Historian of science Michael Gordin is teaching “The Einstein Era” about Princeton’s most famous resident, Albert Einstein, who lived here from 1933 until his death in 1955. According to the course description, “In addition to covering Einstein’s core scientific and philosophical contributions, this course uses his life as a frame to explore broader historical issues, including war and pacifism, Zionism and Nazism,” among other topics.
We talked with Gordin about the course and the famous Princetonian, including Gordin’s thoughts on why Einstein probably wouldn’t think of March 14 as Pi Day. This interview has been condensed.
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.
How did you come to teach “The Einstein Era”?
I’ve wanted to teach this course for 15 years!
Albert Einstein is the most renowned, and most recognizable, scientist of the 20th century — and possibly of all time. It’s astonishing how famous he was and remains. Every single student in this class not only has heard of Einstein, but they also know exactly what he looks like, and they know stories about him. It is weird for people who by and large were born in the 21st century to have a guy born in 1879 as a feature of their cultural world.