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10 Inventive Myths About Einstein, Debunked

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In his 76 years, Albert Einstein was many things. He was a romantic poet, an avid fisherman, a trained violinist, the inventor of one very fashionable blouse—and, of course, he was also the remarkable genius behind one of the pillars of modern physics, The Theory of General Relativity, which celebrates its 100 year anniversary this month. But sometimes the legend was bigger than the actual man. With the help of the recently released An Einstein Encyclopedia, we separate fact from fiction.

1. THE MYTH: HE WAS A BAD STUDENT.

Though the German-born prodigy’s parents were concerned when he didn’t start speaking until the age of 2, he would go on to use his words (and his numbers) very wisely in the classroom. In fact, he graduated high school near the top of his class. So why do many biographers claim he was such a lousy pupil? There was a confusing change in the grading system at Aargau Cantonal School. (He finished high school at the Swiss academy after leaving his Munich school at age 15 with the help of a doctor’s note citing a “nervous breakdown.”) In the first semester, a “1” was the best possible grade, but in the second semester, the scale flipped and “1” became the lowest mark. Einstein earned ones in mathematics and physics in the first semester and sixes in the second.

He also failed his university entrance exam to the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School—though historians note that Einstein took the exam two years earlier than most students, and was tested on Swiss history, something that the German secondary school he attended wouldn’t have prepped him for. Still, “his performance on the entrance examination for the engineering department was good enough that, had he stayed in Zurich rather than go to Aargau, the physics professor would have allowed him to audit his courses in spite of age,” according to An Einstein Encyclopedia.

2. THE MYTH: HE HAD ASPERGER'S SYNDROME.

The intellectual treasured his solitude and was often characterized as rude and insensitive, and there are many stories of him acting out in school as a child, which is likely what caused some to retrospectively diagnose him with the disorder. But Einstein didn't appear to have difficulty with social interactions or with communicating with others and lacked many of the other symptoms. He traveled through four continents from April 1921 to April 1925 and kept travel diaries detailing all of the people he met and connected with. He also formed close relationships with many physicians, none of whom ever suggested that their friend was on the spectrum in any of their communications. 

3. THE MYTH: HE CHOSE TO BE A VEGETARIAN.

Einstein was plagued with many digestive problems before the age of 50, including stomach ulcers, jaundice, inflammation of the gall bladder, and intestinal pains. Because of his ailments, his doctor advised him not to eat meat. Over time, people began to say he had chosen to become a vegetarian. Though Einstein admitted that he felt guilty on the rare occasions when he did dine on meat and largely agreed with the moral argument for vegetarianism, his dietary restrictions weren’t of his own choosing.

4. THE MYTH: HE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE ATOM BOMB.

Though his theories from 1905 impacted the development of the nuclear weapon, which would later be used in World War II, Einstein wasn't directly responsible for the atom bomb. He did sign a famous letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt imploring that the country fast track work on developing nuclear devices in order to stay ahead of Germany (Leó Szilárd actually wrote it), but the committed pacifist didn’t have the appropriate security clearances and wasn’t privy to the inner workings of the Manhattan Project. He wrote in a letter to the editor of Japanese magazine, Kaizō, saying, “I was well aware of the dreadful danger which would threaten mankind were the experiments to prove successful. Yet I felt compelled to take the step because it seemed probable that the Germans might be working on the same problem with every prospect of success.”

5. THE MYTH: HE WAS LEFT-HANDED.

There are plenty of perks to being a leftie, but the Nobel Prize winner didn’t experience any of them. Despite the fact that he is often named as a famous left-handed figure (likely due to the mistaken association between that hand and a sign of genius), he held both his pen and his violin bow in the right hand. In fact, there are several photos where he is pointing and writing on the chalkboard with his right hand, as shown above.

6. THE MYTH: HIS FIRST WIFE SHARED THE CREDIT FOR HIS MOST FAMOUS DISCOVERIES.

Einstein with second wife, Elsa, visiting Egypt in 1921.

There is no documented evidence that Einstein’s first wife Mileva Marić directly contributed to his impressive resume beyond listening to his ideas and proofreading his papers. Though Einstein wrote Marić in 1901, “How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on relative motion to a triumphant end!” he did not produce the famed theory until four years later. When he left Mileva for his second wife (and cousin) Elsa in 1919, there was no contributor credit to her name.

7. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONLY A THEORIST.

Einstein found enjoyment—and some success—in more than just theoretical physics. He was also an inventor. From 1902 to 1909, the scientist worked in the Swiss Patent Office. In fact, he was often used as an expert witness in patent trials at the time. It may have inspired a lifelong interest in patents. He would go on to apply for about 50 in at least seven countries. The devices included a self-adjusting camera, an electromagnetic sound apparatus, and his most well-known idea: a silent, energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly refrigerator

8. THE MYTH: HE AVOIDED POLITICS.

Einstein was one of the most outspoken scientists of his time. Though he never joined an official political party, he was offered the ceremonial position of presidency in Israel. (He turned down the job.) And he often took unpopular stands and spoke out on behalf of the oppressed. He championed the rights of African Americans, for example, and praised their contributions to American culture. In a speech he delivered at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University in 1946, the physicist called segregation "a disease of white people," vowing, "I do not intend be quiet about it."

9. THE MYTH: HE DIDN’T MAKE ANY SIGNIFICANT CONTRIBUTIONS TO SCIENCE AFTER 1925.

Einstein’s best-known biographer, Abraham Pais, noted that the scientist “might as well have gone fishing” rather than continue his physics research after 1925. It is true that Einstein had hit his career high by that point. However, he also significantly added to the research on general relativity, including the first paper on gravitational lensing and his paper on wormholes, up until the 1930s. And his legacy lived on—his assistants would eventually shape some of the most important research groups of the postwar era.

10. THE MYTH: HE WAS ONE OF ONLY 10 OR 12 WHO COULD UNDERSTAND THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY.

Tired of being questioned about this idea, Einstein told the Chicago Daily Tribune in May 1921, “It is absurd. Anyone who has had sufficient training in science can readily understand the theory. There is nothing amazing or mysterious about it. It is very simple to minds trained along that line, and there are many such in the United States.” Today, a number of experts have taken on the challenge of decoding the complex theory and succeeded.

All images courtesy of Getty.  

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Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 
4 Legendary Plant-Animal Hybrids
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Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

In the Middle Ages, travelers brought home tales from all over the globe of wondrous and fantastic plants and beasts—but many of these travelers were just relaying stories they’d heard instead of things they’d actually seen. These stories, in turn, were written about by educated men who’d never traveled. And they were illustrated by artists who only had hearsay to go by. It’s no wonder they were completely misunderstood.

1. WAQ WAQ TREE

Bodleian Libraries via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

According to legend, the Waq Waq Tree, which bears human or animal fruit, grows on an island in the Indian Ocean or China Sea. In some of these stories, the fruit begins as human heads that grow into entire bodies, while in others the fruit begins as human babies that mature. Either as the fruit grows, or when it falls, it cries “Waq waq!” There's a possibility that the Waq Waq tree might have been a reference to coconut trees, which has fruit that kind of looks like a human head. The tree began appearing in Islamic art in the 12th and 13th centuries.

2. JINMENJU

Toriyama Sekien via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Jinmenju is a tree similar to the Waq Waq, but the story originates from China and was passed to Japan. According to the legend, the tree produces fruit that has the face of a human child. These faces don’t speak, but they smile and laugh all the time. If they laugh too exuberantly, they fall to the ground. The fruit is both sweet and sour, and the seeds inside also resemble human faces.

3. BARNACLE TREE

The legend of the Barnacle Tree, or Goose Tree, involves two animals and a plant, and it was an attempt to explain several odd phenomena that were observed but misunderstood. In the Middle Ages, people saw black and white geese in Ireland and Scotland in the wintertime, but in the spring, the animals disappeared. No one saw them nest or reproduce, and yet there they were, every winter. (The animals, of course, had migrated and nested elsewhere, but people didn't know about that behavior at the time.) However, small barnacles were seen clinging to driftwood that had white shells and black stalks that looked like the goose—so people came to believe that a tree produced the barnacles as fruit, which grew into the geese. Those barnacles are now known as goose barnacles (Lepas anserifera), and the geese are known as barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis).

4. VEGETABLE LAMB

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was a legendary plant that produced an animal, native to Central Asia and Europe. Given the names Tartarica barometz (Tartar lamb) and Agnus Scythicus (Scythian lamb), the “vegetable lamb” was described as a plant between 2.5 and 3 feet tall that bore a pod at the end of a stem. The pod eventually opened to reveal a lamb inside. The lamb remained attached to the rest of the plant by its stem, but could eat the vegetation around the plant, as far as the stem reached. Once all that was eaten (or if the stem somehow broke), the lamb would die.

There’s a specimen of the vegetable lamb at the Garden Museum in London. The small picture looks as if it could be a lamb, or an animal’s paw with long claws, or a part of a plant. Once samples were relayed to naturalists in the 17th century, though, it became clear that the “lamb” was part of a plant, and not an animal. The plant was eventually identified as Cibotium barometz, an evergreen fern that produces a hairy cover.

For misunderstood animals from this period, see 20 Bizarre Beasts From Ancient Bestiaries.

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6 Shocking Stories From ‘Myths and Legends’ Host Jason Weiser 
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Week after week, most of iTunes’ most popular podcasts remain the same: Serial, This American Life, Fresh Air, Radiolab. And then there’s Myths and Legends.

Call it The Little Podcast That Could: Written, produced, and performed by literature and history buff Jason Weiser in Syracuse, N.Y., this indie show about classic folklore is quickly becoming, well, a thing of legend. 

“It’s like, there are these medium-defining podcasts, and then there’s my little one,” Weiser says of his show, which consistently lands in iTunes’ top 10 and has received a five-star rating. “Honestly, it’s really unbelievable to me that it’s heard by so many people.” 

Initially recorded in his car with a $40 microphone, Myths and Legends traces tales to their surprising origins. Once it started picking up speed, Weiser was able to get enough support through Patreon and memberships to afford better equipment and, thankfully, record indoors.

Weiser says he hasn’t scratched the surface of all the tales he wants to spotlight (“I haven’t even touched Robin Hood!”), and in April he’ll launch a second podcast devoted to Shakespearean stories. In the meantime, below are a few myths and legends Weiser finds particularly entertaining—and somewhat shocking: 

1. KOSCHEI THE DEATHLESS (EPISODES 5A AND 5B)

“He’s kind of like the original Voldemort,” Weiser says of this character from Russian folklore. “Parts are completely ridiculous and parts are really kind of tragic: He has his soul trapped inside an egg, inside a chicken, inside a rabbit, inside a chest buried under a tree on a magical island. He can live forever … but it’s a human story, because he’s extremely lonely. And he kidnaps princesses, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t hurt them; it’s just for company.”

2. THE PIG-FACED WOMEN (EPISODE 12)

“It sounds bad, but people actually thought in the 1600s through the 1800s that women in England, France, and the Netherlands were hiding in the upper echelons of society and were cursed with the heads of pigs—like, literally having the heads of pigs,” Weiser says. “It was this huge craze for years; people were stopping carriages of rich ladies and peeking in to see if they were hiding pig-faced ladies. At carnivals, people would get bears drunk and shave them and put them in dresses and be like, ‘Come see the pig-faced ladies!’ I’m really surprised by these stories, but I’m also surprised by how much of an impact some of them have had in society.” 

3. JAPANESE FAIRY TALES (EPISODES 11 AND 26)

Weiser’s show encompasses folklore from all over the world, and he’s particularly fond of the episodes he has devoted to Japanese tales. “They’re really well-told little stories that surprised me; they were funny but kind of scary, too,” he says. (For example, it’s safe to say few listeners have heard the ancient tale about the boy who liked to draw cats—but once they do, it’s hard to forget.)

4. Şüräle, AKA THE GUY WHO TICKLES PEOPLE TO DEATH (EPISODE 13A)

“He’s a strange, wooly man with long fingers,” Weiser says of this creature from Turkic folklore. “You’ll run into him in the forest and he’ll challenge you to a tickle fight. … [He’s] a great example of just how bizarre and interesting mythology can be.” 

5. MULAN (EPISODE 4)

Several episodes of Myths and Legends trace Disney-fied characters to their very different origins. “The whole movie is built around her not revealing herself, and the modern adaptations are so inspirational,” Weiser says. “But the original was actually a lot darker. One [adaptation in] a 16th century play is more chiding the men of the audience, like, ‘If a woman can do this … what’s your excuse?’ That was kind of depressing, because Mulan is essentially a really powerful and uplifting story. But it has been different things to different cultures.” 

6. SLEEPING BEAUTY (MEMBERS-ONLY EPISODE)

“I don’t know the Disney story that well, but I’m sure this isn’t in there,” Weiser says, warning me he’s about to get really grim. “In one of the early Sleeping Beauty stories, Prince Charming comes in, finds her asleep, and actually rapes her. She wakes up when she has babies.” He adds, “And the prince is actually married himself. His wife finds out and wants to have Sleeping Beauty burned at the stake," Weiser sighs. “It’s such a dark tale.” 

New episodes of Myths and Legends are released weekly. For more info, head to mythpodcast.com. To read more of Whitney Matheson’s podcast coverage, head to the archive.

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