“Where is Einstein?” I asked my toddler grandson and he pointed to a book with the great scientist’s face on its cover.
Einstein is arguably the most famous scientist with a recognisable face. His bohemian clothing, dishevelled mane of grey hair gave him a wise and learned appearance according to Burton Feldman in his book112 Mercer Street.
According to the author Einstein was said to be very at home with American informality in Princeton.
He wore sweatshirts and baggy pants in public and in winter, a seaman’s woollen cap pulled over his ears. In his Berlin years he had to wear the professor’s obligatory wing collar and frock coat. He disliked the stifling dress code.
In his young days as a humble patent clerk in Berne he dressed well and his hair was well groomed. He looked alert and handsome. That was his prime.
His sloppy way of dressing and unkempt hair was his trademark in his twilight years. Some of his Princeton colleagues felt that he just wanted to be different.
In the bookEinstein’s Universe, Leopold Infeld, one of Einstein’s collaborators at Princeton was quoted saying “One of my colleagues in Princeton asked me: ‘If Einstein dislikes his fame and would like to increase his privacy, why does he wear his hair long, a funny leather jacket, no socks, no suspenders. No ties?’
“According to Einstein, the answer is simple. The idea is to restrict his needs and, by this restriction, increase his freedom. We are slaves of a million things.
“Einstein tried to reduce them to the bare minimum. Long hair minimised the need for the barber. Socks can be done without. One leather jacket solves the coat problem for many years.”
Einstein’s boss at Princeton — Robert Oppenheimer had this to say about him: “He was almost wholly without worldliness. There was always in him a powerful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.”
In his bookAlbert Einstein — A Short Biography, R.K. Murthi told the story of how Einstein got a subtle telling-off by a youngster for his sloppiness.
The story goes as follows: Once he was sitting at the verandah of his house in Princeton when he noticed a neighbour’s son wearing dust-coated shorts and shirt, and promised to give the boy a quarter if he could spruce up and return in clean clothes.
The boy agreed, ran off, returned a few minutes later and stretched out his arm for the promised reward.
Einstein checked and was satisfied with the boy’s clean clothing. So he gave the boy the promised tip, ruffled the boy’s hair tenderly, before asking, “What will you do with the money?”
The boy examined him and quipped, “I think I should offer it to you, once you change into some dress more dignified.”
His family had fun and a good laugh when he retold them the amusing story.
Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitledMusing from the Ivory Tower.