Albert Einstein. Half a century after his death, the man's very name has become virtually synonymous with "genius." Einstein's portrait has become an iconic image—usually rendered with wild flyaway hair and often with his tongue sticking out rakishly—used to provide brainy chic to everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers to beer steins. (Einstein... ein stein... get it?) The Walt Disney Company sells hundreds of millions of dollars worth of quasi-educational multimedia DVDs to parents of small children by promising, dubiously, that watching the programs will turn their toddlers into "Baby Einsteins." Today we are so eager to share in Einstein's wisdom that we have even falsely attributed to him dozens of pithy quotations that never really crossed his lips. (You may have heard Einstein's famous dictum that "the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result." Einstein never said that. Nor did he ever say that "Evil is the absence of God," that "the only thing that interferes with learning is education," or that "we use only 10 percent of our brains.") Misquotations notwithstanding, Albert Einstein lives on today as a multi-million-dollar brand. (His trademarked name and likeness have been for half a century the carefully guarded intellectual property of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a fortunate beneficiary of Einstein's will.) And the Einstein brand means "genius."
But what of Albert Einstein, the man? Not the icon, but the human being? Imagine you had been alive to meet Einstein as a young man, just after the turn of the twentieth century. If you had run into him then, perhaps as he hustled through the streets of Bern on his way to his job at the Swiss Patent Office, you might just have recognized him; the round face, sad eyes, and droopy moustache of the iconic Einstein were already there, even though he hadn't yet let his hair grow out to its full electric potential and he almost certainly wouldn't have stuck his tongue out at you. But even if you had recognized that young man as Albert Einstein, you never would have guessed that you were looking at a person who would go on to be considered the world's greatest genius. In fact, you may well have guessed that you were looking at a loser.