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Einstein's "Horrendously Strenuous" First U.S. Visit

The first thing the assembled media noticed about Albert Einstein was not his energetic tuft of hair, which was covered by a felt hat. Nor was it his formidable intellect, responsible for a groundbreaking theory of relativity that had captivated the world—at the time, Einstein spoke no English.

It was the violin he had brought with him from Holland, a violin that had occupied his time during a week-long voyage on the steamship Rotterdam. Einstein often played music to slow his frenetic brain processes and help him relax. As photographers snapped picture after picture, capturing the arrival of one of the world's greatest minds on U.S. soil, the scientist clutched his instrument like a life preserver. If he couldn’t play it, maybe he’d at least be calmed by how it felt in his hand.

After a half-hour, an annoyed Einstein had had enough. He waved off the press, leaving his English-speaking wife, Elsa, to receive their questions. He had only been in the States for a short time, but for a man who was uncomfortable with attention, crowds, and the persistence of the media, the next two months would bring him to a point of near exhaustion. If it had been up to him, he may never have come at all—but there were other, far more important reasons for visiting.

Einstein arrived in New York City on April 3, 1921, the same year he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. At 42, he was an unlikely celebrity, a man with a compact presence who had spent 15 years on a theory that no layperson understood; they just knew it was important.

The media members who sat with him—some German-speaking, others relying on interpreters—tried to force some kind of digestible explanation out of him. What, exactly, is the theory of relativity?

“Falling bodies are subjects independent of clauses,” he told a wire service reporter, “and light in diffusion is bent.” Then he reclined back, unwilling to waste any energy trying to explain further. Einstein was fond of saying only 12 scientists in the world understood it, and those 12 were enough to spread the gospel in the scientific community.

Elsa was of little help. “In its details it is too much for a woman to grasp,” she said.

It was, in effect, a dual language barrier, and reporters would very quickly move to Einstein’s thoughts on American culture. He marveled that women here dressed “like countesses,” even though they might be coat check girls. He condemned Prohibition and appeared thunderstruck at the notion of banning tobacco. He liked movies, but felt they were not yet artistically developed. He thought our bathrooms were marvelous. The narrative—the great genius bewildered by this industrial nation—came to dominate media coverage of Einstein’s visit.

Though it was said Einstein was more famous than Babe Ruth at the time, not everyone was willing to join the thousands that lined the streets as police escorted him to his room at the Commodore Hotel. One woman dismissed talk of the scientist’s achievements as “highbrow bunk.” Bruce Falconer, a city official, delayed Einstein being handed the key to the city because he was unfamiliar with his work and argued no one could prove his claims.

As Einstein traveled to appear at universities in Boston and Chicago, his impatience grew along with his notoriety. Reporters said trying to speak with him was like “trying to obtain the confidence of a bashful child.”   

The reason Einstein was willing to be put on public display had very little to do with his actual work and more to do with the celebrity that had come out of it. He did receive some compensation from universities like Princeton, but his actual ambition was to champion the cause of his travel companion: Chaim Weizmann.

Weizmann was chairman of the World Zionist Organization. Earlier in 1921, he had contacted Einstein and extended an invitation to travel to America. Weizmann sought to use Einstein’s fame to drum up both publicity and funds for a center of learning he wanted to build in Jerusalem.

Einstein felt an obligation to help. His own Germany was becoming hostile to the Jewish faith, and the men believed a university would help cement the history and heritage of the Jewish population. (Already, the scientist felt criticisms of his work were the product of anti-Semitism.) Weizmann extended invitations to as many prominent, wealthy potential investors as he could find, and Einstein was his passport to New York's upper echelon. Physicist Michael Pupin later wrote in a letter to Einstein, “your involvement in the social and political advancement of your ingenious and long-suffering people will serve as a model example for other men of science.”  

But not everyone felt Weizmann and Einstein's passion, and some declined the offer even to meet. The men were also faced with the resistance of Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard professor who worried that Einstein's requests of upwards of $15,000 for university lectures would be perceived as crass and hurt the Jewish cause as a whole. Einstein defended himself by writing that friends in Holland had “very strongly advised me to set such high demands.” (He did not receive his asking price.) 

The center, Hebrew University, would eventually be built four years later in Jerusalem, due in part to a number of Jewish physicians—Einstein numbered them at 6,000—who contributed to their cause. The scientist later wound up donating his pages of notes that comprised the theory of relativity to the school.

At the end of May, Einstein set sail for a stay in England. Departing close to Memorial Day, his exit wasn’t greeted with the same exhaustive coverage as his arrival. Days before his trip, he wrote to a friend that the two months spent in America were “horrendously strenuous” and that he was looking forward to settling in back home.  

The Washington Herald was among the last of the papers to grab a sound bite. Before the reporter could begin, a fatigued Einstein made a request.

“I prefer to talk about the weather—the—well, anything but relativity.”

Additional Sources:
“Einstein, Theory Founder, Bewildered by New York,” Oakland Tribune, April 4, 1921; “Einstein Here to Mystify U.S. With Relativity Theory,” The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 3, 1921; “Einstein on Irrelevancies,” The New York Times, May 1, 1921.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
The Funky History of George Washington's Fake Teeth
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo
Screenshot via Mount Vernon/Vimeo

George Washington may have the most famous teeth—or lack thereof—in American history. But counter to what you may have heard about the Founding Father's ill-fitting dentures, they weren't made of wood. In fact, he had several sets of dentures throughout his life, none of which were originally trees. And some of them are still around. The historic Mount Vernon estate holds the only complete set of dentures that has survived the centuries, and the museum features a video that walks through old George's dental history.

Likely due to genetics, poor diet, and dental disease, Washington began losing his original teeth when he was still a young man. By the time he became president in 1789, he only had one left in his mouth. The dentures he purchased to replace his teeth were the most scientifically advanced of the time, but in the late 18th century, that didn't mean much.

They didn't fit well, which caused him pain, and made it difficult to eat and talk. The dentures also changed the way Washington looked. They disfigured his face, causing his lips to noticeably stick out. But that doesn't mean Washington wasn't grateful for them. When he finally lost his last surviving tooth, he sent it to his dentist, John Greenwood, who had made him dentures of hippo ivory, gold, and brass that accommodated the remaining tooth while it still lived. (The lower denture of that particular pair is now held at the New York Academy of Medicine.)

A set of historic dentures
George Washington's Mount Vernon

These days, no one would want to wear dentures like the ones currently held at Mount Vernon (above). They're made of materials that would definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. The base that fit the fake teeth into the jaw was made of lead. The top teeth were sourced from horses or donkeys, and the bottom were from cows and—wait for it—people.

These teeth actually deteriorated themselves, revealing the wire that held them together. The dentures open and shut thanks to metal springs, but because they were controlled by springs, if he wanted to keep his mouth shut, Washington had to permanently clench his jaw. You can get a better idea of how the contraption worked in the video from Mount Vernon below.

Washington's Dentures from Mount Vernon on Vimeo.

There are plenty of lessons we can learn from the life of George Washington, but perhaps the most salient is this: You should definitely, definitely floss.

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