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When Einstein was left as sick as a parrot
(The Guardian)
Updated: 2004-04-26 11:28

An assistant's newly discovered diary casts fresh light on the final years of one of the 20th century's greatest scientists.

Einstein (left) and Fantova pose a photo on a boat [file photo]
She had, perhaps, one of the toughest jobs in science. Johanna Fantova was faced with the task of untangling a web of matter and space and of imposing order on a knot of mass, energy and length which enthralled scientists for decades. Her job was to cut Albert Einstein's hair.

The Czech map curator, 22 years younger than Einstein, shared the last years of his life with the scientist. They would sail together, speak frequently on the telephone and discuss the many visitors the ailing Einstein received at his home in New Jersey.

The relationship is revealed in a 62-page diary written by Fantova and discovered among her papers in February. Written in German it covers the last year and a half of Einstein's life from October 1953 to April 1955.

In her introduction, Fantova says she intended to "cast some additional light on our understanding of Einstein, not the great man who became a legend during his own lifetime, not on Einstein the renowned scientist, but on Einstein, the humanitarian".

Without her candour it is unlikely that we would have known about Bibo the parrot. Einstein received the parrot as a birthday present from a medical institute. When he decided it was depressed he would try to cheer it up by telling it bad jokes. The parrot recovered but rewarded the scientist by developing an infection and passing it on to him.

Fantova also reveals that far from being isolated in abstract introspection, Einstein was interested in current affairs. He was critical of the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson and defended the nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the US effort to build the atomic bomb, against attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

"Oppenheimer is not a gypsy like me," Einstein told Fantova. "I was born with the skin of an elephant; there is no one who can hurt me."

"This political persecution of his associate was a source of bitter disillusionment," Fantova wrote, of the effect on Einstein of the persecution of Oppenheimer by the house un-American activities committee, led by McCarthy.

"He expressed himself very decisively about many developments in world politics, felt partially responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, and this responsibility oppressed him greatly."

Einstein was more succinct, labelling himself a "revolutionary" and declaring "I am still a fire-spewing Vesuvius".

He would often feign illness to avoid the large numbers of visitors who arrived at his home in Princeton. But he could do nothing to get away from the well-wishers and letter-writers.

"All the maniacs in the world write to me," he told Fantova, although he always replied courteously.

Thus the correspondent eager to convert him to Christianity was politely rebuffed, while another autograph hunter received her wish.

"A woman also wrote, asking for seven autographs to leave to her children because she has nothing else to leave them," Fantova wrote on October 15 1953. "He will send them to her even though he doesn't believe her story."

Much of the diary is taken up with Einstein's complaints as he struggles with old age. But it also includes his lighter side: several poems full of bad jokes and even worse puns are included. One, written to cheer up Fantova when the two were apart, includes the lines:

"Exhausted from a silence long This is to show you clear how strong The thoughts of you will always sit Up in my brain's little attic."

Another entry is more sombre. On April 10 1955, eight days before his death, Einstein spent the entire day attempting to compose a radio message for the people of Israel. He failed.

"He claims he is totally stupid," writes Fantova, "that he has always thought so, and that only once in a while was he able to accomplish something."

He was also concerned about his reputation in the scientific world, where by the time of his death attention had moved away from his theory of relativity.

"The physicists say that I am a mathematician, and the mathematicians say that I am a physicist," he told Fantova. "I am a completely isolated man and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me."

Fantova and Einstein met in Germany in 1929. Her husband's parents organised a well-known Prague salon, the Fanta Salon, which included Einstein and Franz Kafka among its guests.

Einstein travelled to America as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1933. Fantova reached Princeton in 1939, where Einstein employed her to organise his personal library. He, together with the later FBI director J Edgar Hoover, provided a character reference for her application for US citizenship. Fantova died in 1981 at the age of 80.

Although she tried to publish the diary before she died, she did not succeed in placing it with an agent and it stayed in her personal files. It came to light this year when scholars at Princeton started researching a project in historic couples associated with the university.

Fantova writes in her introduction that she did not originally intend to keep a journal of her time with Einstein. "In the last years of his life, however," she wrote, "I was convinced that these monologues were of great interest as historical documents, since they illuminate the man and his era."

At the end of his life, she recounts, he was still able to find an outlet for his energy and his analytical mind: sailing.

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