Einstein and the Beatles
In hindsight, the Beatles were as Nobel worthy as Bob Dylan or Albert Einstein.
They’re always quoted. Their words mutate, not into gold, like a surreal version of the Midas touch, but into printer’s ink. They inspire intense admiration. They stand on tall pedestals. They display outrageous behavior. Boldness. Notoriety. Irreverence. Blasphemy. Albert Einstein, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan inhabit public universes linked by Google.
Google “the Beatles” and you get 81.4 million results, “Albert Einstein” yields 131 million results, and “Bob Dylan” 52.9 million. This is “Google fame” (which didn’t exist in the heyday of the Beatles), not Nobel selection committee voters. Would the committee have attached appropriate importance to the apparently infinite I.Q. of Google fame?
A triple coincidence — of their work, their personalities, and an avid press — produced a perfect storm of publicity and an avalanche of recognition for Einstein, Dylan, and the Beatles. Today we would call them rock stars, defined as those special individuals who inspire intense admiration. Original, thoughtful, creative rebels, they rejected what came before them. “To punish me for my contempt for authority,” Einstein said, “fate made me an authority myself.”
The Beatles ignited a firestorm of negative publicity in 1966 when John Lennon asserted, “I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity” and “We’re more popular than Jesus.” (Not true, by the way: “Jesus” gets 10 times more hits on Google than “The Beatles.”)
In 1919, a journalist asked Einstein what he would do if observations failed to match his theory, and he famously replied, “Then I would feel sorry for the good Lord. The theory is correct.” Dylan said, “I’m the spokesman for my generation.” Is that as irreverent, confident, and arrogant as the blasphemous Beatles?
Media coverage of both Einstein’s 1921 tour of the United States and the Beatles’ many visits here in the 1960s bear striking resemblances. The Beatles, with sales of more than 800 million albums worldwide, are the best-selling band in history, in the United Kingdom and in the U.S., becoming, as the music critic Jonathan Gould has said, “a catalyst for an explosion of mass enthusiasm for album-formatted rock that would revolutionize both the aesthetics and the economics of the record business” and the sensibilities of generations of fans.
In 2007, Gould rhapsodized: “The overwhelming consensus is that the Beatles had created a popular masterpiece: a rich, sustained, and overflowing work of collaborative genius whose bold ambition and startling originality dramatically enlarged the possibilities and raised the expectations of what the experience of listening to popular music on record could be.” (Emphasis added in both instances.)
The italics apply equally to Einstein’s physics, and to Dylan’s creative lyrical music.
In his 2006 book “Albert Meets America,” Jozsef Illy says that journalists were bewitched, charmed — even awed — when reporting on “Einstein’s straightforward simplicity, kindliness, patience, genuine modesty, and naive humor,” which “almost made one lose sight of the transcendent mental power.” He quotes reporters who noted the “spell of [his] wizardry,” the necromancy of . . . strange theories . . . that catches the gaping crowd,” the “beauty and terror of this . . . deeper music of the spheres.”
Again, italics anticipate the similar celebrity worship, reverential attitudes, and rock-star status of Bob Dylan, and of the Beatles during their visits to America.
In 1921, the press began admiring Einstein’s luminous genius. His enigmatic notion of curved space, published in 1915, had been validated in 1919. Sir Arthur Eddington, a highly regarded astronomer, had determined from astronomical observations during a solar eclipse that light from a distant star was bent by the gravitational field of our sun. The New York Times lead headline — “Lights All Askew in the Heavens” — and a heartfelt tsunami of praise made Einstein a household name to the public at large, and an icon of 20th-century genius.
In 1985, Marshall Missner wrote a scholarly article, “Why Einstein Became Famous in America.” He suggested that it was a “tale of serendipity . . . a public campaign run by an invisible hand,” a multifactorial convergence of the right timing, the right language (“curved space,” “four-dimensional space-time continuum,” “finite universe”), Einstein’s amusing, warm, earthy presence, and his absolute indifference to fame.
Serendipity, the right timing, and the right words also helped the fame of Dylan and the Beatles.
Movie stars, presidents, politicians, philosophers, and plain citizens sought Albert Einstein. Once glamorized, he was invited to Hollywood premieres. At a film opening, he and Charlie Chaplin were surrounded by hundreds of cheering fans and journalists. Chaplin said to Einstein: “They’re cheering me because they understand me; they’re cheering you because they do not understand you.” Einstein said to Chaplin, “What does this all mean?” Chaplin answered, “Absolutely nothing.”
Fans and fame also became burdensome to the Beatles and Dylan.
Not only was Albert Einstein selected by Time magazine to be its cover story as “The Man of the Century,” but the Beatles were prominently included in Time’s list of the 100 most influential individuals of the 20th century.
In 1915, Einstein revealed what gravity is — unlike Newton, who told us what gravity does. Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glints of silver on the shards of broken glass.” Newton told us, but Einstein and the Beatles showed us their glints of silver.
Einstein received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, and its 2017 edition was awarded to Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Barry Barish for their single-minded determination to experimentally confirm Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves. Of course it’s too late for the Beatles.
Dylan, Einstein, and the Beatles entered human consciousness through unlikely back doors, revealing strange harmonic splendors and astonishing originality. Both his physics and their music commanded our attention, imagined new directions. Google fame, though it came in different flavors, became the driver of a “new normal,” inventive styles, new ideas, and new twists on the very idea of newness itself.
Dylan, Einstein, and the Beatles made the world culturally and conceptually richer, a better place to live. With or without the Nobel.
Stephen Rosen will speak about “Albert Einstein: Rock Star” at the East Hampton Middle School on Feb. 1 at 6 p.m. He is at work on a musical about Einstein.