112 Mercer Street, Princeton, New Jersey

The home of Albert Einstein from 1935 to 1955

Was it even remotely what he had been expecting? People have such peculiar perceptions of America, and back then when the century was still young, and when the mythology of this city on a hill that we were manufacturing was beamed from Hollywood into the brains of Europe and the world, did they expect gold? Did they expect silver dollars in the streets, and a manservant in every doorway bearing an uncanny resemblance to William Powell? Did they expect endlessly rolling lawns and country club views? Or were they merely relieved to have escaped the anxiety and pressure of the Reich? Of the threats of obliteration? Of terror? And did this comfortable white house with its simple black shutters and doorway, only have to be what it was, a safe place? A home base as if the gathering storm of World War Two was some horribly awry game of tag, to which Einstein had some how managed to get home from, even as he saw others who had not.

Or did it even matter? Was this a man who lived so inside the endless complexity of his own brain that he was unaffected, unperturbed by the outside world? Burlington, Berlin, Bombay, it wouldn’t have mattered. No, I can’t believe that. Because it was here that he wrote to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb. Because it was from here that he argued with Bohr about the universe. Because it was from here that Brandeis wanted to name a university after him, and from here that Israel lobbied him to be their first president. No, he did not come here to hide. And yet, when he walked up these steps the first time, suitcases in Elsa’s hands, the dust of Europe on their shoulders, when he looked at that front porch, from which he knew he’d watch cars pass until his death, what did he think?

And you realize: you have no idea. For here was a man in his fifties who had revolutionized the world in his twenties. A man who, in the intervening years, the popular world had made a celebrity the likes of which we, even in our celebrity-obsessed world, can not even begin to imagine, but whom the scientific world in that same interval, had dismissed as a relic. As a performing elephant. Who looked upon him as a sort of Willy Loman, body hunched over from fatigue, best years long gone.

For what more could he say? What more had any scientist ever said? In the history of science, no one had ever had a second act. They were like great comets, and the most you could hope for was to watch them bask in their own dying embers.

You look at the house and you think it looks not unlike the man himself would probably look if he were a house. Unintimidating. Lacking in pretension. Transplanted. Yes, “transplanted” – the house was moved here from Alexander street in 1875, right before Einstein’s birth. But with it’s narrow porch and effortless windows (windows, it should be noted, that have blinds and, it would appear, shades, on the inside. Well, it is a private residence after all), you can almost imagine Andy and Barney sitting out on a dry summer evening, strumming lazily under the stars.

So why here? In this unaffected house on this Norman Rockwell street in this sleepy college town? Why not New York? Or Los Angeles? Or Washington? Some place more accustomed, more capable of providing the infrastructure for notoriety. More experienced at catering to the kind of world celebrity that he shared with only a handful of people. Why here?

Because here, there was quiet. Finally. Here at long last was the opportunity to experience what he had been searching for his whole life. To be left alone. Imagine that. That he had to come to America, the land of the frenetic twenty second luminary, the land of flash and noise and static, to find this peace and quiet. He had to come here, to be left alone with his brain. To a place where the distractions of life could be minimized. Where his fall from favor was actually a blessing. Where he could dive deeply day after day into the places only he and perhaps five people alive could go. With no worries of success, with no worries of survival. Because he was past those. He had published the theory of relativity – he had had his success. He had escaped the Nazis – he had had his survival. But here. Here there was just thinking, deeper and deeper, to the places no one knew existed, and that heretofore he had only had glimpses of. What a revelation that must have been for him! What an inexpressible blessing. No wonder he believed in God! No wonder he believed that God did not play dice with the universe! How else could he explain being here?

And as you stand on his curb, looking at the small lawn he looked at, the porch he relaxed upon, the trees that shaded him, you wonder if even he could have understood all that when he stood on this porch the first time? Did his genius go that far? To how a tree-lined street of colonial homes in a small American town was vital to unlocking the deepest mysteries of the universe?

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~ by martinbihl on September 22, 2008.

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