In 1922, Albert Einstein was on a lecture tour in Japan. While staying at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, a bellhop delivered a message to his room. Einstein, not having any cash, wrote a note on hotel stationery in lieu of a tip. Actually, you could call it a tip of another kind, since the note contained a piece of advice.
I understand Einstein’s predicament. There have been plenty of times when I was stuck without cash. I never thought of giving advice to the bellhop or maid, though, since it would be like doing a trick for Halloween instead of handing out treats. Also, I don’t think it would have had the same cachet as a note from Prof. Einstein.
I read a lengthy biography of Einstein when I was in high school. I’m not sure why, except that I thought a lot about time back then (there’s a joke in there somewhere). It had a limerick that went like this: “There was a young lady named Bright/whose speed was far faster than light./ She set out one day in a relative way/and returned on the previous night.”
I also remember riding on the interstate in my family’s Estate Wagon station wagon. It was summertime, and we were on a road trip to California. We passed through Indiana, breezing along at a comfortable 70-75 miles per hour with the windows open, when all of a sudden a bee drifted into the car. It must have been in the median, buzzing away happily, and ventured too far toward the highway.
Once everybody calmed down and we dispensed with the bee (we had paper maps back then), I started thinking about what had happened. In fact, I became obsessed with it for the next two months.
Here’s what I couldn’t figure out. How could the bee go from zero to 75 in a split second without being smashed against the rear window of the car? Furthermore, how could it leave the primrose and thistle by the side of the highway and enter our high-speed world of luggage, coolers, hamburger wrappers, clothes, maps, and AM radio just like that? It buzzed around inside the car as if it had been there all along. It seemed physically impossible.
So, I read as much as I could about time, space, motion, gravity, etc. I asked everyone I believed might have an answer, including my grandmother, who had hair like Einstein. During our return trip, I begged my parents to recreate what I was now calling “the experiment” but under controlled conditions like reduced speed. My father explained that driving halfway on the shoulder in the passing lane at 40 miles per hour would get us all killed. I think he was more upset that he had to explain it to me.
Finally, in the fall I asked my physics teacher, but he mumbled something about relative speed and spin, comparing my bee to humans traveling on Earth, which hurtles through space at 67,000 miles per hour. “And we don’t get smashed into Earth’s rear window now, do we?”
He was making fun of me. I conceded the point and went away sulking, but I was not satisfied. After all, there was no giant window for the Earth to smash into even if it wanted to.
That’s when I realized something that has stayed with me ever since. It was my eureka moment. The greatest contribution Prof. Einstein made, at least for me, is not about relativity. It’s about being inspired and dauntless enough to ask the big questions. For instance, how can a beam of light, which is something, travel through space, which is nothing? Why does time slow down the faster you go? How can a bee buzz into your car and travel through Indiana with you and your family on the interstate? I’d rather think about these things than what’s trending in social media any day.
And what of the bellhop? The young man had the presence of mind to keep the note and pass it on to his children, who passed it on to theirs. In October, 2017 Einstein’s note sold for 1.6 million dollars at an auction in Jerusalem. It said: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”
Now that’s what I call a tip.
You want a piece of me? Go to Robert Brancatelli. For feature image, go to NPR; fuzzy slippers, Historical Society of Princeton; Einstein with note Sunday Express; hair, Mental Floss. Limerick from A.H. Reginald Buller, Punch: London Humor Magazine (1926).