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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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The Royal Mint
Loch Ness Monster Spotted on British Coin Series
The Royal Mint
The Royal Mint

The latest British icon to be immortalized on currency isn’t human (or real, for that matter). As Atlas Obscura reports, the Loch Ness Monster is the face of a new 10-pence piece from the British Royal Mint.

The nickel-plated steel coin depicts Nessie swimming in her natural habitat, with her tail curled around the letter L. The cryptid (a creature that hasn’t been confirmed to exist by science) has been described as everything from a prehistoric marine reptile to a giant salamander, but the version on the coin shows a serpentine creature with a humped back.

The Nessie coin is one of 26 10-pence pieces in the new Quintessentially British A to Z series. Each coin represents a different letter of the alphabet and a corresponding piece of British culture. Along with L for Loch Ness, there’s B for Bond … James Bond, F for Fish and Chips, S for Stonehenge, and Q for Queuing. Britons are encouraged to take part in the “Great British Coin Hunt” by looking for the coins in their change and collecting all 26.

For coin collectors more interested in currency adorned with non-existent beasts than British treasures, there are many options. In 2011, the Canadian Mint produced a Bigfoot coin and a series of 25-cent coins commemorating legendary lake dragons and aquatic panthers. Though the pieces were limited-edition, they’re still easier to track down than an actual cryptid.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
When Edgar Allan Poe Pranked New York City—And Inspired Jules Verne
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Balloon/Poe, iStock

On April 13, 1844, a special extra of the New York Sun announced: “ASTOUNDING NEWS! … THE ATLANTIC CROSSED IN THREE DAYS! SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF MR. MONCK MASON’S FLYING MACHINE!!!” According to the article, a balloon heading from England toward Paris had been blown off-course and landed safely near Charleston, South Carolina. The “report” was submitted by a journalist who was also a well-known short-story writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

There was just one problem. He had made the whole thing up.

“The Balloon Hoax,” as it later became known, was Poe’s idea of a calling card. He had just moved to Manhattan, looking for work as a journalist. What better way to announce you’ve arrived than to prank an entire city?

The possibility of balloon travel had ignited the popular imagination since the 1780s, when the Montgolfier brothers built the first balloon to carry a man into the air. By the 1830s, balloonists had successfully crossed the British Channel, and they had begun talking about attempts to cross the Atlantic in earnest.

Newspapers were often full of the exploits of daring aeronauts, and the interest in ballooning apparently led to some fictional takes on the pursuit. Poe’s story in The Sun wasn’t the first: In 1835, Richard Adams Locke published a widely credited account of a balloon reaching the moon. The success infuriated Poe, who had just two months earlier published a story about a man returning from the moon in a balloon, “Hans Pfaall—A Tale.” Poe was certain Locke had plagiarized him, but Locke received all the glory for his “Moon Hoax.” (Ironically, Poe’s own hoax included long sections from the aeronaut Thomas Monck Mason’s 1836 account of his balloon voyage from England to Germany.) Poe decided he would do a little self-promotion while outdoing his old enemy: He submitted the hoax to the same paper that had published Locke’s. The paper published the account with glee, completely unaware that it was fake.

According to Poe's report, a balloon called the Victoria held eight people and made the crossing in 75 hours. At the time, it took two weeks to cross the Atlantic by boat, so the potential for a voyage in which “the broad Atlantic becomes a mere lake,” as one of the passengers supposedly remarked, created quite a stir. Poe later claimed that when the Sun first announced the special Extra with details of the fantastic voyage, “the whole square surrounding the Sun building was literally besieged … I never witnessed more intense excitement to get possession of a newspaper. As soon as copies made their way into the streets, they were bought up, at almost any price, from the newsboys.”

Poe included an abundance of scientific detail to give the article an air of authority, from precise measurements of key components, down to the screws and steel wires, to the combined weight of the fictional passengers (1200 pounds). His main characters were also based on real people: Poe named the pilot after Monck Mason, the famed aeronaut whose accounts he had liberally borrowed from.

The report was picked up in the next day's New York Sunday Times (no connection to The New York Times, which had yet to be founded) and Baltimore Sun. Other papers were less convinced of the report's veracity, and seemed to realize that further news should have come up from Charleston. (One contemporary account suggests that Poe himself revealed the hoax by drunkenly boasting about it in front of the crowd at the newspaper’s headquarters.)

Two days after the hoax first appeared, the New York Sun published a retraction. "The mails from the South last Saturday night not having brought a confirmation of the arrival of the Balloon from England ... we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous," the paper said. However, they added, "We by no means think such a project impossible." Astoundingly, balloonists would not truly accomplish a trans-Atlantic flight until 1978.

Poe believed his little trick would demonstrate his mastery of scientific description and artful writing. He was so assured of his skill, he didn’t seem to realize that publishing known misinformation would hurt his chances of finding work as a journalist—which is exactly what happened.

But the hoax did inspire someone else: Jules Verne later read it and began working on the adventure that would first bring him fame, Five Weeks in a Balloon, published in 1863. That tale was an immediate success, earning him the financial independence that would allow him to go on to write blockbusters such as A Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. Whether Poe would have appreciated Verne’s achievements, so heavily influenced by his own work, is another matter.

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