From The New Republic of March 9, 1932, we can read the following, rather surprising note: “A young woman has been appearing at the Warner Brothers’ Theatre, in Hollywood, California, about whom there is an unusual fact. She is a professional prophet; her name is Eugenie Dennis; and the unusual fact referred to is that she appears before the Hollywoodenheads with the endorsement of Professor Albert Einstein. According to Upton Sinclair, Professor Einstein has long been concerned with psychic matters and has done some investigation in the field. When, therefore, he encountered Miss Dennis while weekending at Palm Springs he was furiously interested. […] She announced to the press: “Dr. Einstein is indeed the most remarkable personality I have ever contacted. And his aura is just sublime – pure blue electric sparks, instead of color. It was just like talking to God.” At the same time Dr. Einstein reportedly said: “She told me things no one possibly could know, things on which I have been working, and she demonstrated to me that she has a power to do things I cannot at this time explain. Now, I must tell some of my associates about this. It was miraculous indeed.” (Notably, a similar quote by Einstein had been cited earlier by the Chicago Herald Examiner, Jan. 13, 1932).

There exists indeed one report of a brief meeting between Albert Einstein and the (then) famous psychic Gene Dennis. They were introduced by Sinclair, a well-known writer and political activist that Einstein befriended during his early travels to the US, who also tried to implicate Einstein in a seance with the (then) famous Count Ostoja, a supposed medium. In that meeting, Einstein was probably just trying to be kind to the young woman to not upset his friend; that was just another price he had to pay to his instant celebrity, with the press trumpeting his discoveries and depicting him as the quintessential eccentric scientific genius. (This was the Old World; these days we reserve such media hype to sports celebrities and internet influencers.)

Einstein had been pushed to international fame in the fall of 1919, when his general theory of relativity was strikingly confirmed by Eddington’s observations during that year’s solar eclipse. He was celebrated as the greatest scientist of the century on the front pages of all major American and European newspapers (the Times of Nov. 7, 1919 titled: “Revolution in science. New theory of the universe: Newtonian ideas overthrown”), and the Nobel prize that followed two years later only added to this somewhat deformed public image of the man. In January 1930, the showing of a movie about Einstein and his theories at the Museum of Natural History in New York gathered 5,000 people, three times more than the available places: people began hooting, a sudden rush broke down the lobby gate, and crashed the door to the lecture hall where the movie was screened. It took officers of the Metropolitan Police from the West 68th Street station, 20 minutes of hard work to restore order in what has been known since then as “the Einstein riot”. “Things like this hardly happen anywhere else but in New York,” wrote The New York World, Jan. 1930. “You would not get a crowd like that in the South Kensington Museum for such a show.”

On the one hand, it was Einstein himself who leaned maybe excessively on his new status of science superstar. For example, in January 1929 he submitted a paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, Zur einheitlichen Feldtheorie (“On unified field theory”) with a new theory of “distant parallelism”, singularly accompanied by a public announcement. Though the paper was merely preliminary and lacking the smallest experimental connection, the New York Times published a front-page story on Jan.12 (the manuscript was not even published yet!) proclaiming that “Einstein himself considers this by far his most important contribution to mankind, scientifically more important than his original theories.” Within three days the first printing sold out, and another thousand copies had to be printed. Maybe to exploit commercially the approaching of Einstein’s 50th birthday, the NYT published no less than ten articles that year about “distant parallelism”. It took Wolfgang Pauli (whose harsh criticism Einstein always appreciated) with all his energy to dismantle those theoretical meanderings, in a direct exchange of correspondence. He even told Jordan: “Einstein is said to have poured out at the Berlin colloquium horrible nonsense about his new parallelism at a distance. […] With such rubbish he may impress only American journalists, not even American physicists, not to speak of European physicists.” (see: H. Goenner, Living Rev. Relativ. 7, 2 (2004), p. 88).

On the other hand, it also could happen that some smarter colleagues would try to make use of Einstein’s shining to get some light from his celebrity cone. For example, he had to defend his position in public when Podolsky leaked, again to the NYT, an advance report of their famous EPR 1935 paper. Already some time before Einstein had written to Schrodinger: “This paper was written by Podolsky after several discussions. Still, it did not come out as well as I had originally wanted. Rather, the essential point was, so to speak, smothered by the formalism [gelehrsamkeit].” After Podolsky’s impromptu, the NYT printed a statement by Einstein, stating that the information “was given without my authority. It is my invariable practice to discuss scientific matters only in the appropriate forum and I deprecate advance publi­cation of any announcement in regard to such matters in the secular press.” According to Rosen’s student A. Peres, Einstein was so upset by Podolsky’s indiscretion that he never spoke with him again.

Despite the above quote by Upton Sinclair, however, it turns out that Einstein was never really attracted to psychic or supernatural matters. Instead, he had to fight on this stage an outstanding battle against the popular press, which increasingly tended to portrait him as a mysterious, solitary genius, always on the verge of new, revolutionary discoveries. And since he was characterized as a purely theoretical scientist, the association of his supposedly obscure personality (which was not truly the case) and the mind-boggling speculations of the new physics between relativity and quantum mechanics, easily could end up into some “paranormal” connection. Just as an example, the concept of a “fourth dimension”, which turned a purely mathematical exercise into a physical reality, at the same time invited fanciful otherworldly interpretations, such as J.W. Dunne’s 1927 novel An Experiment with Time, in which the author envisioned dreams as a form of time travel. Einstein was often forced to stress the distinction between his theories and the occult, e.g. in Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (1916): “The non-mathematician is seized by a mysterious shuddering when he hears of “four-dimensional” things, by a feeling not unlike that awakened by thoughts of the occult. And yet there is no more commonplace statement than that the world in which we live is a four-dimensional spacetime continuum.” An interview he gave for the NYT on Aug.12, 1945, right after Hiroshima bombing, was titled “Atoms not occult, Einstein declares”, and started with a quote: “No one should have any fear about atomic energy being supernatural […] Science did not draw upon a supernatural strength.” 

Another mentalist who allegedly had fooled Einstein was the (then) famous Al Koran, a barber-turned-mind-reader and magician, who gained some celebrity in the ’50-60s of the past century. He loved to advertise one of his most successful tricks, the jackpot coins, as “the trick that fooled Einstein” in several public occasions, including a BBC television program. In an autobiographical essay of 1972, he wrote: “While playing at the Savoy, I finished my act, and the manager said somebody asked me to join them at their table. It was Albert Einstein, the mathematical genius. He leaned over to me, very personally, and asked: “Where in the world did you get those extra coins… did they come from your sleeve?” I said: “No, it’s simple, even a child can do it.” I did it at his table and fooled him again. I then told him “It’s not the numbers – it’s the words that fooled you.” Despite the trick may be indeed rather simple (…but only after seeing the explanation, like in Columbus’ egg! You can find its description and explanation here: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-trick-that-fooled-ein_b_1669408), it could well be that even a trained mathematician does not grasp it at first glance. Anyway, Al Koran did not give a precise date for such a momentous event; from  Einstein’s biography, however, we learn that he visited England only twice, in 1931 and 1933, on his way to Oxford. Even if he could have possibly made a stop at the Savoy, at that time Al Koran was just about 18 years old, and was probably still shaving and cutting hair in the suburbs of London.

It was rather the likes of Wolfgang Pauli and Pascual Jordan who became interested in possible psychological connections of the new framework of reality that relativity and quantum mechanics seemed to offer. Jordan was taken into experiments by the botanist Joseph B. Rhine, trying to prove that some people could read minds. When Einstein was asked a comment about these telepathic experiments, he stressed his scepticism directly to Rhine. This latter pretended to have used a new type of force (the psi-force) that did not decline with distance: “This suggests to me a very strong indication that a non-recognised source of systematic errors may be involved,” Einstein wrote. On the other hand, Pauli was open to speculations about numerology and the supernatural, an interest cemented through his interactions with Carl Gustav Jung. (The two hardly ever met in person, but had an intense exchange on letters, now published in the interesting book Atom and Archetype, Princeton Press, 2014.) On his part, Einstein was deeply worried that quantum physics could purport “pseudoscientific” aspects, making it a less serious research and more akin to the claims of spiritists. In a letter to Max Born of March 3, 1947, he wrote: “I cannot seriously believe in quantum mechanics because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in space and time, free from spooky actions at a distance.” (Here he coined his famous derisory term for the quantum notion of entanglement, spukhafte Fernwirkung). In his recent book Synchronicity, Paul Halpern goes as far as suggesting that the pressure of dispelling physics from any hints of parapsychology or even spiritism, corresponds with a shift in the emphasis of Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics – taking him from doubting “dice-rolling” to firmly criticizing non-local connections between events. The story of EPR paradox, Bell’s inequalities and Alain Aspect’s experiments, eventually proved him wrong about non-locality, but quantum mechanics is still plagued by some aura of mysticism and new-age paraphrasing (see, e.g., The Tao of PhysicsThe Dancing Wu-Li MastersQuantum Healing, and similar best-sellers). 

As a final cherry on the pie, I am leaving you with a real trick that really fooled even the real Einstein. In 1934, psychologist Max Wertheimer sent a letter to his friend Albert Einstein, with the following puzzle enclosed. There is an old car that needs to go up and down a hill, 1 mile going up, and 1 mile going down . Because the car is old, it can only average a speed of 15 mph during the ascent, but may be able to go faster during the descent. The question is: how fast must the car be going downhill, in order for its speed to reach an average of 30 mph for the entire 2-mile journey? According to the German historian and psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, Einstein wrote that he didn’t see the “trick” until he had already calculated the answer. Can you?

The girl (and some others) who fooled Einstein

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