The Man Who Stalked Einstein

Jun 4, 2015

Cover for Bruce Hillman's new book, "The Man Who Stalked Einstein."
Credit Bruce Hillman

By 1920, Albert Einstein had become the face of science and theoretical physics. Along the road to fame, Einstein made some powerful enemies including Nobel Prize winner Philipp Lenard.

Lenard was an “old school” scientist who had studied with some of the greatest minds in his era – Bunsen, Helmoltz and Hertz. Lenard found Einstein’s approach to science silly and took every opportunity to discredit him. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with author Bruce J. Hillman about his book The Man Who Stalked Einstein (Lyons Press 2015) which tells the story of their conflict. 

Hillman’s career actually had nothing to do with Einstein or theoretical physics. He enjoyed a career as a physician but tried dabbling in writing eight years ago. He published a book on medical imaging but thought he would try a book on a subject unrelated to medicine. After stumbling across the story of Lenard, Hillman was hooked.

“We remember Einstein so well, and yet Philipp Lenard has pretty much escaped attention,” Hillman says. “He was the 1905 Nobel Laureate in physics, only the fifth Nobel Prize in physics awarded.”

However, underneath his veneer of brilliancy was a man seething over the success of others. Take for example Wilhelm Röntgen, who is credited with discovering the x-ray. Lenard took umbrage with the credit given to Röntgen because Lenard’s initial improvements on the cathode ray tube led to Röntgen’s findings.

“In (Lenard’s) Nobel lecture in 1905, he said something to the effect, ‘Well Röntgen had only been the midwife of the x-ray, who had the pleasure of announcing the birth, but had nothing more to do with the conception than the stork,’” Hillman says. “He claimed to be the true mother of the x-ray.”

However, Lenard focused much of his efforts into a feud with Einstein. After World War I, Einstein had been recruited to Berlin with all sorts of special considerations.

“Lenard thought it was all a crock,” Hillman says. “Thought Einstein was a charlatan. Referred to it all as a cynical Jewish fraud.”

Lenard’s anti-Semitism grew as he joined Adolf Hitler and the early Nazi party.

“Lenard came with an anger for Einstein,” Hillman says. “Hitler knew it was hard to demonize a whole people. He needed some specific individuals that could be demonized and could be held out as representatives of the whole. Einstein was perfect – he was liberal, he was internationalist, he was a pacifist.”

In September of 1920, Lenard quietly arranged a series of lectures in Berlin to discredit Einstein, who actually showed up and laughed throughout the event. A feud ensued; it began on professional differences but soon turned personal. Lenard wrote a series of books called the Deutsche Physik, which turned into a movement against the work Einstein and other physics theorists.

Lenard forced top scientists like Einstein out of the country, changing the course of history. Those scientists moved to the United States, England and Russia – strengthening the intellectual arm of Germany’s opponents. This also delayed Germany’s production of the nuclear weapon, which Einstein helped develop in America.

The professional anger Lenard held toward his colleagues is best seen in a book of falsehoods he kept. He wrote down every intellectual idea that he believed had been stolen from him, as well as people who had not properly attributed the ideas to him.

“It’s a demonstration of the paranoiac narcissism that really characterized his personality,” Hillman says.