Today, we pass by one of the greatest men of our
century. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
It was 1954. I was an army
private at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. I was free
this particular hot summer's day, so I walked to
the highway and put out my thumb. In my writing
case was a thermodynamics text. I wanted to find a
quiet place to write letters and to study
Einstein's theory of specific heats.
The first car that stopped was going to Princeton.
That seemed as good a destination as any. "Isn't
that where Einstein lives?" I asked, and the man
allowed that it was. I got out at the University,
asked where Einstein was, and was told he worked
two miles outside of town at the Institute for
So I walked to the Institute and sat for an hour in
its large commons room, studying thermodynamics and
watching very smart people coming and going. But no
Einstein. I gave up my ad hoc pilgrimage and
started back to town. Where the road turned, I
looked over my shoulder and saw a figure two blocks
back. The sun behind him cast a brilliant halo
through a mop of frizzy white hair. It was he. I
stalled, watching a golf game, while he passed and
strode on into town. I fell in behind him.
He walked vigorously, greeting friends and
neighbors. Then he stopped and laid his briefcase
on a hedge. I was terrified. Did he know I was
following him? No, he was just removing his heavy
blue sweater. As I passed him I saw suspenders,
over a tee shirt, holding baggy trousers. He wore
sandals and no socks.
That much fit the stereotype. What didn't was his
substance. He was then 75 years old with less than
a year left to live. But he had an earthy
muscularity. He had physical grace, strength, and
coordination. How many people today know that he
was a good violinist? Einstein was more than just
airy energy and light -- he had mass and physical
presence as well.
That now-battered thermodynamics text sits on my
shelf without Einstein's autograph in it. I was far
too shy, unformed, and uncertain to speak to him.
And the other famous names from my youth --
Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek, Churchill -- fade
against the light, energy, and mass of this simple
man, standing by a hedge, juggling stars and forces
and fields in his head -- this man who made us
understand that the world is more than it seems to
be -- this good-humored man who insisted that, "God
is subtle, but He is not malicious."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds