Genius is no guarantee of public recognition. In this post we look at the changing fortunes and reputations of three very different scientists: Alan Turing, Nikola Tesla, and Albert Einstein.
With the success of the recent movie, the Imitation Game (based on Andrew Hodges’ acclaimed biography Alan Turing: The Enigma), it’s easy to forget that for decades after his death, Turing’s name was known only to computer scientists. His conviction for homosexual activity in 1950s Britain, his presumed suicide in 1954, and the veil of secrecy drawn over his code-breaking work at Bletchley Park during the Second World War combined to obscure his importance as one of the founders of computer science and artificial intelligence. The gradual change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and the increasing centrality of computers to our daily lives have done much to restore his reputation posthumously. Turing received an official apology in 2009, followed by a royal pardon in 2013.
Despite enjoying celebrity in his own lifetime, Nikola Tesla’s reputation declined rapidly after his death, until he became regarded as an eccentric figure on the fringes of science. His legendary showmanship and the outlandish claims he made late in life of inventing high-tech weaponry have made it easy for critics to dismiss him as little more than a charlatan. Yet he was one of the pioneers of electricity, working first with Edison, then Westinghouse to develop the technology that established electrification in America. W. Bernard Carlson’s Nikola Tesla tells the story of a life that seems drawn from the pages of a novel by Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, of legal battles with Marconi over the development of radio, of fortunes sunk into the construction of grandiose laboratories for high voltage experiments.
By contrast, the reputation of Albert Einstein seems only to have grown in the century since the publication of his General Theory of Relativity. He is perhaps the only scientist to have achieved iconic status in the public mind, his face recognized as the face of genius. Children know the equation e=mc2 even though most adults would struggle to explain its implications. From the publication of the four 1905 papers onwards, Einstein’s place in scientific history has been secure, and his work remains the cornerstone of modern understanding of the nature of the universe. We are proud to announce the publication of a special 100th anniversary edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory, and the recent global launch of our open access online archive from the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, the Digital Einstein Papers.