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The Einstein effect — our favorite genius

For the past six years, journalist Benyamin Cohen has managed social media for the Albert Einstein estate. “He has more than 20 million followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram — more than most living celebrities,” Cohen says.

Benyamin Cohen, author of the 2023 book The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms and Our Minds. (Shoshi Benstein)

Cohen’s latest book, out this month, is The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms and Our Minds.

Cohen answered several questions about his new book.

Do you feel pressure running Einstein’s social media accounts? Was it strange to correct Ivanka Trump when she misquoted Einstein?

I feel an awesome responsibility speaking for anyone other than myself, but especially a Nobel Prize winner and someone so intellectually beloved as Einstein. I am constantly checking to make sure I don’t put pictures of my dog on [his social media] instead of on my personal one by accident.

Correcting Ivanka was a unique experience because not only was she misquoting Einstein, which happens every day on the internet, but she was using a quote about changing the facts. This was during the debate of fake news and alternative facts, so for her to put words in his mouth was a bridge too far.

Was Einstein the most famous Jew ever?

He was the most famous Jew of the 20th century for sure. When he was alive, he was the most famous person in the world. He was the Brad Pitt or Bill Gates of his era. Throngs of people chased him down the street trying to get his autograph or ask him a question.

You write that Einstein has said his only role in the nuclear project was penning a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But would the Manhattan Project have gotten off the ground without the funding he helped it secure?

He’s part of a puzzle that helped make that happen. But I wouldn’t say without him it wouldn’t have happened. He worked tirelessly to promote international peace. He was a pacifist. He hated war.

You write about the pathologist who stole Einstein’s brain, which you saw in person. Would Einstein have been mad about what happened to his brain?

He didn’t want people coming to his grave like it was a celebrity attraction. I do not think he would be happy that the pathologist stole his brain after the autopsy.

Once it was taken, the executor of the Einstein estate reluctantly agreed for it to be studied for scientific purposes. It took many decades for that to happen, and the studies didn’t come out until about 50 years after his death. The day I saw the brain, it was in a cardboard box in the back of someone’s truck in Princeton. I assume he wouldn’t be too happy with that.

You cite experts who maintain that he had a greater intellectual capacity due to the physical nature of his brain. Others dispute that. 

It goes back to the chicken and the egg controversy.

Did he have this special brain, and that’s what made him so smart? Or did his brain evolve because he was so smart? I don’t know how much we can tell from the brain.

Remnants of the brain can’t take an IQ test or have a neshama, a soul, to be able to think. There were incredible scientists who said it was unique. But I think some went into it knowing it was Einstein’s brain, so they were looking for something unique. Scientists should do blind studies.

Was it a legitimate offer when Einstein was offered the second presidency of Israel?

I think so. It’s a ceremonial position.

I explain some of it in my book, but Walter Isaacson in his book has a whole chapter on it. Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion really wanted Einstein, who was the most famous Jewish person at the time.

Ben Gurion thought not only would it be great publicity, but he would be able to build great relationships with people outside of Israel.

Would he have been good at it? Einstein himself was the first to admit he was not a politician and hated going to parties or social niceties. He hated getting dressed up. He loved wearing pajamas.

But because of the Holocaust, Israel was this response that the Jewish people would survive. He was a big proponent of that. Even though he didn’t speak Hebrew and there were things he said that made people think he wasn’t the biggest Zionist in the world, he was an extreme supporter of the creation of the State of Israel, and I think that’s why he decided to leave his estate to The Hebrew University.

How do you reconcile the critical role Einstein played in helping create the Global Positioning System (GPS) with his lack of a driver’s license, inability to swim and getting lost when he would go boating?

He was the classic absent-minded professor. He would lose his keys to his apartment all the time. There’s a story where he was staying at a friend’s apartment, and they gave him an extra set of keys, and he lost that.

He was a classic big thinker of how the universe worked and what was going on in the cosmos. So when someone’s mind is in the clouds, it’s hard for him to remember to pick up the dry cleaning. He was a big fan of irony. I think he would find it funny that he helped give birth to GPS but at times would be directionless.

You interviewed Christopher Lloyd, who played Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown in “Back to the Future,” in which his dog is named Einstein. Lloyd also modeled Brown on Einstein. Did that film help put Einstein in the popular zeitgeist?

[Lloyd] has said that of all the characters for which he’s famous, people still speak about that role to this day. Almost every weekend, he is at another fan convention signing autographs at a “Back to the Future” table. He said he really thought it inspired a younger generation to become scientists, and he was very proud of that. It speaks to what Einstein stood for as well.

Mandy Patinkin, the spokesman for a refugee organization that Einstein helped found, told you that he respected Einstein for standing up for civil rights. Why do you think Einstein spoke up for justice?

Einstein felt a responsibility to help the less privileged and marginalized. Some of his friends in Germany became militaristic. He just didn’t understand how these otherwise smart people could get swept up in this kind of stuff.

When he got fired from his position in Germany and had to flee, he didn’t understand how people could be so vicious to people with whom they had been friends. When he came to America, he thought he was coming to a better place, and, of course, it was a much better place than Germany.

But when it came to the Civil Rights movement, blacks were not treated as well as whites. He saw he had a personal responsibility to stand up. Going back to his celebrity, he realized he had a voice, and if he said something on a topic, people would listen. 

As much as he hated celebrity and fame, he did like that it gave him a podium to talk about things that were important to him — Israel, helping Jews leave Germany and helping blacks in America.

What was it like to visit Nagasaki, Japan, more than 70 years after it was the site of a nuclear attack?

It was very eerie. Anyone who has been to a Holocaust museum has seen the shoes or the luggage of the people who died in the Holocaust. It’s a very visceral feeling, and you see the same thing at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

You see the shoes of children who were burned, belongings, bicycles that were burned. It was a place of destruction. Many Jews have seen something like that only in a Holocaust museum.

In that story, Americans caused that destruction. It makes you look at things from a different perspective.

What’s another surprising thing you found out researching this book?

Einstein snored.

But still, someone stealing his brain is, I think, the greatest heist of the 20th century. 

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