Celebrating Einstein's Genius

The Dalai Lama, right, places a scarf around the neck of actress Sandra Oh following his address to an audience of over 15,000 people in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009. Oh was a host for the event.

New York's American Museum of Natural History added a new exhibit recently.

No, it wasn't another dinosaur. It was an Albert Einstein exhibit, reports CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver.

"I think Albert Einstein is not just the most important scientist in history, but potentially the most important human being in history," says Michael Shara, an astrophysicist and curator of the exhibit, called simply "Einstein."

It is the most extensive exhibit of the master's memorabilia ever displayed in this country. It contains original manuscripts, hand-written letters, photographs and even his compass and geometry book.

The very name Einstein seems to connote genius, and he has become the definition of genius in some circles.

Einstein brought together this fantastic view of the world where he put aside all of the prejudices, all of the false ideas we had about space, about time, about mass, about energy," says Shara. "He put together this extraordinary, complex and beautiful picture of the world that's really much simpler in many ways than what had existed before. And he gave this to us as a gift."

To help you think like an Einstein, the exhibit has lots of videos and interactive exhibits, such as one in which you get sucked into a black hole.

Dr. Thomas Bucky was one of many who toured the exhibit. But he isn't just any tourist. He first met Albert Einstein when he was 11 years old. As a close family friend, he has many stories of the man he considers a second father.

"I got my first car, new car, and it was a 1931 Model A Ford Roadster," Dr. Bucky recalls. "I was going to take Einstein out for a ride, and he said, 'Fine,' and immediately jumped into the rumble seat."

Dr. Bucky says Einstein had a good sense of humor and many things would make him laugh. He even found an etiquette book by Emily Post to be hilarious.

Along with humor and genius, his white electric-wired hair helped turn him into a cultural icon. His image has been seen in movies and commercials. Time Magazine even dubbed him "Person of the Century."

But just who is Albert Einstein? And how could he see what no else could?

He was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, His father, Hermann, was a merchant. His mother, Pauline, was a talented pianist. One myth about the young Einstein was that he was a bad student.

"This myth that Einstein was a mediocre student is definitely not true," says Shara. "He was highly inquisitive; asked questions all the time. And we have his report card. You see that he was an excellent student — straight A's, of course, in physics and trigonometry and geometry.

He attended the Zurich Polytechnic, one of the top science universities in Europe. But along with brilliance, he had attitude.

But even so, he had a struggle to find a job. In order to practice in the academic world, he needed letters of recommendations from his professors. Because he didn't have a rapport with them, it wasn't easy for him to get the letters.

"There was this kid, this cocky, arrogant kid who had picked up all this physics by himself, and not by listening to these demi-god professors," describes Shara of Einstein. "He just went off and did it by himself. It took him quite a while and he had to struggle to get a job."

He finally landed a job as a clerk for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern. It was there, Michael Shara says, that the 26-year-old Einstein made history.

"In the evenings, in a sense, he would become a mental superman. That's when he would take off his Clark Kent clothing," says Shara. "He would sit down and he would dream or imagine or think about the fundamental nature of light and matter and energy and time. He spent years pondering this problem. And then in 1905, everything gelled."

It was Einstein's "miracle year" – his annus mirabilis. He wrote a series of four papers that changed the world completely. He determined the existence and size of molecules, explained light as both particles and waves and created the special theory of relativity, part of which linked energy and matter in his most famous equation, E=mc².

But, Einstein was no genius in matters of the heart. He married twice, and he was a frequently unfaithful husband. His first wife was Mileva Maric, a fellow physicist. They married in 1903 and had two sons, Hans Albert and Eduard.

"There's one beautiful love letter that he writes to Mileva near the beginning of their relationship," says Shara. "He starts off the love letter to Mileva by saying, 'My dear Kitten,' which is a nice way to get the heart going. And then he says, 'I just read this wonderful paper by Leonard on the generation of cathode rays by ultraviolet light. She may have found the part about the cathode ray just as sexy as the 'My dear Kitten.' But then again, we don't know."

Albert divorced Mileva in 1919 to marry his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal. In that same year, an expedition led by British astronomer Arthur Eddington confirmed one of his theories during a solar eclipse: that the sun's gravity deflects light from stars.

And suddenly everyone was talking about Einstein. He became the equivalent of Tiger Woods, Madonna and George Bush rolled into one, according to Shara. He says The Times of London and The New York Times carried stories that stars were not where they were previously thought because of Einstein.

After winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, he made his way to the United States. As the Nazis came to power in his native Germany, Einstein, who was Jewish, took up residence in Princeton, working at the Institute for Advanced Study.

"Einstein was an avowed pacifist, but in this one instance, in the instance of Nazi Germany, he put his pacifistic principles aside and in 1939, Aug. 2, 1939, just before the Nazis invade Poland, he wrote one of the most important letters in history to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that the Nazis had the capability to develop a new and powerful bomb based on the element uranium," says Shara.

It was this letter that led to the creation of the Manhattan Project and in 1945, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And Thomas Bucky — staying with the Einsteins — was hardly a hundred feet away as the letter was written. He just didn't know it until the bomb was dropped.

"Of course, he was horrified about the future of what this could bring," says Bucky. "He said in an interview that had he known that the Nazis would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, he would have done nothing. He would not have signed the letter."

In later years, Einstein became a political rabble-rouser.

"He strongly supported socialism," says Shara. "He was also someone who was calling for a world government, not a popular call in the United States in the early 1950s when there was a great fear of communism."

His politics led to surveillance by the FBI. He had a 1,800-page file on him by the time he died.

A political radical who was also a passionate humanitarian, Einstein campaigned against anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and segregation. And although he was not a religious man, he was a dedicated Zionist. In 1952, he was offered the presidency of Israel in a letter from Abba Eban, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Einstein declined.

"When he did become ill at the end and he was hospitalized, surgeons suggested that he undergo emergency surgery and he said, 'No, I've done enough. I've been here. I've made my contribution. I want to go elegantly and now is the time,'" says Shara.

Albert Einstein died on April 18,1955, at the age of 76 – a genius, a celebrity, an activist, a humanitarian, but, above all, a scientist driven to better understand our world. He once said, "Look deep, deep into nature and then you will understand everything better."

Thanks to him, we have.