Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist

Escape Into Art, Look Through the Lens of History, Seek Certainty in Science …

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In autumn 1933, Albert Einstein found himself living alone in an isolated holiday hut in rural England. There, he toiled peacefully at mathematics while occasionally stepping out for walks or to play his violin. But how had Einstein come to abandon his Berlin home and go “on the run”?

Andrew Robinson’s Einstein on the Run is the first account of the role Britain played in Einstein’s life—first by inspiring his teenage passion for physics, then by providing refuge from the Nazis.

Read on for an extract.


A hermit life in Norfolk

‘L.L. is wonderful and keeps everything away,’ Einstein wrote to his wife in Le Coq. ‘I live here like a hermit, only I do not need to eat roots and herbs.’ To his son, Eduard, he described his ‘admirable solitude’. As he had hoped back in Belgium, he was now able to spend most of his three or so weeks in Norfolk doing mathematical calculations alone in his hut, and sometimes playing music on a grand piano in another hut or on his violin outdoors. (A third hut was used by Locker-Lampson’s two secretaries, plus a cook brought from London, while Locker-Lampson himself occupied a military-style bell-tent.) He also went for country walks. A second armed guard, Albert Thurston, son-in-law of Eastoe, used to follow him to the local post office. ‘He would walk across the heath and I would follow him with a gun,’ recalled Thurston. ‘Mother would wait with the pram on the road and escort him to the post-office while I waited behind the hedge. Then I would escort him back again. I don’t think the post-office knew who he was. He would buy sweets: simple things like a child might buy.’ Once, Thurston showed Einstein his baby son. ‘He loved children. He touched my son on the forehead and said, “Double crown, he ’ll go a long way.” ’ On another occasion, Einstein invited two local village women to visit him and take tea. But when they discovered his hut full of German newspapers and a chest of drawers full of guns, they took fright and ran away. A contemporary caricature by the political cartoonist David Low captured this unique atmosphere beautifully: it portrayed Einstein as a harmless, diminutive professor with persecuted eyes walking hesitantly beneath a wildly disheveled halo of hair towards a dark shadow.

Other than local walks, Einstein seems to have left the encampment only a very few times, such as to call with Locker- Lampson on a near neighbour, the senior Conservative politician and future foreign secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, who was sympathetic to the cause of Jewish refugees. And he received hardly any invited visitors, just as he and Locker-Lampson had intended. Only two visits were of real significance.

The earlier one was that of Walter Adams, a lecturer in history at University College London (and later director of the London School of Economics). He was secretary of the newly formed Academic Assistance Council. Having driven out to Cromer from London, Adams recalled, ‘First we were confronted by one beautiful girl with a gun. Then there was a second one, also with a gun. Finally we saw Einstein who was walking around inside what seemed to be a little hedged compound.’ Adams quickly asked Einstein if he would agree to speak on behalf of academic refugees from Germany at the council’s first public meeting in London planned for 3 October. Einstein almost as quickly agreed. Whereupon Locker-Lampson went away, picked up the telephone and single-handedly hired the Albert Hall, according to Adams.

A visit from Jacob Epstein

Einstein’s second visitor, in late September, was very different. ‘Beachcomber’ introduced him weirdly in the Daily Express as follows:

A suspicious-looking cow waddled up to the hornworks at Fort Lampson yesterday, and miaowed pitifully.

It was this wrong noise that aroused the sentry’s suspicions. He ordered the animal to give the password, which was ‘Epstein’.

The cow began to bark.

The alarm was sounded, the fortifications were lined, and Professor Einstein was hustled down a disused well, for safety. The cow was surrounded and searched. In its pocket the searchers found a betting-slip, a beer-label, two empty quart bottles, and an ace with the corner nicked off it. At this point the cow said, ‘It’s only us.’

The front and hind legs came apart, revealing the well- known features of Nervo and Knox. [An English acrobatic dancing duo, part of the original Crazy Gang.]

The guards have been doubled.

Jacob Epstein, the sculptor, came to the not-so-secret encampment on Roughton Heath in the last week of the month, in order to prepare a model for his magnificent bronze bust of Einstein. He left a vivid account of the experience in his autobiography, Let There Be Sculpture, beginning with this personal description: ‘Einstein appeared dressed very comfortably in a pullover with his wild hair floating in the wind. His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination which delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.’

Working conditions left something to be desired, however. Sittings took place in the hut with the piano, with hardly any space to move. Epstein persuaded Locker-Lampson’s secretaries to remove the door, which they did and then facetiously asked if the sculptor would like the roof off as well. ‘I thought I should have liked that too, but I did not demand it, as the attendant “angels” seemed to resent a little my intrusion into the retreat of their professor.’

There was also a problem with Einstein himself: not his appearance, but rather his pipe. At the first sitting ‘the professor was so surrounded with tobacco smoke from his pipe that I saw nothing. At the second sitting I asked him to smoke in the interval.’

His conversation was ‘full of charm and bonhomie’, wrote Epstein. ‘He enjoyed a joke and had many a jibe at the Nazi professors, one hundred of whom in a book had condemned his theory. “Were I wrong,” he said, “one professor would have been quite enough.” Also, in speaking of Nazis he once said, “I thought I was a physicist, I did not bother about being non-Aryan until Hitler made me conscious of it.” ’

After the morning sittings, Einstein sat down at the piano to play. Once he took his violin and scraped away outside. ‘He looked altogether like a wandering gypsy, but the sea air was damp, the violin execrable, and he gave up. The Nazis had taken his own good violin when they confiscated his property in Germany.’ He also watched Epstein at work ‘with a kind of naïve wonder and seemed to sense that I was doing something good of him’.

Unfortunately, there was too little time for Epstein to complete the model, because Einstein was due in London for his speech in the Albert Hall and subsequent departure for America; he and Epstein left Cromer for London on the same train with Locker-Lampson. Yet the final bust, created and exhibited later that year in a London gallery, with its gentle smile, philosophical gaze and blazing aureole of hair, is generally regarded as a triumph. (It was, however, mysteriously knocked onto the floor during the exhibition, when the gallery attendants happened to be out of the room, provoking some speculation about a deliberate attack.)


Andrew Robinson has written more than twenty-five books, including Einstein: A Hundred Years of RelativityThe Last Man Who Knew Everything, and Genius: A Very Short Introduction. He also contributes regularly to newspapers and magazines.

Read more extracts from our books, such as Cursed Britain by Thomas Waters and Gentlemen of Uncertain Fortune by Rory Muir on our blog.

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