What Einstein Would Think of Pi Day, and How He Crossed Paths with Oppenheimer

Written by
Liz Fuller-Wright, Office of Communications
March 14, 2024

We talked with Princeton University historian of science Michael Gordin, who has taught the popular course “The Einstein Era,” about the life and times of Princeton’s most famous resident, Albert Einstein, who lived here from 1933 until his death in 1955.

Gordin has been selected as Princeton’s next dean of the college, beginning July 1. Here, he talks about the Einstein course and its famous subject.

This interview originally appeared for Pi Day 2022. It has been updated with historical detail on Einstein and Princeton’s other famous resident physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, following the big Oscar win for Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” Sunday night. Parts of the movie were filmed on location in Princeton.

Albert Einstein’s birthday is on March 14 — 3/14 — which is celebrated as Pi Day. Did he ever make jokes about that?

No, in part because as a European, he would have written the date as 14/3. I wrote a little piece about this, a blog for Princeton University Press that gives you the history of when Pi Day became a thing. I think Pi Day caught people’s imagination because it happens to be Einstein’s birthday, but I haven’t seen any comments from him about it.

“Oppenheimer” has brought that other famous Princeton resident back into national prominence. Did Einstein and Oppenheimer really cross paths in the Institute Woods?

Oh, they did much more than cross paths — they overlapped by almost a decade. Oppenheimer directed the Institute for Advanced Study from 1947 to 1969, and Einstein was a faculty member there from 1933 until his death in 1955.

When I saw the movie — the History Department rented out the Garden Theatre so we could all see it together — I mostly liked it, but I really disliked the portrayal of Einstein. The movie shows Oppenheimer sort of off-camera consulting Einstein, and sometimes behind Einstein’s back saying dismissive things about Einstein. What it doesn’t show is Einstein comforting Oppenheimer.

In the beginning, there had been a lot of tension between them. Oppenheimer was pretty dismissive of Einstein, especially in the late ’40s. But then after the security clearance hearing, Einstein was one of the leaders of a group of faculty writing a letter in support of Oppenheimer. He also went and visited Oppenheimer almost immediately afterwards. Oppenheimer was crushed, and Einstein said, kind of, Buck up. It’s OK. It’s not the end of the world. Even though Oppenheimer at times could be an arrogant schmuck, Einstein stepped forward and said, This guy has been treated badly, and he shouldn’t be treated that way. Einstein knew what it was like to be persecuted.

Oh, and since we’re talking about Pi Day, I want to tell you — Oppenheimer’s trademark hat is called the porkpie. It’s a pork-Pi hat.