In the field world of modern physics, Albert Einstein’s contemporaries Niels Bohr and Max Planck were giants in their field. But chances are that you’ve never seen either of their faces emblazoned on a beach towel or a coffee mug, or heard them mentioned in a song.
Indeed, most of history’s great scientists—even Nobel Prize recipients who made breakthrough discoveries—have remained relatively obscure figures except to those knowledgeable in their fields. Not so for Einstein. During his lifetime, he garnered newspaper headlines and became enough of a recognisable celebrity. But even after his death in 1955, Einstein’s fame only continued to grow.
Over the decades, Einstein has morphed into a pop culture icon—a wild-haired, moustachioed elderly sage with a thick foreign accent who personifies genius, as surely as Elvis Presley personifies rock-and-roll and Marilyn Monroe represents sex and glamour. His likeness is emblazoned on t-shirts, posters, coffee mugs and tote bags. He’s been depicted numerous times as a fictional character in films and TV programs, including as a poker-playing hologram version of himself in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in animated form on The Family Guy (where he’s shown stealing the theory of relativity from a guy named Smith). Einstein is mentioned in pop songs ranging from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” to Kelly Clarkson’s “Einstein” (in which she compares her own intelligence unfavourably to the physicist’s), and he’s name-checked in at least 17 different rap songs. (“The way he manipulated numbers, I manipulate the rhymes,” the rapper Logic tells us.)
Einstein has also inspired innumerable internet memes and infiltrated the American vernacular as a sarcastic comeback (i.e., “Nice try, Einstein!”) People even name their pets after him.
How did Einstein become such an enduring celebrity and symbol? One reason, perhaps, is that “Science’s preeminent poster boy,” as biographer Walter Isaacson has called him, got plenty of good press early on.
In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington performed the first experimental test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity during a solar eclipse, and newspapers that had spent years covering the horrors and dreariness of World War I jumped on a positive story. “Einstein’s Theory Triumphs,” the New York Times proclaimed on its front page. As Isaacson’s book details, Einstein was deluged with requests for interviews, photos and public appearances, and his reaction was mixed. As Isaacson notes, “He was attracted and repelled by the cameras, loved publicity and loved to complain about it.”
While it’s safe to say that few people understood his theoretical work, it was easy to grasp the notion it was something of huge, cosmic-scale significance. Einstein’s famous E=mc2 equation became a sort of “visual shorthand” for that notion, explains historian A. Bowdoin Van Riper, a specialist in the intersection of science and popular culture. “Like a wizard’s magic spell, its power can be understood only by a select few,” Van Riper has written. Isaacson observes that Einstein “came to symbolise the perception that modern physics was something that ordinary laymen could not comprehend.”
But Einstein also may have resonated in pop culture because he is so easy to caricature. In his youth in Europe, pictures of Einstein show him as a handsome, dashing, elegantly tailored charmer; the one we remember is the late-period Einstein, the rumpled, elderly émigre with the droopy whiskers and unruly mane. “Not only was the man brilliant, but he was so brilliant that he apparently didn’t even have time to brush his hair,” observes Carrie Tucker, author of “I Love Geeks: The Official Handbook.” He looked the part of a brilliant but distracted scientist, the stereotype that Hollywood created in movies such as the 1961 comedy The Absent-Minded Professor.
After his death, Hollywood made Einstein himself into a character. As Von Riper has noted, the physicist’s instantly-recognizable appearance made it easy for screenwriters to insert him into movies and TV shows. As a result, Einstein has showed up in odd places, ranging from an episode of the animated TV comedy Everybody Hates Chris, where he’s depicted sitting at a bus stop and struggling to solve a Rubik’s Cube, to the poker-playing hologram in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Film comedies sometimes have reimagined his biography. The 1988 movie Young Einstein, for example, depicts him as inventing rock and roll music and splitting the atoms in beer. In the 1994 romantic comedy IQ, Einstein—portrayed by Walter Matthau—became the kindly, wise uncle who conspires to make a young garage mechanic (Tim Robbins) seem like an intellectual to win the heart of Einstein’s niece, played by Meg Ryan. (The late movie critic Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars, calling Matthau as Einstein “a stroke of casting genius.”)
Although Einstein turned down chances to endorse products while he was alive, he’s had a posthumous career in advertising. He appeared in a late 1980s ad opposite the Three Stooges’ Moe Howard with a Nikon camera around his neck, and a decade later, Apple included him—along with Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, and other iconoclastic innovators—in its “Think Different” ad campaign. And there’s been a continuing market for Einstein-related apparel, posters, mugs and other products. In 2015, a Forbes magazine article ranked Einstein at number eight on a list of dead celebrities with the most lucrative earnings from licensing, with $11 million in revenue—just behind John Lennon ($12 million). Einstein bequeathed his papers and intellectual property, including the rights to his likeness, to Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which licenses Einstein products through GreenLight, a U.S.-based agency that also handles the rights for celebrities ranging from Muhammad Ali and Steve McQueen to Andy Warhol.
Albert Einstein’s enduring popularity is perhaps a sign of just how important he remains, both as a scientific thinker and a symbol of our higher aspirations and curiosity about the nature of reality. As biographer Isaacson notes, the fascination with Einstein isn’t just a matter of his distinctive appearance-“that electrified halo of hair and those piercing eyes,” as Isaacson describes him. The physicist’s theories were full of notions—such as the relativity of space and time, and the idea that light can be bent and space can be warped—that continue to amaze and captivate people’s imaginations. Moreover, Isaacson says, Einstein “exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion” toward humanity that still resonates. Einstein was the sort of genius we can feel comfortable with, and we still love him for it.