Today, a young man lets history slip by him. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
It was 1954. I was a private
in the Army, stationed at Fort Monmouth, New
Jersey. I was off-duty one hot summer's day, so I
walked to the highway and put out my thumb. In my
writing case was a thermodynamics text. I meant to
find a quiet place to write letters and study
Einstein's theory of specific heats.
The car that picked me up was going to Princeton.
That sounded good. I asked the driver, "Isn't that
where Einstein lives?" He allowed it was. I got out
at the University, asked where Einstein was, and
was told he worked two miles outside of town at the
Institute for Advanced Studies.
So I walked to the Institute and sat for a long
time in the commons room, studying thermodynamics
and watching very smart people coming and going.
But no Einstein. At length I gave up my ad
hoc pilgrimage and started back to town. Where
the road turned, I looked over my shoulder and saw
a figure two blocks back. The sun behind him cast a
brilliant halo through a mop of frizzy white hair.
I stalled, watching a golf game, while Einstein
himself passed me and strode on into town. I fell
in behind him.
He walked vigorously, greeting friends and
neighbors. Then he stopped and laid his briefcase
on a hedge. I was terrified. Did he know I was
following him? I don't think so. He was just taking
off his blue sweater. As I passed him I saw
suspenders over a tee shirt holding baggy trousers.
He wore sandals -- no socks. That much fit the
stereotype. What didn't was his substance. He was
then seventy-five with less than a year to live.
But he had an earthy muscularity. He had physical
grace, strength and coordination. How many people
know he was a good violinist? Einstein was more
than airy energy and light; he had mass and
physical presence as well.
My now-battered thermo text sits on my shelf
without Einstein's autograph in it. I was far too
shy, unformed, and uncertain to speak to him. Three
years later, by a fluky coincidence, I designed an
apparatus for his son, civil engineer Hans
Albert Einstein. I didn't mention Princeton to him.
Six years afterward, I met his granddaughter.
Didn't mention it to her either.
A lifetime later, the other famous names of that
epoch -- Eisenhower, Chiang Kai-shek, Churchill --
they all fade against the light, energy, and mass
of that quiet man, standing by a hedge, juggling
stars and forces and fields in his head -- that man
who made us understand that the world is more than
it seems to be.
I went on to learn about Einstein's statistical
mechanics, his theory of Brownian motion,
Bose-Einstein condensation. I learned about his
philosophical ambiguities, contradictions and
complexities. But overwritten on all that is, for
me, a neighbor greeting other neighbors and
smelling the roses. My Einstein will always be that
scruffy old man on a summer's day in Princeton --
that gentle man who surely would have
autographed my thermodynamics book.
I'm John Lienhard, at the
University of Houston, where we're interested in
the way inventive minds work.