Albert Einstein Image Credit: AFP

Was Albert Einstein racist? In pondering the disobliging remarks he made about Chinese and Japanese people in the private diaries he kept about his travels to east Asia in 1922-23, it’s not a particularly helpful question.

On the one hand, there’s the view that even this famously humane and broad-minded scientist was inevitably a man of his time. Accordingly, we can’t expect him, despite his visceral dislike of Nazism, to rise above a prevailing culture in which the open expression of prejudice was routine. We might look on it now with dismay, but to label it racism is to indulge a presentism that achieves nothing except making us feel superior. Besides, says the editor of the diaries, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, here we’re seeing the physicist and inventor of the theories of relativity “off guard”, writing things never meant for publication.

On the other hand, it’s rightly said that not everyone in Einstein’s time would have called the Chinese people “filthy and obtuse” or voiced fears that they would “supplant all other races”. Not everyone in the 1920s still adhered to the crude, pseudo-Darwinian ranking of races that led Einstein to suspect the Japanese might be “naturally” intellectually inferior.

Since both of these points of view are true, they don’t help us much to deal with this tarnish on Einstein’s humanitarian image. Perhaps it is better to ask where that image comes from.

We should first recognise that Einstein barely saw China at all: he only stopped briefly in Shanghai and Hong Kong. And his diaries are a mixture of appreciation — “One has to love and admire this country”, he said of Japan — along with bewilderment and stock stereotypes. It’s the familiar response of a European alienated by cultural, linguistic and emotional difference. That he buys into the common belief of his times in a “national character” is neither surprising nor especially deplorable — but from there it’s only a small step to accepting a hierarchy of races. Einstein clearly did so, though Rosenkranz doubts it amounted to anything like a full-blown and coherent racist ideology.

All the same, such views seem rightly repugnant by today’s standards, and it’s a shame that Einstein — a progressive, tolerant internationalist — wasn’t able to transcend them. But it’s curious that this should bother us so much.

It’s not as if Einstein was previously deemed a paragon. It’s no secret that his treatment of his first wife, Mileva Mari, bordered on the monstrous after their love soured (although I don’t mean, as some have argued, that he stole her ideas). The list of conditions Einstein drew up in 1914 if they were to continue to live together is comically appalling: she was in effect to be his maid and housekeeper but “neither to expect intimacy from me nor to reproach me in any way” and to “desist immediately from addressing me if I request it”. There’s no reason to read this as an expression of generalised misogyny, but neither can we pretend it doesn’t reflect very badly on Einstein’s respect for women.

There are striking parallels with the only two other 20th-century physicists to have acquired a cultural cachet comparable to Einstein’s: Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. All three are seen as distinctive, characterful and preternaturally smart men with an endearing playfulness and a readiness to not take themselves too seriously. Yet Feynman’s reputation has undergone some recent reappraisal on the centenary of his birth with a belated recognition of the shockingly demeaning things he says about women in his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! Some have unconvincingly tried to brush these off as the product of their times, but it seems more likely they’re a product of the macho persona Feynman liked to cultivate.

Hawking, meanwhile, might just about get away with being labelled “unreconstructed”, to a degree that even his peers had largely abandoned, when he said that women “are a complete mystery”, and in his relish at hanging out at the late Peter Stringfellow ‘s “gentlemen’s club”. But such examples do little to help physics’ rather dismal gender imbalance.

Jenny Rohn has suggested that if we’re disappointed to find such behaviour in scientists, it reflects an unrealistic expectation that they will be as pristine as their theories. She is right — but I think there’s more at play here.

For a profession that alleges so strenuously that it’s the ideas, not the people, that count, science is oddly determined to create heroes (and the occasional heroine) and celebrate them in the names of institutes and awards. This practice forces science into a constant, awkward dance with its past as times and mores change. Even the apparently uncontroversial 1936 physics Nobel laureate Peter Debye was at the centre of a row a decade ago when he was accused of having colluded with the Nazis during his pre-war career in Germany, and even of being anti-semitic. Those accusations were extreme and unfair, but it is precisely because the issues are so grey in Debye’s case that the practice of naming the likes of the Debye Institute in Utrecht seems an unwise hostage to fortune.

Even when great scientists are acknowledged to have gone too far, they’re typically indulged, called “colourful” and “outspoken” or remade in the rather romantic image of the flawed genius, and excused by their eminence. When James Watson’s speaking engagement at the Science Museum in London was cancelled in 2007 after he made racist remarks, Richard Dawkins protested at “the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant ‘thought police’, of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time”.

There’s a reluctance to accept that great ideas can come from horrible people — like the rabidly Nazi-supporting and Nobel-winning physicists Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark. When they both launched virulently anti-semitic attacks on Einstein and his “Jewish physics” in the 1920s, he weathered it with great fortitude, patience and even humour. But that doesn’t make him a saint.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Philip Ball is a science writer.