Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant scientific minds of all time. But he also was a rebel who boldly disregarded the conventions of his time and often dared to openly defy authority—not just in theoretical physics, but in areas ranging from sexual mores to politics. Einstein’s iconoclastic nature emerged in his youth, but he continued to be a defiant contrarian free-thinker throughout his life. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson thinks that the physicist’s rebellious nature may have helped him to reach intellectual high places where others didn’t dare to go. “Being smart gets you only so far,” Isaacson once wrote in an essay for Wired. “It's worth remembering, especially now, that what made Einstein special was his impertinence, his nonconformity, and his distaste for dogma.”
Here are ten ways in which Einstein showed his rebelliousness.
He was too cool for school.
Einstein was so brilliant that he mastered differential and integral calculus before he turned 15. But he chafed against the military-like rigidity of the high school that he attended in Munich, which emphasised drills and memorization. Einstein’s refusal to bend to authority led one of his teachers to kick him out of class, proclaiming that “your mere presence here spoils the respect of the class for me.” Einstein eventually did drop out of school at age 15, after getting a letter from his family doctor saying that he was suffering from nervous exhaustion. But he used his free time to study on his own, reading a three-volume physics textbook on his own. In college in Switzerland, he cut classes and drove professors crazy with his irreverence. “You’re a very clever boy, Einstein,” one told him. “But you have one great fault. You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”
He challenged widely-accepted scientific dogma.
As Isaacson writes in his biography of Einstein, the “miraculous” outpouring of work that Einstein produced in 1905 contained ideas so radical that it took 17 years for him to gain acceptance from the scientific establishment and win the Nobel Prize that he deserved.
He wasn’t much for monogamy.
Einstein didn’t have a lot of use for matrimony and conventional sexual mores. In college, he fell in love with a fellow student, Mileva Maric. The two had a daughter out of wedlock, who may have died or been given up for adoption before they finally married and had two sons. Einstein then had an affair with his cousin, Elsa Einstein, and left Mileva to eventually marry her. But he still had a wandering eye and had flings with numerous other women as well.
He defied the usual political labels.
Einstein was too much of a free-thinker to fit comfortably within any single ideology. “How an intelligent man can subscribe to a [political] party, I find a complete mystery,” he once explained. As biographer Isaacson notes, Einstein subscribed to socialist ideals in theory, but he didn’t like state control or centralised authority in practice. He was a pacifist who was strongly against militarism, but decided that going to war against Hitler was justified.
He ignored the rules of fashion and grooming.
After he came to America, Einstein gradually gave up on haircuts and tailoring. His hair became a wild mane, and he habitually dressed in baggy cotton sweatshirts and corduroy pants and went without socks. “Neckties exist for me only as remote memories,” he once joked.
He had unconventional beliefs about God and Religion.
After a brief period as a child in which he was an observant Jew, Einstein rejected organised religion of any sort, explaining that what he had learned from reading science texts convinced him that the stories of the Bible could not be true. Nevertheless, Einstein still was a believer in a higher presence. As he once explained, beyond underneath all human attempts to understand nature, “there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion.”
He was opposed nationalism but was a passionate Zionist.
Einstein was against nationalism and favoured a one-world government, but, after seeing the plight of the Jews in World War II, he came to accept the need for establishing a Jewish nation in Israel. Nevertheless, Einstein also was sympathetic to the Palestinians who were being displaced by Jewish settlers. “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs,” he wrote in 1929, “then we have learned absolutely nothing during our 2,000 years of suffering.”
He had little interest in money.
Einstein enjoyed his fame, but he cared little about money and wasn’t interested in profiting from his notoriety. When he accepted an appointment at Princeton’s newly created Institute for Advanced Studies, he was asked what annual salary he should be paid. Einstein suggested $3,000—though when his wife found out, she insisted on increasing it to $16,000.
He was an early supporter of racial equality and civil rights.
In 1937, when African-American opera star Marian Anderson was refused lodging at a hotel in Princeton, Einstein invited her to stay at his home instead. In 1946, Einstein accepted an invitation to speak at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first school in the U.S. to grant college degrees to African-Americans. In his address, he denounced racism as “a disease of white people,” a bold stand in a nation that was still heavily segregated. Einstein went on to work with black activist Paul Robeson on the American Crusade to End Lynching.
He defied McCarthyism.
Though Einstein was opposed to the Soviet Union’s militarism and totalitarian oppression, he warned that fear of communism shouldn’t drive Americans to their own civil liberties and political freedom. He advised American intellectuals that they should fight the excesses of Red Scare communist hunters by following Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, even if it meant going to prison. Einstein didn’t stop his activism even after he was denounced by newspaper editorials and attacked by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisc. As Isaacson recounts in his Einstein biography, after a critic sent him a postcard emblazoned with something called the American Creed, which exhorted citizens to love their country, support its Constitution and obey its laws, Einstein wrote in the margin: “This is precisely what I have done.”