Albert Einstein’s Pop Culture Afterlife

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John Wray

While he was researching his novel “The Lost Time Accidents,” the writer John Wray learned a lot about Albert Einstein. His novel is about an eastern European family in the early 1900s that believes that they have discovered the secret to time travel. And they see Einstein as their arch-enemy.

Kurt Andersen: In the novel they never mention Einstein by name. Instead, they call him "the patent clerk."

John Wray: Yeah, he's the name that must not be spoken.

Exactly. Was that a comic decision to keep him just over there?

Absolutely. I was fascinated by the idea of a character who had the same obsessive quality of fascination with scientific problems that great scientists like Einstein have but who just happen to be completely wrong. I saw a lot of comic potential in that.

In terms of how the public has understood Einstein for the past 100 years, it's not the scientist scribbling equations or the political idealist, it's the cute old guy with the wacky hair on posters.

Sticking his tongue out.

He was this charming guy. That was a real aspect of his personality.

It absolutely was part of who he was. He really was an extremely modest man. He had no interest in the trappings of fame or fortune. He truly had a remarkable sense of humor.

Einstein didn't live long enough to see "Back to the Future" and Christopher Lloyd playing Doc Brown. Before Albert Einstein, was that caricature of the scientist afoot or did it begin with him? 

Really, the only direct connection between the mad scientist in "Back to the Future" and Albert Einstein is the crazy shock of snow-white hair. We immediately think "Einstein." Einstein's scientific career evolved in parallel with the newsreel and radio and film, and he was very well suited to these forms of media. You couldn't possibly reduce his theories to a sound bite, but you could certainly reduce his persona to a tidy little caricature.