Einstein’s Hair – A Social Innovation?
No – more likely a social statement according to the most recent biography about Albert Einestein!
Most of us apparently remember Albert for his hair – or at least how eccentric he looked. And then we leave it at that. Certainly we are taught about Albert’ science – not his hair – during our school years. And we leave it at that – just another academic, clever type person. Yawn.
But apparently there was a little more going on with Albert’s hair.
So what did Einstein’s hair signify you may ask? According to this biography it was a political statement – Albert refused to conform to social standards of personal appearance. He was unapologetic in his individuality and unashamed of being different.
Didn’t know that about Albert?
Well here is more that perhaps we were not taught about Albert. Here is what we learn from Steven Gimbel’s Einstein: His Space and Times:
Einstein’s science made him a worldwide celebrity, a status others might have enjoyed, but which Einstein despised. He was no shrinking violet, yet he detested the shallowness and meaningless absurdity that came with his universal adoration. But he realised that it could be handy.
He was given a cultural megaphone and he decided that its best use was to amplify the concerns of those whose voices were least heard. Whether it was his own Jewish brethren suffering the insults of antisemitism, African-Americans suffering systematic racism, the poor kept down by structural barriers to advancement, or political dissidents in the Soviet Union who were being repressed, Einstein was unabashedly vocal in trying to change the institutions that led to inequality and injustice. His standing provided him with a unique place to speak for those who were silenced and he made great use of it in the name of universal human dignity.
Einstein never lacked confidence. Strengthened by his convictions, he was impervious to the power of those with superior social or professional standing, and resolute in his willingness to state his beliefs publicly. As social psychologists have shown, humans are greatly influenced by the opinions of those around us, especially those who occupy positions of authority. We can shy away from reasonable and ethical beliefs, if we sense that we are in the minority for holding those views.
But Einstein stands as an example of intellectual commitment. His revolutionary physical theories and his advocacy for peace at times of war and for better treatment of those in need were often unpopular. Einstein was investigated by the FBI for his views, and he received death threats from Nazi sympathisers. He was threatened with the loss of his position at the Institute for Advanced Study for his vocal support for his beliefs and causes. Yet he steadfastly refused to give in to fashion, expedience or groupthink. It is a cliché to say someone has the “courage of his convictions”, but Einstein is a figure of great courage in publicly expounding views he thought correct and morally necessary when such positions were dangerously unpopular.
Einstein, with his wild hair, signalled that human advancement comes not from the conformity the authorities demand, but from difference – and that all of us at various times in our lives feel a sense of alienation. Einstein gives us pride in ourselves as individuals who can make a difference; we can revel in free thought, but there is no need in doing so to reject our shared humanity.
Perhaps Albert was a social innovation – well before the term became fashionable – unlike his hair.