19 Things You Might Not Have Known About Albert Einstein

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1999, Albert Einstein was awarded Time's Person of the Century. The father of special and general relativity, Einstein's theories introduced concepts that would help make dozens of modern technologies possible. "I have no special talents," Einstein was quoted saying. "I am only passionately curious." Here are some facts about the physicist who gave us crazy hair and E=MC^2.

1. When Albert Einstein was born, his misshapen head terrified the room.

A portrait of a young Albert Einstein with his sister.
A portrait of a young Albert Einstein with his sister.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On March 14, 1879, baby Einstein emerged with a "swollen, misshapen head and a grossly overweight body," according to Denis Brian's book, Einstein: A Life. When she got a look at him later, the chunky child terrified Einstein's grandmother, who screamed, "Much too fat! Much too fat!" Thankfully, Albert would eventually grow into his body. (However, he did have trouble developing in other arenas: He supposedly wouldn't start speaking until the age of 2.)

2. As a child, Einstein was the king of throwing temper tantrums.

The young genius had a habit of throwing objects whenever he was displeased; once, a frustrated Einstein even threw a chair at his teacher. The 5-year-old enjoyed bombarding his tutors and family members: His sister Maja, who was often conked in the head by Einstein's fusillades, later quipped, "It takes a sound skull to be the sister of an intellectual."

According to the biography by Alice Calaprice and Trevor Lipscombe, "When he became angry, his whole face turned yellow except for the tip of his nose, which turned white."

3. Einstein did not struggle in school.

The idea that Einstein had trouble in school is a myth. During summers, a pre-teen Einstein would study mathematics and physics for fun, eventually mastering differential and integral calculus by age 15. But that's not to say he was a perfect student. Einstein hated rote learning and refused to study subjects that didn't interest him. So, naturally, when the obstinate number-lover took the entrance exam to the polytechnic school in Zurich, he flunked the language, zoology, and botany sections.

4. Nobody knows Einstein's IQ.

Einstein's IQ was never tested, though that hasn't stopped people from guessing. Lots of websites claim the physicist's IQ was 160, but there's simply no way of verifying that claim. "One fundamental problem with the estimates I've seen is that they tend to conflate intellectual ability with domain-specific achievement," Dean Keith Simonton, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis told Biography. For all we know, Einstein's aptitude in arenas outside of physics might have rivaled that of an average Joe.

5. Einstein refreshed his brain by playing the violin.

Einstein violin
Keystone, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Whenever Einstein needed to relax, he turned to music. He started violin lessons at age 5 and, at around 17, impressed his teachers at cantonal school with his playing during a music exam. Around 1914, when Einstein lived in Berlin, he'd play sonatas with his friend and fellow theoretical physicist, Max Planck. And after he became famous, Einstein would play a handful benefit concerts alongside greats like Fritz Kreisler. "Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories," his second wife, Elsa, said. "He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study." [PDF]

6. Fashion was not Einstein's strong suit.

Einstein hated wearing socks and was immensely proud of the fact that he didn't have to wear them while giving lectures at Oxford in the 1930s. His antipathy apparently stemmed from a childhood realization: "When I was young I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock," Einstein reportedly said. "So I stopped wearing socks." As an adult, he typically wore an undershirt, baggy trousers held by rope, and a pair of (occasionally women's) sandals.

7. Einstein loved sailing (and was absolutely terrible at it).

While an undergraduate in Zurich, Einstein fell in love with sailing—a passion that would persist throughout his life. There was just one problem: He was a horrible sailor. He regularly tipped his boat over and required rescue dozens of times. (His sailboat was named Tinef, Yiddish for "worthless.") In 1935, The New York Times reported on Einstein's sailing misadventures with the punny headline: "Relative Tide and Sand Bars Trap Einstein."

8. Fatherhood gave Einstein his iconic crazy hair.

As a young man, Einstein sported a well-maintained head of dark hair—that is, until his son Hans was born in 1904. Like many new parents, Einstein discovered that having a new mouth to feed changed everything: The patent clerk was so busy trying to support his family that he stopped combing his hair and visiting the barber. Slowly, an iconic look was born.

Einstein would spurn barbers for the rest of his life. His second wife, Elsa, would cut his mop whenever it became disheveled.

9. Einstein had a habit of mindlessly gorging on food.

When Einstein was a patent clerk, he formed a book club with two friends and called it the "Olympia Academy." The trio usually dined on sausages, Gruyere cheese, fruit, and tea. But on Einstein's birthday, his friends brought expensive caviar as a surprise. Einstein, who had a knack for mindlessly eating when talking about something he was passionate about, began stuffing his face while discussing Galileo's principle of inertia—totally unaware of what he was eating. He later offered this excuse: "Well if you offer gourmet foods to peasants like me, you know they won't appreciate it."

10. Einstein had a bawdy sense of humor.

Einstein enjoyed the occasional dirty joke. When he accepted his first job as a professor, he said, "[N]ow I too am an official member of the guild of whores." And when a member of his book club gave him a nameplate that said "Albert, Knight of the Backside," Einstein proudly kept it tacked on his apartment door. Later in life, he'd tell jokes to his pet parrot, Bibo. (Einstein believed the bird was depressed and needed a laugh.)

11. Einstein loved the famous tongue photo.

Einstein lounging
Three Lions, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

On his 72nd birthday, Einstein was leaving an event held in his honor. As he was getting into his car, photographers asked him to smile for the camera. Einstein, however, was sick and tired of grinning for a photograph—he'd be doing it all evening—so he popped his tongue out instead. Einstein liked the photo so much that he put it on his greeting cards.

12. Einstein was an inventor.

Having spent seven years working in the Swiss Patent Office, Einstein was naturally curious about inventing and would secure approximately 50 patents during his lifetime. He enjoyed tinkering with electronics and would eventually patent a self-adjusting camera, a refrigerator that could last 100 years, and even a blouse.

13. When it came to love, Einstein was no genius.

Einstein, who married twice, had multiple extramarital affairs—including one dalliance with a possible Russian spy. His first marriage with Mileva Marić (a physicist he met at the Swiss Polytechnic School) soured after the birth of their third child. As their marriage crumbled, Einstein imposed a list of brusque—if not cruel—demands which included: "You will obey the following points in your relations with me: 1. You will not expect intimacy from me … 2. You will stop talking to me if I request it." Unsurprisingly, they divorced. Later, Einstein married his cousin, Elsa Löwenthal.

14. A letter Einstein signed helped spark the Manhattan Project.

Einstein was not part of the Manhattan Project, but he was instrumental in getting it started. In the late 1930s, German scientists discovered nuclear fission of uranium, a major step toward the development of the atomic bomb. Much of the world's uranium was held in the Congo—then a colony of Belgium—so two Hungarian-American physicists named Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner decided to get Einstein to write a letter to his friend, the Queen of Belgium. Einstein suggested a letter to a Belgian minister instead, but an encounter with an economist who knew President Roosevelt resulted in a change in direction and a letter that prompted America to start its own experiments.

15. Einstein loved answering fanmail from children.

Einstein received countless letters from the public, but he always tried to answer mail sent by children. (In one letter, a young girl complained about her troubles with math. The professor supposedly wrote back, "Do not worry about your difficulty in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.") Einstein's many correspondences with children—filled with charm and encouragement—are compiled in a book by Alice Calaprice called Dear Professor Einstein.

16. Einstein turned down the presidency of Israel.

E=MC2
The world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Enterprise gives Einstein a shout-out as it launches the first nuclear-powered circumnavigation of the world in 1964.
Keystone, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

After the first president of the State of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, died in 1952, the Prime Minister asked Einstein to step into the (mostly ceremonial) role. The physicist declined, writing: "I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions."

17. Einstein was an outspoken advocate for racial justice.

Having abandoned Germany in 1933 to avoid Nazi persecution, Einstein was sensitive of the racial discrimination he saw in the United States. He championed the rights of African Americans and was a member of the NAACP. When the famed black singer Marian Anderson came to perform at Princeton in 1937 and was denied a hotel room, Einstein invited her to stay in his home. He was also pen pals with W.E.B. Du Bois and, when Du Bois became the target of the Red Scare, Einstein effectively saved Du Bois by offering to be his character witness. In a 1946 speech he delivered at Pennsylvania's Lincoln University, he called segregation "a disease of white people," vowing, "I do not intend be quiet about it."

18. Einstein was the inspiration for Yoda.

Yoda's face was partly modeled after Einstein's. According to Star Wars special-effects artist Nick Maley, "A picture of Einstein ended up on the wall behind the Yoda sculptures and the wrinkles around Einstein's eyes somehow got worked into the Yoda design. Over the course of this evolutionary process Yoda slowly changed from a comparatively spritely [sic], tall, skinny, grasshopper kind of character into the old wise spirited gnome that we all know today."

19. Einstein's theories are more relevant than you think.

It's easy to assume that Einstein's theories of relativity are purely theoretical, but they really do affect your everyday life. For instance, the theory of general relativity states that gravity affects time: Time moves by faster for objects in space than objects here on Earth. And that has profound implications for many space-based technologies, especially the accuracy of your GPS. His theories also explain how electromagnets work and are foundational to nuclear technology.

8 Surprising Facts and Misconceptions About Recycling

iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz
iStock.com/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

If you pat yourself on the back for just remembering to separate the recycling or haul that big blue bin to the curb each week, you're not alone. Despite the strides we appear to be making toward eco-consciousness as a country, we have a long way to go in helping the Earth, as evidenced by our complicated relationship with recycling. These facts about the most prevalent of the three Rs will make you pause the next time you throw anything away.

1. The United States's recycling rate is low—really low.

Figures from the Environmental Protection Agency show that America recycles about 34.7 percent of the garbage it produces. (The world's top recyclers—Germany, Austria, Wales, and South Korea—report a rate between 52 and 56 percent.) But Mitch Hedlund, founder and Executive Director of the organization Recycle Across America isn't even sure the recycling rate often quoted is accurate because there is so much junk mixed in with actual recyclables.

Recycle Across America is currently working to encourage the use of standardized labels for recycling bins to eliminate the confusion over what actually belongs in these receptacles. "If the U.S. gets the recycling number up to 75 percent, which we believe is completely possible once the confusion (over what to place in the bins) is removed, it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year in the U.S. and it will create 1.5 million permanent new jobs in the U.S. (net)."

2. Proper recycling can result in monetary savings.

Businessman stepping on green squares with recycling symbols
iStock.com/Rawpixel

While Hedlund admits the idea of providing universal labels clearly stating what should be placed in the bins is a simple one, it's making a serious impact on those who have jumped on the bandwagon. "Many schools are seeing dramatic increases in their recycling levels since using the society-wide standardized labels on their recycling bins," she says. "For instance, in the pilot program at Culver City schools in Los Angeles [County], their recycling levels doubled when they started using the standardized labels and the materials they were collecting in their recycling bins were so much less contaminated with garbage." Another story, she says, is that "as a result of a donation from Kiehls (who makes a donation to Recycle Across America each April in the sum of $50,000), all of the schools in the San Diego Unified School District and San Diego County started using the standardized labels. San Diego Unified School District reduced their landfill hauling fees by about $200,000 (net) in the first year."

3. Recent changes from China have severely impacted the recycling industry.

Until 2018, China took 40 percent of the United States's recycled paper, plastic, and metal. But in January of that year, China imposed strict new rules on the levels of contamination (think food or other garbage mixed in with the recyclables) it's willing to accept—standards American cities are largely unable to meet. Because of that, and a lack of suitable destinations closer to home, many cities have been forced to incinerate or stockpile recyclables until they can find a better solution.

4. Only 9 percent of plastic is recycled in the U.S.

The nation recycles less than 10 percent of its plastic, compared to 67 percent for paper materials, 34 percent for metals, and 26 percent for glass. And China's restrictions have especially affected plastic—while exports of scrap plastic to China were valued at more than $300 million in 2015, they amounted to $7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018, down 90 percent from the year before.

5. Clothing can be recycled, but it rarely is.

Clothing at a garage sale
iStock.com/alexeys

Unfortunately, most curbside haulers don't accept textiles, and America has a serious problem with old clothes ending up in the trash. In 2019, the nation is on track to throw away more than 35 billion pounds of textiles, according to the Council for Textile Recycling—almost double the number from 1999. On the plus side, some cities have set up drop-off points for unwanted clothes, and there are a variety of ways to sell or donate unwanted items. Some brands, including Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, have also introduced buy-back programs for their items.

6. Aluminum is the world's most-recycled packaging product.

Crushed aluminum cans
iStock.com/hroe

Nearly 70 percent of aluminum cans are recycled internationally, according to Novelis, a leader in rolled aluminum products and recycled aluminum. Aluminum is infinitely recyclable without degrading, meaning it can be reused in a way completely different from what it was in its previous life, or recast into its original form. Not only is aluminum the world's most-recycled product, it's also the most profitable and the most energy-efficient. Using recycled aluminum instead of virgin materials saves about 95% of the energy, compared to 60% for paper and 34% for glass [PDF].

7. That soda can you're drinking from could find its way back to you more quickly than you think.

According to Novelis's research, an aluminum can that is recycled can be back on a grocery store shelf within 60 days [PDF]. That's a seriously speedy turnaround.

8. Scrap recycling is big business.

While the words scrap recycling might have you humming the Sanford & Son theme song, it's far from being a junkyard industry. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), in 2017 U.S. scrap recyclers processed more than 130 million tons of scrap metal, paper, plastic, glass, textiles, and more—material that was sold back to industrial consumers in the U.S. and around the world, generating close to $18 billion in export sales. All told, scrap recycling was a $117 billion industry in 2017 [PDF].

This list first ran in 2015 and was updated by Mental Floss staff in 2019.

From Cocaine to Chloroform: 28 Old-Timey Medical Cures

YouTube
YouTube

Is your asthma acting up? Try eating only boiled carrots for a fortnight. Or smoke a cigarette. Have you got a toothache? Electrotherapy might help (and could also take care of that pesky impotence problem). When it comes to our understanding of medicine and illnesses, we’ve come a long way in the past few centuries. Still, it’s always fascinating to take a look back into the past and remember a time when cocaine was a common way to treat everything from hay fever to hemorrhoids.

In this week's all-new edition of The List Show, Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy is highlighting all sorts of bizarre, old-timey medical cures. You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here.

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