Photo: Shoshi Benstein
The Madcap Legacy of Albert Einstein and the Mountain-Dwelling Man Behind His Social Media Accounts
In a Q&A with U.S. author Benyamin Cohen, he explains how he called out Ivanka Trump and why he impersonates the Nobel Prize winning physicist / BY Carolyn Abraham / May 2nd, 2023
Albert Einstein died 68 years ago, but his digital avatar is alive and well and living in the Appalachians of West Virginia, where he embodies the persona of the iconic genius online and also raises exotic chickens (including one with a crazy white hairdo named Alberta).
American journalist and author Benyamin Cohen has been the official social media voice of Einstein for seven years, and he has a lot to say. Cohen, 48, posts several times a day on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and has a fan base of 20 million followers on Facebook alone – twice the population of Sweden and more than actor Tom Hanks.
The posthumous social media reach of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist is just one of the wild, wondrous, and decidedly weird ways that Einstein is still with us. The weirdest by far may be that Einstein’s most famous body part – his brilliant brain – has gone on to live a long and controversial afterlife.
The saga, which I chronicled in my 2001 book Possessing Genius: The Bizarre Odyssey of Einstein’s Brain, began at Princeton Hospital on April 18, 1955, when Thomas Harvey, the ambitious doctor performing the autopsy on Einstein, decided to take the famous brain, believing it could help solve the mystery of genius and make him a scientific hero. Instead, after cutting the brain into 240 pieces and hiding it away in basements, car trunks and closets for the next 40 years, it led to a lifetime of havoc.
Cohen is in Toronto this week for the world premiere of The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain, at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival. He appears in the documentary, which I made with Frequent Flyer Films, and offers a harsh perspective on Harvey’s deed. At the same time, Cohen recognizes the enduring allure of the organ that reshaped our view of space, time and the universe. And, he admits, he would like to have a piece himself.
Watch the trailer for The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain:
Precisely why Einstein remains such a powerful and relevant figure in science and popular culture is a phenomenon Cohen investigates in his upcoming book, The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms and Our Minds (out July 18). Both quest and guide, it is a fascinating and funny exploration of all things Einstein, from the perspective of a lay person who never set out to become the modern-day virtual voice of history’s most revered scientist.
Carolyn Abraham: How and when did you become the digital avatar of Einstein on social media?
Benyamin Cohen: I’m a journalist and it was a slow news day. I was looking for something to write about and I saw that Sotheby’s was auctioning off some of Einstein’s letters. So, I wrote an article about the auction, and my boss said such a smart thing to me: spend the morning writing a story and spend the afternoon promoting it. He told me to look online to see if there were any Einstein fan groups that might be interested in sharing the article.
I typed “Albert Einstein” into Facebook’s search bar and, lo and behold, up came the “official page of the world’s favourite genius.” That’s literally what it says at the top. Fortunately, Facebook makes it easy for you to message the owner of a page, and so I shared the link to my article. Less than five minutes later, I saw those three dots indicating that Albert Einstein was typing something back to me … I nearly fell off my chair.
A guy named Tony had been hired by the Einstein estate to manage Albert’s social media accounts, where he has more than 20 million followers. It’s hard to believe, but Einstein has more Facebook fans than Tom Hanks. Tony was more than happy to share my article, and a friendship was born.
After a couple years, Tony decided to take another job and, on his way out the door, he told the estate to hire me as his replacement. I’ve been Albert Einstein ever since. I started in 2017, so it’s been a while since I began impersonating a Nobel Prize winner.
CA: Can you describe how Einstein’s following has grown – has it been a slow trajectory, or did it take off instantly?
BC: Not surprisingly, Einstein has drawn a big fan following since day one, although I will say that we’ve practically doubled our number of Instagram followers [now at one million]. People just can’t get enough pictures of Einstein. He was no Paul Newman, but he had such an interesting look. And that smile – my God, he had such a sly smile. It’s so instantly inviting.
CA: How would you describe Einstein’s followers? Do they come from all over the world, and do they vary widely in age and occupation?
BC: Across race, religion, culture, political affiliation, right, left, old, young – everybody adores Albert Einstein. What’s most surprising to me is how much he’s beloved by the general public, by non-scientists, who can’t comprehend his universe-expanding physics. I think that’s why he was chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Century.
CA: What kinds of things do you post?
BC: I share a wide variety of things – on average about 10 posts per day. I’ve got to imagine that Einstein is the most active dead celebrity on Twitter. John Wayne only posts about once a month. Galileo isn’t even on social media.
I share a lot of science news, but I also have a regular rotation of features. Wednesday Wisdom is when I share an Einstein quote, Throwback Thursday is a good opportunity to share an old photo of Einstein and for Fan Art Friday, people send in their own drawings and paintings of Einstein that I share.
CA: What are some of the interesting reactions you’ve had to things you’ve posted?
BC: It’s weird. Even though people follow Einstein on social media, they’re often surprised that he actually posts. Several times a week someone comments: Albert Einstein is still alive? Is he tweeting from the grave?
CA: I recall you saying that Einstein’s followers also reach out to you with questions, can you describe some of those?
BC: I’ve had high school kids in India message me for help with their science homework. People are always asking me to explain quantum mechanics or the space-time continuum. Unfortunately, I’m not much help.
CA: Einstein had a poetic way with words, and he is often quoted. But he is also sometimes misquoted. Could you tell me about an instance when you felt compelled to set the record straight?
BC: My favorite example of that is when Ivanka Trump shared an Einstein quote to her Twitter page. She posted: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts. — Albert Einstein.” The Einstein estate gave me a 500-page book of official Einstein quotes as a reference guide. And I looked it up and it’s not in there. What’s ironic is that Ivanka was tweeting something that was factually inaccurate in a tweet about changing the facts. So, we felt the need to correct her and responded to her tweet. It made international news. The Huffington Post’s headline was “Ivanka Trump’s attempt to quote Albert Einstein backfires spectacularly.” Newsweek declared: “Ivanka Trump misquoted Einstein and the Internet loves it.”
CA: How do you feel about the role you have in keeping Einstein’s legacy alive online? What kinds of pressures come with this job?
BC: It’s an awesome responsibility, one which I don’t take lightly. Einstein spent his life building up his reputation. The last thing I want to do is mar that in any way. At the same time, I feel I have a unique opportunity to not only keep his legacy alive, but to spread the gospel of Einstein far and wide.
CA: What compelled you to write a book about the various ways Einstein remains relevant in the modern world?
BC: When I started this job, I set up a Google Alert for “Albert Einstein” and, each day, news items about him would land in my inbox. I thought maybe I’d find one or two stories a month. But to my surprise, Einstein was proving more prominent today than ever. There were new discoveries based on Einstein’s research or a new TV show or movie about Einstein. There were so many artists making paintings of Einstein, I could interview one every week.
CA: I love the title, The Einstein Effect: How the World’s Favorite Genius Got into Our Cars, Our Bathrooms and Our Minds. Yes, I have to ask – how did Einstein get into our bathrooms?
BC: Ha! There are a few ways, and I don’t want to give it all away. People should buy the book! But one example is a mathematical concept Einstein came up with that allows for the commercial production of chemical mixtures. It has to do with being able to predict where random particles will end up in a larger compound. Most items in your bathroom – like toothpaste, shampoo and shaving cream – use diffusion processes, first explained in Einstein’s 1905 paper on Brownian motion. It’s kind of funny that Einstein helped improve shampoo when his own hair was always a mess.
CA: Could you describe a few other examples of Einstein relevance in our modern world?
BC: The best example I like to give is GPS technology. We have satellites floating in space, and the earth is constantly turning, and the way a satellite can talk to the GPS in your car and know exactly where you are is all based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. So, the next time you get into an Uber or have a pizza delivered to your house, you have Einstein to thank for that.
His work lives on in the form of iPhone cameras and burglar alarms, remote controls, supermarket scanners, laser eye surgery and in the space program. Driverless cars, DVD players, weather forecasting – it can all be traced to his theories. For my book, I interviewed an astronomer at Harvard who is searching for aliens using something called gravitational microlensing – which was invented by Einstein.
CA: Was there anything that surprised you – in terms of Einstein’s modern-day impact – while researching the book?
BC: I think the technology legacy is easy to wrap your head around. After all, Einstein was a scientist. So, it’s not necessarily surprising that we see his fingerprints in the fields I just mentioned. But what surprised me were the other places where he has had an impact.
I’ll give you a great example of this: When Einstein fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s, he launched the International Rescue Committee to help his fellow German Jews escape Hitler’s wrath. That group, the IRC, is still around today, and it’s one of the largest refugee aid organizations in the world. Right now, they’re helping Ukrainian refugees in the war with Russia.
CA: We first connected with a common interest in the fate of Einstein’s brain. I wonder, what do you think he would feel about his brain having an immortal afterlife?
BC: Einstein did not want to become a celebrity attraction. That’s why he didn’t want to be buried, because he feared his gravesite would become a mecca, some bizarre place of pilgrimage for Einstein fanatics. He wanted to be cremated instead. The fact that Thomas Harvey, the doctor performing Einstein’s autopsy, stole the brain – he took that choice away from Einstein. Granted, Harvey had good intentions: he wanted to study the brain for scientific purposes. But I can’t imagine what Einstein would think of all the hoopla that has surrounded the brain for nearly seven decades since his death.
CA: During the film interview, you mentioned you would like to have a piece of the brain. Have you since managed to see it?
BC: I have. Before Thomas Harvey died, he gave it to another doctor in Princeton, New Jersey. He doesn’t like the spotlight. He let me interview him for my book, but I had to promise to use a pseudonym – Dr. X – so people wouldn’t find out who’s keeping Einstein’s brain in their basement now.
He let me hold the jar containing the brain. I got emotional. I teared up. I thought about all the new ideas this brain imagined. I had embarked on a journey to find all that this genius had inspired, and here I was holding the original relic itself. This was more than just the physical remnants of a famous person; Einstein’s brain represented so much more: the curiosity that surrounds our very existence in the universe.
I was back in Princeton recently and it was around my birthday. I told Dr. X if he wanted to get me a gift, I would gladly take a piece of the brain. He didn’t say yes – but he didn’t say no, either.
“The Man Who Stole Einstein’s Brain” premieres at Hot Docs on May 3 and airs again on May 5. Tickets can be purchased here: https://hotdocs.ca/whats-on/hot-docs-festival/films/2023/man-who-stole-einsteins-brain