. Rothman awake."

My grandfather spent a good deal of time that summer with Einstein, talking about all sorts of things. Some highlights:

At one point, Einstein offered to explain relativity to my grandfather. Now my grandfather only had a grade school education, but he also had a love of science. He agreed, but on one condition: that Einstein didn't use any mathematics. Einstein agreed. As he started the explanation, he took out a sheet of paper and began to jot numbers on it.

"Remember," my grandfather said. "No mathematics." Einstein said it was only to help him to compose his thoughts and went on. He continued to give the explanation, all the time writing the math on the paper. Finally, he tried to use it. My grandfather told him about their agreement. "But these are so trivial!" Einstein said. (I think these were the Lorentz transformation equations, by the way.)

While Einstein was staying in Peconic, the best-known thing he did was when he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt that led to the start of the Manhattan project. The letter was written at the request of Leo Szillard and Eugene Wigner, who drove out from New York to ask Einstein to write it. When Szillard and Wigner arrived, Einstein was on the front porch talking to my grandfather.

Another time Einstein was asked (through my grandfather) to come to a local meeting that was organizing attempts to get refugees out of Germany. The person in charge said that they merely wanted his presence, and my grandfather warned them not to ask him to speak. They agreed.

The day of the meeting, my grandfather went to pick him up. My grandfather wore a suit and tie. Einstein came down to meet him wearing his usual attire: an undershirt and baggy pants tied with a rope. "My, you're looking elegant," he said. Einstein got the point; he went upstairs to change.

Halfway through the meeting, the moderator introduced Einstein and (of course) asked him to give a speech. He gave my grandfather a funny look, but went up to the dais. When it was his turn to speak, he said, "You must organize just as we Jews have organized. Otherwise you will have a big problem." Then he sat down.

After the meeting, a crowd of people congregated around Einstein. After answering a question or two, he whispered to my grandfather, "Get me out of here."

Around this time, Riverside Church in Manhattan planned to put up statues to the eight most famous scientists who ever lived. Einstein, of course, was included. My grandfather asked him how it felt to be immortalized (he was the only living scientist included).

Einstein said, "From now on, and for the rest of my life, I must be very careful not to commit a scandal."

At the time, Einstein was working on developing his Unified Field Theory. He described it as an attempt to work out a relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm. My grandfather pointed out the parallel between the planets in their orbits and electrons in theirs. Einstein said, "I not interested so much in the particles as I am in the spaces between them."

Once, Einstein describing his leaving Germany: One night, Storm Troopers came to his house and took him and his wife outside, then went in to search for weapons. A little while later, they returned with a set of carving knives. "See?" they said. "Weapons." Then the smashed Einstein's sailboat. He said to his wife, "Look good at this place, for you will not see it again." They left the country that night. "You know," Einstein said, "if they had catched me, they would have killed me."

Einstein the Sailor

One of Einstein's favorite form of recreation was sailing on his boat "Tinef" (Yiddish for "junk"). It was small, maybe about 15 feet or so, and very unprepossessing.

One day he decided to sail to visit my grandfather. That was a fairly long trip. My grandfather got a call in the morning that Einstein was on his way.

The afternoon dragged on; no sign of Einstein. My grandfather began to be worried: Einstein couldn't swim. The sun was setting and still no word. Finally, he got a call from a local policeman, saying that there was this weird-looking guy who needed a haircut wandering the beach and asking for David Rothman.

(One time, Einstein actually fell into the water and had to be rescued by a teenager who had been passing by and heard his calls for help. The kid left and didn't even tell his name.)

Einstein and my grandfather met for the last time in 1946, with Einstein saying, "I have had the most wonderful summers of my entire life, and this I owe to your initiative." And every year, my grandfather sent him a pair of sandals.

Also see:

Richard Feynman stories

1 comment:

Sharone said...

Thank you so much for posting these stories. They're wonderful.