Albert Einstein visited the U.S. for the first time in April 1921.
On a two-month tour, ostensibly to raise money for the proposed Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Einstein met President Warren Harding and delivered a series of soldout lectures about his theory of relativity. Harding admitted that he didn’t understand Einstein’s theory at all, and he wasn’t the only one. “I sat in the balcony,” one Einstein lecture attendee told a reporter, “but he talked right over my head anyway.”
While in America, Einstein gave an interview with Don Arnald for the New York Times, in which zero of the questions were about science. Among Einstein’s notable insights and observations about life and culture:
On movies, he though they were mostly bad at the time but predicted they would continually improve. (A prediction that held true up through the ’90s.)
“And the movies? I am enthusiastic about them — I mean for the presentation of living moving things. They will develop more and more. In general, the pictures shown now are not so artistic, but they will get better, very much better, all the time… I think, all in all, the movies are only in their infancy. They are very beautiful, but they will get better, until the best plays can be shown.”
On New York City, which he deemed the best city on earth:
“He is asking what I think of New York. I tell him glorious! I tell him I see here the greatest city in the world, like Paris, like London, only better! I tell him here all people of all nationalities are melted together — and are happy. I tell him the stranger comes here and is full of joy because he goes to his people at once and feels at home.”
On Prohibition, which he argued had its benefits… but drew the line at banning tobacco, which was his personal vice of choice.
“I cannot say alcohol is as bad as people think it is. It may not be so good for men to spend all their wages on drinking. But it is more an economic question than a question of health. I think you will find it best for the economic welfare of the people in the end… If I do not wish to smoke, I say it is excellent to take my tobacco away. But I do wish to smoke, so I say I do not like you to do that.”
Hebrew University would open four years later in 1925, although Einstein’s own tour raised only $750,000 of a hoped-for $4 million towards the project.
This was hardly the last time he would visit the U.S. To escape persecution, he fled Germany in January 1932, the month before Hitler rose to power. Because of his Judaism and doubly because of his public criticisms of Hitler and Nazism, Einstein likely would have been killed had he remained in Europe. Instead, he spent the remaining 23 years of his life peacefully in the U.S.
Einstein on Irrelevancies
Published: Sunday, May 1, 1921