Einstein in California

One hundred years ago, Einstein was a Zurich Polytechnic teaching graduate who couldn’t land a job in academe. Instead, he got a position as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. Not the most challenging job, but it gave him time to think.

Einstein liked to conduct what he called “thought experiments,” one of which asked: “What would a beam of light look like if you could race besides it?”

During the course of 1905, what has come to be called Einstein’s “miracle year,” he published four scientific papers, including his paper on “special relativity,” which answered the question posed above. The answer is easier understood today if you replace the beam of light with a car. From the sidewalk, the car looks like it’s speeding by. But if you drive alongside the car, it doesn’t seem to be moving. By demonstrating the relativity of time and space, Einstein unshackled the perception that they were absolutes.

Within a decade, Joyce wrote “Ulysses,” a chronicle of a single day rendered with stream of consciousness; Proust was working on his own meditation on space and time, “Remembrance of Things Past”; Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” and made his first abstract sculptures; Nijinsky danced to Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring”; while in Vienna, Freud was conducting his own thought experiments, charting a psychic interior world as unexplored as space itself.

A coincidence? Or a reaction to the industrialization of society? Either way, the reaction to the zeitgeist of relativity in science and culture was quickly followed by World War I and the Russian Revolution. Einstein began his search for a unifying principle of physics, perhaps in order to envision a universe where opposites would co-exist rather than clash.

Einstein made three visits to California in the early 1930s, working at Caltech in Pasadena. As described in “A Lone Traveler: Einstein in California” by Rabbi William Kramer with Margaret Leslie Davis, which the Skirball is publishing in connection with its “Einstein” exhibit, Einstein received the star treatment: Studio owner Carl Laemmle led Einstein on the Universal tour and invited him to a screening of the anti-war classic “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Jack Warner (one of the original Warner brothers) told him, “You know, I have a theory about relatives, too — don’t hire them.”

Einstein met all Hollywood’s then-reigning stars as well as Los Angeles’ Jewish elite. He dined at Pickfair with America’s sweetheart Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks. He ate on several occasions at Charlie Chaplin’s and was his guest at the premiere of “City Lights,” where Einstein’s fame seemed to eclipse Chaplin’s. He attended services and played violin at Temple B’nai Israel in Pasadena. He conferred with Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Edgar Magnin. He spoke at Jewish fundraisers supporting a Zionist homeland and the creation of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

It would be easy to argue that these visits were insignificant, but in fact California was a turning point in Einstein’s life — in many ways it shaped the second part of his life.

The Skirball is offering a special interactive exhibit on Einstein in California, “Three Winters in the Sun,” created by USC/Annenberg’s Labyrinth Project. Not part of the New York Museum of Natural History show, the installation focuses on six compartments of Einstein’s world: his own household, science, émigrés, Jews, Hollywood and the FBI, which began a file on Einstein that eventually reached 1,400 pages.

Labyrinth Project Director Marsha Kinder, a professor of critical studies at USC, believes Einstein’s time in California was “transformative.”

For example, consider Einstein’s friendship with Chaplin. Einstein found in Chaplin and his “Little Tramp” a simpatico spirit. Erik Erikson and Roman Jakobson have written about Einstein’s use of nonverbal language: Einstein’s great salve was music; his most eloquent expression was in mathematics. Chaplin was also a master of nonverbal communication. Even after sound was introduced, Chaplin’s tramp remained silent.

Einstein learned of fame from Chaplin. When Einstein asked Chaplin under the glare of klieg lights what it all meant, Chaplin replied, “Nothing, absolutely nothing.” But Einstein knew better. He used his celebrity to speak out for pacifism, for Zionism and against the Nazis.

Perhaps Einstein had some impact on Chaplin as well: When Chaplin bade farewell to the tramp, his first sound comedy was the anti-Hitler, anti-fascist satire “The Great Dictator.”

By the end of Einstein’s third sojourn in California, Germany had come under the force of its own unifying theory: National Socialism. Einstein realized that he would have to give up his home and live as an émigré in America. Einstein also accepted that his celebrity imposed a responsibility and a duty to speak out. As Kinder pointed out in a recent conversation, as the most famous living Jew at the time, Einstein was living denial of Hitler’s claims of inferiority.

Anti-Semitism made Einstein a Jew and an even more ardent Zionist. Einstein’s God, like his science, was a unifier, not a divider — and if his mathematical formulas tried to explain how planets and atoms should behave, his religion attempted to do the same for people.

As Einstein said at a 1931 Jewish National Fund dinner held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles: “Out of our community of interests there has at all times risen men who have embodied the conscience of the western world, men who were defenders of humanity and justice.”

George Dyson, the science historian, wondered in the Einstein issue of Discover magazine, “What if Einstein had stayed at Caltech?” Expounding on his “What if?” Dyson told me “We will never know…. But what if he surfed?” Would Einstein, living in California, among the stars in heaven and on earth, have figured out the ultimate fate of the universe?

We have crossed from the 20th to the 21st century on a wave of technological and scientific innovation. Yet, as we become increasingly interconnected in a rush of globalization, our current modernity has provoked another outbreak of war, extremism and anti-Semitism.

Einstein is back in California, at the Skirball until May 2005. More than ever, Dr. Einstein, we need a theory that will reconcile that which polarizes us.