Albert Einstein’s Mistaken Identity
How a simple error made Einstein famous
A century ago, Albert Einstein became famous overnight. It wasn’t from his experiments, theory of relativity, or his Nobel Prize.
Einstein’s fame in the United States came from a media mistake.
Before fake news and 24-hour cable news, a Washington Times reporter was assigned to go to the docks of New York and cover the arrival of this obscure physicist visiting the US for the first time. It was a simple assignment: write the article, get some quotes, and be on your way.
As he walked to the docks, the reporter noticed something odd. A large crowd was there already for the same reason. Over 10,000 people waited to catch a glimpse as Albert Einstein walked off the boat from Europe.
This simple story was suddenly front-page worthy. A physicist greeted like a rock star.
As Einstein waved to the adoring crowd, he was escorted into a car and paraded in a motorcade through the city, the moment forever captured in this iconic photo. All this excitement for a scientist.
The only problem was the reporter got it wrong. The crowd was not there for Einstein.
When we are in a normal circumstance, we almost run on autopilot as we go into a pattern of behavior or social norms. For example, you walk into a restaurant, expect a host to greet you, and then go to a table. These patterns and pre-programmed responses serve us well and help us make sense of the world.
It’s different when it’s an unfamiliar situation, where we look for clues to figure out what’s happening and what similar pattern fits and try to guess based on our past experiences.
Another way to think about it is these patterns provide a frame of reference to interpret the world. When we know the frame, we have a good idea of what to expect from the picture we see. From the picture we see, we then build stories of cause and effect based on that original frame.
It’s a simple three-step process:
First, we have a frame or viewpoint to look at a situation.
We then create a picture of the expectation of events through that frame.
Finally, we make a story based on the frame and what we see.
We are constantly trying to make sense of what we see, and if it fits a particular pattern, we can frame it a certain way and create a narrative.
This instinct serves us well, but sometimes we give too much weight to the initial frame we use.
A great example of this comes from a famous television ad by The Guardian. Go ahead and take 30 seconds and watch it.
As the ad shows, sometimes how we interpret the initial frame is incorrect, and we need a different viewpoint.
The initial frame we believe can be a powerful way to help, but it can also change how we look at the world. Unfortunately, if someone gives you a frame that’s not true or inaccurate, it can be hard to change your perspective.
When the reporter went down to the docks, the frame he had was to cover Albert Einstein. Everything he saw came from that perspective. The crowd, the ship, and the motorcade are all seen through the frame of a physicist visiting America. The story he wrote reflected this.
“Thousands at Pier to Greet Einstein: Triumphal Procession in his Honor Bewilders Sensitive Jewish Scientist”
- The Washington Post 4/3/1921
But what did the crowd see?
Why did so many people turn out?
It was Sunday, the day after Jews across New York went to their synagogs and heard from their rabbis about a Jewish delegation arriving the next day and how they should attend and show support.
The crowd appreciated Einstein, but they were not there to see him. Albert Einstein was just part of a Jewish delegation to America to fundraise for a nation-state of Israel. Instead, they were there to see Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist group who would later become the first president of Israel. If you look at the New York Jewish newspaper, Forward, they reported the event differently.
“Great Parade for Zionist Delegates in New York”
It’s not that the Washington Post reporter was all wrong. The crowd was there and saw Einstein, but the reporter missed the point. Each group’s initial frames were different because they lived in separate worlds and didn’t talk to or understand each another.
Interestingly, you can see the distorted framing on display with the cropping of Einstein’s photo. If you look at the whole picture, you notice the crowd is not looking at Einstein. Instead, they are looking at the car behind him with Weizmann.
When you never check your frame, you only see the picture from your perspective, shaping the narrative you believe. It can be helpful to step back and question the frame we are given in our own life. Ask yourself:
What is the frame I have right now?
Is this true?
Does the story change if I change the frame?
The frame drives the picture we see and the story we believe.
When the initial frame is wrong, it can be hard to change. Those mainstream news stories focused on Einstein, and the press thought he was famous. Because the public read about him, they saw him as a celebrity and came out to see him, and the media continued to write about him. One initial mistake made Albert Einstein famous in America.