With his unruly hair and sparkling eyes, the theoretical physicist who came up with the world’s most famous equation – E=MC2 [squared] – has become the archetype for geniuses, mad scientists and eccentric professors the world over.
When considering Einstein’s genius, it doesn't take long before questions arise about its source. Many vegetarians point to his diet, claiming the German scientist as one of their own. After all, if you are what you eat and Einstein was a genius, you'd want some of whatever he's had, right? In fact, Einstein’s relationship with food was rather more complicated, influenced both by his personal circumstances – moving between countries before finally settling in the US in 1933 – and the external forces, political and social, at play in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s.
Vegetarianism, the practice of abstaining from eating any form of meat, dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, and possibly as far as the 7th century BC. The great mathematician Pythagoras was thought to have been a vegetarian (possibly even studying as part of a vegetarian school) and the final section of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, an impassioned plea for humanity to transform itself into a better species respectful of the lives of people and animals, is delivered by the character Pythagoras.
It is a thesis to which one could imagine Einstein, a vocal pacifist, subscribing. In a letter dated 27 December 1930, Einstein outlined his own view of the philosophy and its appeal: “Although I have been prevented by outward circumstances from observing a strictly vegetarian diet, I have long been an adherent to the cause in principle. Besides agreeing with the aims of vegetarianism for aesthetic and moral reasons, it is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.”
Yet throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Einstein wasn’t in a position to carefully choose his diet. In 1917, he had been diagnosed with a serious stomach malady – not helped by food shortages during the period – which reoccurred throughout his life. At the time, a doctor prescribed a four-week diet of rice, macaroni and zwieback bread, the twice baked, sweetened crisp bread eaten throughout central and northern Europe. By this point Einstein, who was born in Ulm, Germany in 1879, was living in Switzerland. His father had relocated the family in the mid-1890s, and it was in Zurich that Einstein finally settled into formal education and began to develop his groundbreaking theories.
Although his heart may have been inclined towards vegetarianism he did eat meat, and sausages with lentil soup was a favourite dish. One story recounts how Einstein, walking back to his laboratory from the local coffeehouse, decided to buy some calf’s liver so that his colleague’s wife needn’t go shopping. Back in the laboratory, she proceeded to cook the liver over a Bunsen burner.
“What are you doing?” demanded Einstein. “Are you boiling the liver in water?” When she acknowledged that was what she was doing, Einstein declared: “The boiling point of water is too low. You must use a substance with a higher boiling-point such as butter or fat.” From then on, the need to fry rather than boil liver was referred to by his friends as, “Einstein’s theory”. In the 1930s, Einstein struck up a rather unlikely friendship with King Albert and Queen Elisabeth of Belgium while travelling to lecture. Einstein and the queen bonded over their shared love of music – he would play Mozart to her on his violin – and tried to explain his theory of relativity.
In October 1930, he was in Brussels for a congress and dropped in on the royals at the palace in Laeken. They played music then had dinner together. “I was alone with the royals for dinner,” Einstein later reported, “no servants, vegetarian food, spinach with fried eggs and potatoes, simply that. I liked it there enormously.”
Simple dishes held an appeal for Einstein – a man who could be so absorbed in his work that he would forget to eat lunch. His wife Elsa would remind him to eat, saying: “People have centuries to find things out, but your stomach, no, it will not wait for centuries.”
Einstein and his friends Maurice Solovine and Conrad Habicht, founders in 1902 of the Olympia Academy – a group that would meet in Einstein’s apartment in Bern to discuss philosophy and physics – would subsist on sausages, Gruyère cheese and fruit. But to mark Einstein’s birthday, his friends surprised him by putting three plates of caviar on the table. He was so engrossed in discussing Galileo’s principle of inertia, the story goes, that he ate mouthful after mouthful of the delicacy until finally Solovine asked: “Do you realise what you’ve been eating?”
“For goodness’ sake,” replied Einstein. “So that was the famous caviar! Well, if you offer gourmet food to peasants like me, you know they won’t appreciate it.”
It wasn't until he was nearing the end of his life that Einstein finally managed to adopt a more strictly vegetarian diet. By then he was in his seventies and had been living in Princeton in the US for more than two decades. A world famous scientist, he had been recognised with the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 and a host of other prizes, awards and doctorates since. But he was still troubled by stomach problems and in 1948 his health began to decline. Exploratory surgery revealed an aneurysm in the abdominal aorta which couldn’t be removed.
“I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. Now, to manage the pain and discomfort he felt from his stomach he would maintain a strict and simple vegetarian diet. He also did not drink alcohol.
In March 1955, almost exactly a year before his death at 76 in Princeton, Einstein wrote a letter that shows the extent of the diet he was following at the end. “So I am living without fats, without meat, without fish, but am feeling quite well this way,” he wrote. “It almost seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.”
This remains one of Einstein’s few theories that have yet to be proven.