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'He belongs to the world' Add to ...

But in the eyes of Melvin Benarde, a retired doctor and long-time Princeton resident, something is missing. He would like to see a tangible tribute to its most famous resident -- physicist Albert Einstein.

Next week, after a 12-year struggle -- and a half-century since the scientist's death -- Dr. Benarde is going to get his wish in the form of a bronze bust.

"Einstein is synonymous with Princeton," he says. "It's a tremendous relationship here, it's very intimate."

Fleeing Germany just before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Einstein was offered a position at the newly created Institute for Advanced Study, whose campus is just south of the town centre, and settled into an elegant wooden house at 112 Mercer St. He would call Princeton home for the remaining 22 years of his life. "When he walked in town, people talked to him; he was very open and friendly with everybody," Dr. Benarde says.

Einstein was already a celebrity by the time he arrived in the United States. In 1905, with his theory of special relativity, he overturned Isaac Newton's picture of absolute space and time, showing that only the speed of light was a constant. He also discovered a link between matter and energy, embodied in his famous equation, E=mc{+2}.

(In fact, in that "miracle year," he wrote three other groundbreaking papers that also profoundly influenced the way we understand the physical world, including an essential contribution to quantum theory.)

Einstein's later work on general relativity described the force of gravity in a radical new way, as a "warping" of space itself.

No wonder that physicists around the world are in a celebratory mood, with the 100th anniversary of relativity just around the corner and 2005 officially designated as the World Year of Physics. Over the next few months, there will be no end of lecture series, conferences and documentaries examining Einstein's life and legacy.

But tangible memorials are scarce. The only Einstein museum is in Bern, Switzerland, where he famously worked in a government patent office while developing special relativity. In Zurich, Prague and Berlin -- Einstein moved frequently as his career advanced -- there is little to see beyond a handful of commemorative plaques. (The same goes for the city of his birth, Ulm, Germany, where he lived for only his first year.)

And in Princeton, there is almost nothing. His house is not open to the public; visitors to the Institute for Advanced Study can stroll its ample grounds, but only a road marked Einstein Drive recalls the great scientist's presence.

Thanks to Dr. Benarde's efforts, however, that is about to change. In 1993, he established the Einstein Fund of Princeton to raise money and awareness, and eventually convinced town officials -- as well as renowned American sculptor Robert Berks -- that the time was right for a true memorial.

On Monday, the 50th anniversary of Einstein's death, a large bust of the scientist will be unveiled in front of the town hall. (And in a humorous tribute to his most famous formula, the little quadrangle that surrounds it will be called EMC Square.)

"It's really a grand affair," Dr. Benarde says. "It's a splendid statue. It's going to be a marvellous addition to the town."

Part of the difficulty has been a perception that Einstein, known for his humility, would not have wanted such a tribute. It is often said, for example, that he explicitly forbade turning his house into any kind of memorial. (He also made sure to have his body cremated and the ashes scattered, so that there would be no tomb.)

But the story is more complex than that -- partly because of confusion surrounding Einstein's true wishes and partly because so much time has passed.

Maureen Smyth, assistant director of the Historical Society of Princeton, says that, in fact, Einstein's will "has nothing in it -- contrary to stories I was told when I first came to Princeton -- that specifically prohibits the use of his home, any kind of public memorial, or so on."

Even so, Ms. Smyth says, Einstein was certainly a man who valued his privacy; indeed, one of the things that attracted him to Princeton was the lure of solitude, something he could scarcely achieve in Berlin, his previous home. "Einstein most definitely, in private and in public, discussed his frustrations with media, and even the demands on his time from ordinary people. . . . So I think he struggled with that kind of intrusion that happens regularly for any public figure."

But Ms. Smyth points out -- and many Einstein admirers agree -- that the passing of five decades offers a new perspective. As a man, he valued his privacy, but he is now also a historical figure, and, as she puts it, "history belongs to everyone."

"I think for so long, Princetonians had to be protective over Einstein and his privacy," Ms. Smyth says. "It was not uncommon for people to just go up to his front door, and knock on it, and demand an audience, or stop him on the street as he was walking home. And I think this sort of bothered people because they knew it bothered him -- this kind of invasion of privacy. . . . And I think this need to protect his privacy carried over even after death."

But now the tide is beginning to turn, she says. "People are realizing that history has its own weight, and its own force, and that people will be coming to Princeton from all over the planet to understand Einstein better."

Gillett Griffin, one of the few remaining Princetonians who actually remembers Einstein, agrees. A retired art curator and librarian, Mr. Griffin met Einstein through an older colleague named Johanna Fantova, whom Einstein had known in Germany (she may have been his last intimate companion). Through Ms. Fantova, Mr. Griffin found himself in Einstein's inner circle of friends.

As Mr. Griffin sits in his living room five decades later -- surrounded by dozens of ancient sculptures and artifacts, the results of a lifetime of collecting -- he can still recall each encounter with Einstein as if it were yesterday. On one occasion, Einstein demonstrated a wind-up toy bird; it climbed the hallway mirror with suction-cup feet until it reaching the top, when it fell into his outstretched hands.

But most of all, Mr. Griffin remembers Einstein's warmth and compassion. And he understands why people around the world would want to pay tribute to such an iconic figure.

"I feel very deeply about this," he says. "An awful lot of people want to come and breathe the air that Einstein breathed, and just walk the ground that Einstein walked. And they come here to look for something. And at the moment there's almost nothing."

Like Dr. Benarde and Ms. Smyth, Mr. Griffin believes that this year's anniversaries are an appropriate occasion to give Princeton a dignified memorial to the man Time magazine called the Person of the Century.

"He belongs to the world," he says. "And I think Princeton was a part of Einstein, and Einstein was a part of Princeton. And I think there's got to be a place where people can come, just to feel that they've touched some part of what Einstein was."

Science journalist Dan Falk has spent much of the past year investigating Albert Einstein's world, and is working on a number of radio documentaries on Einstein's life and work.

 

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