Geniuses and the Men Hidden Inside Them

Eric Ormsby reviews Einstein & Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius by Silvan Schweber, in The New York Sun:

In four photographs of Albert Einstein, taken over a 30-year span between 1911 and 1942 and reproduced in Silvan Schweber‘s “Einstein & Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius” (Harvard, 432 pages, $29.95), he positions himself, whether in a group or alone, so that his left hand is caught by the camera. He holds that hand in a distinctive gesture, with his thumb and forefinger joined to form a little ellipse. Though he tends to face away from the camera, as though indifferent to appearances, he is clearly at pains to keep that left hand visible. The gesture is as much a signal as a symbol.


In “Einstein & Oppenheimer,” his unusual exercise in comparative biography, Mr. Schweber, an emeritus professor of physics and the history of ideas at Brandeis, explains that Einstein adopted the gesture from Hindu and Buddhist practices. Both the Hindu god Vishnu and the Buddha himself are often portrayed with their left hands in this posture; known in Sanskrit as the vitarka gesture, it represents “compassionate teaching” as well as, for Buddhists, the union of wisdom and method. In Einstein’s case, it serves as a sign not of the public figure he had become but of the man hidden within.

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