This article was originally published in the March 2018 Princeton Echo.
I discovered Einstein in the basement of Firestone Library on a summer afternoon before my senior year of college.
“Discovered,” of course, is a relative term (pun intended). The wild-haired scientist was always a part of my home town’s lore. I spent hours as a child in my mother’s office at the Institute for Advanced Study, down the hall from where Einstein once worked. I remember the filming of “IQ” when I was six, with Walter Matthau in the role of Einstein and Meg Ryan as his fictional niece. I knew which house on Mercer Street was his (112), and which one they remodeled as a set for the movie (108).
But that afternoon at the university library I was reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, and I stumbled upon some new Einstein trivia. It was a New York Times headline from 1919, the year observations of a solar eclipse confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
It read: Lights All Askew in the Heavens/ Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations/ Einstein Theory Triumphs/ Stars Not Where They Seemed or Were Calculated to be, but Nobody Need Worry/ A Book for 12 Wise Men/ No More in All the World Could Comprehend It, Said Einstein When His Daring Publishers Accepted It.
It was an absurd headline, but it was also an inspiration for my looming senior thesis that combined my interest in journalism with my major in the history of science. I spent a year digging through Einstein’s correspondence and newspapers of the day, seeking connections between the attitudes of the era and the disproportionate publicity accorded to a complex scientific discovery. A moment of Einstein infatuation turned into the capstone of my Princeton education.
Mimi Omiecinski did not grow up in the town Einstein once called “a wonderful little spot, a quaint and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts,” but after she arrived here in 2006 she fell in love with all things Princeton, including its best known genius. She did some research of her own and began sharing what she found on tours offered through her Princeton Tour Company.
The lights may have been askew, but the stars were aligned in 2009 when Omiecinski noticed a coincidence too good to pass up: Einstein’s birthday, March 14, is the numerical equivalent of pi — 3.14. In her own moment of genius, Pi Day was born.
This year’s celebrations are scheduled for Saturday, March 10, as well as Wednesday, March 14. The schedule of family-friendly events includes tours, exhibits, a surprise birthday party, an Einstein look-alike contest, and competitions related to all things pi(e): pie-eating, pie-making, pizza pie creating, pie throwing, and pi recitation. For nerds of legal drinking age, a “nerd herd guided pub crawl” caps off the Saturday events.
On Pi Day itself Princeton Pi pizza shop is offering pop-up wedding/vow renewal ceremonies with heart-shaped pizzas and other pi-themed wedding accessories available to Princeton’s geekiest couples. For a complete schedule of Pi Day events, visit www.pidayprinceton.com.
Einstein died in 1955, long before his birthday turned into a uniquely Princetonian event, and it may be just as well that he never knew what a spectacle his special day had become.
Following his 40th birthday, in 1919, he wrote a note of thanks to his mother, Pauline, and sister, Maja. He lamented his advancing years, but expressed relief that no one outside of his home in Berlin knew about the big day. “I would have already thanked you if I weren’t so terribly swamped with work. Presently I have especially much at my fingertips, and the brain is not as flexible in this fifth decade now begun. It wasn’t as bad on my birthday as you think, dear Maja. With the exception of 5 Haberland St., no one here knew about the important event — thank God.”
Einstein’s avoidance of the spotlight was not limited to his birthday. He famously declined an offer to become president of Israel in 1952, and he made clear that his house on Mercer Street was never to become a museum.
But the movie “IQ” brought renewed attention to the physicist, including tourists who wanted to see more of the man and his adopted hometown. As noted in the story on Princeton trivia in the January issue of the Echo, this demand led to the installation of the only Einstein museum in North America, in the back of Landau’s store on Nassau Street.
In a follow up to that story, Princeton resident Dana Lichtstrahl noted that it was she who had designed the Landau exhibit, with help from builder Merrill Hemond, but it was her father, Melvin Benarde, who was owed credit for the town’s more prominent — and more controversial — Einstein installation.
Bernarde commissioned a small figure of Einstein and worked with his daughter to raise the funds for the sculpture. The plan was unveiled at a Borough Council meeting in August, 1994, and it was roundly rejected. As a New York Times article noted at the time, “There is widespread agreement among those who knew Einstein that he was as humble as he was brilliant,” and the feeling was that it was not what Einstein would have wanted.
It took another 11 years — and convincing sculptor Robert Berks to donate his work through his foundation — before Benarde’s vision became a reality in 2005 when Berks’ Einstein bust was unveiled in front of Monument Hall.