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Ron Howard, who brought us the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” concerning the Nobel Prize-winning economist John Nash, now brings us a ten-part television series, “Genius,” concerning Albert Einstein. Mostly known today for his equation E = mc2 and for his wild hair, Howard tells us about the person of Albert Einstein, including the boy, the young man, his relocation to the United States, his views beyond the theory of relativity, and his celebrity status. Just as “A Beautiful Mind” was based on a then recent book (Sylvia Nasar’s), so too is this series (Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe”).
Einstein was one of many top minds to flee central Europe during the rise of the Nazis. Others included the Hungarians Edward Teller and John von Neumann, and the Austrians Ludwig von Mises and Freidrich von Hayek. Not that everyone could flee. Following Kristallnacht, a German banker named Paul Wallich, considered his options. Although a practicing Christian, he was an ethnic Jew. His wife, a Gentile, called him from their home. Do not come home, she said. The Gestapo is here. Instead of going home, he fled to Cologne. Two days later, figuring that his wife and their children could escape if he was not with them, he filled his pockets with rocks and threw himself into the Rhine River. Their son, Henry Wallich, would become a leading American banker, rising to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. Henry Wallich was always an enemy of inflation and a proponent of sound money.
If anybody during the 20th Century was a bigger genius than Albert Einstein, it was John von Neumann. Von Neumann’s contributions to science span many disciplines, including mathematics, computer science, economics, climate science and biology, in addition to physics. He was also able to memorize volumes of data, such as pages of the telephone book. Von Nuemann worked best with blaring music, especially German marching music. Sensing the rise of the Nazis, von Neumann immigrated to the United States during the 1930s. Then, upon becoming a citizen of this country, he volunteered to join the Army Reserve Officers Corps, but was rejected because of his age. Instead of serving in the military during World War II, he served in the Manhattan Project. It is thought that his exposure to radiation in the Manhattan Project caused the cancer that took his life at the age of 53. On his deathbed, he converted to the Roman Catholic faith. At the time, he was under guard to ensure he wouldn’t reveal any military secrets.
In Vienna, Ludwig von Mises seemed eclipsed both by the rise of Keynesian economics in the Anglo-American world and by the rise of national socialism in the German world. Following the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria by Germany, he barely escaped, “Sound of Music”-like, to Switzerland. His papers were left behind, eventually to be seized by the Russians following the war. To leave Switzerland, he had to be coaxed. Eventually, he was able to lead a seminar at New York University through the benefaction of admirers. But, while his student, von Hayek, would be recognized with a Nobel Prize, von Mises seemed written out of the mainstream of economics.
It is easy to overlearn the lessons of Albert Einstein’s story. A representative anthology of the great minds that fled central Europe during the mid 20th Century reveals a complex picture. Many, in their own ways, interesting. Each, human.