6. The Role of the Observer in String Theory (I of IV)

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Abstract: Everybody can recognize a portrait or a caricature of Einstein. His dishevelled hair and moustache are familiar to almost everybody, at least in the Western world. In the first part of the essay, I review the historical conditions that led to Einstein as a recognizable figure. In the middle section I study the ways Hawking grew as a visual icon in correspondence and in opposition to Einstein. Finally, I ponder, assuming a textual rather than a pictorial approach, the implication of these considerations to the spread and popularity of superstring theory.
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Einstein in the age of mechanical reproduction
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Who was Albert Einstein? Or, to put it a better way, how do people remember him? To a trained physicist he is the author of the theory of relativity, special and general; to the layperson he is, instead, the greatest scientist of all time, discoverer of strange physical theories and inventor of the nuclear bomb. Though people disagree about the real significance of Einstein’s legacy, as is indeed the case even amid professional physicists and historians of science, it is fair to say that the sole mention of his name brings to mind an image: Einstein’s face. Countless things have been said about Einstein’s face as a cultural icon, for the physics community as well as for the whole of Western society, and I do not intend to repeat them here. Maybe it is true that most people think of him as a machine that produced objective knowledge, as stated by Barthes’ legendary reading, or perhaps they are right, those who claim that his image symbolizes the need for a redefinition of the human condition in contemporary technological societies; whatever it may be, interpretations of this sort are only tangential to my own argument. Here I will not be interested in deciphering what Einstein’s face tries to tell us. What I will do is to pick up several visual representations of Einstein and put them in their specific historical context in order to appreciate under which circumstances he became a visual icon. In each case the images selected indicate the level of development of the mass media of the time and reveal the degree of acceptance of Einstein as a visual icon. In other words, my goal in this section will not be to carry out a contemporary semiotic analysis but to contextualize the process of conception, production, circulation, and reception of Einstein’s image in the course of the last one hundred years (of course, not exhaustively). Because, what is “the ‘meaning of photography’ without considering the ways in which the meanings and uses of photography are regulated by the formats and institutions of production, distribution and consumption (be they magazines or newspapers, the advertising and publicity industries, camera manufacturers — or other socially organized relations such as the family)?”[source] To begin, let us say a word about the printed image and its reproduction.

By means of techniques such as etching and engraving, printed copies of images were part of the daily visual experience of a select group of Europeans since the fifteenth century. Thanks to several important technical advances by the early nineteenth century, images reproduced by non-mechanical methods were already a distinctive feature of the emergent industrial society. By then, the reproduced image was no longer the sole privilege of wealthy people. More and more images came in forms that promoted its broad consumption: in cheap newspapers, in advertisements oriented to the growing middle and working classes, and in affordable magazines and books, to name but a few. One of the industries that profited the most from this profusion of images was the rising business of illustrated journalism. Its success was such that in nineteenth-century Europe, as well as in America, illustrated journalism contributed to a great extent to the formation of popular culture; including the appropriation of images and a new way of seeing. Yet, it was only with the advent of photography and its later improvements that images were for the first time mass reproduced. Indeed, shortly after the invention of photography the first photos began to be included in printed publications (the only existing mass media at the time). The photographs commissioned by The Illustrated Times and taken by Robert Howlett for the occasion of the construction and launching of the superb steamboat Great Eastern in 1857 were the first planned for publication in a newspaper. The portrait of the chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel was included on 16 January 1858 issue. This is considered to be the first photograph accompanying a newspaper article (by its extension and approach, today we would call it a feature). As was usual in those days, this image was beforehand engraved on a metallic surface and only then added to the printing process. But the engraving procedure was cumbersome, engaging a great amount of time from skilled artists, and it was unable to facilitate a mechanical reproduction of the image as was required by the fast rotary printing press. The marriage of printing press and photography had to wait. In fact, the beginning of illustrated journalism (by this I mean including photographs) dates back to the third quart of the nineteenth century. On 4 March 1880 the New York Daily Graphic published a photograph taken by Stephen Henry Horgan entitled A Scene in Shantytown. This was the first photograph reproduced by mechanical means, a process that employed a technique invented by Horgan himself: halftone. Thanks to this method of reproduction a mounting number of photographs started to appear regularly in magazines, from the 1880s, and in newspapers, from the 1890s. Among the first and most influential publications frequently using photographs were the Illustrated American, the Illustrated London News, Paris Moderne, and the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. In 1904, the then recently created English tabloid The Daily Mirror began to illustrate its internal pages almost exclusively with photographs. Another important step in the advancement of early photo-illustrated journalism was the first interview including photographs. The interview was conducted by Nadar, pseudonym of the French photographer Félix-Gaspar Tournachon, and the photographs taken by his son Paul. Thirteen pictures, all of them taken in the studio and reproduced in halftone, were published by Le Journal Illustré on 5 September 1886. These new technical possibilities and the growing interest of the public made photo-illustrated journalism a sustainable business before the outbreak of the First World War. Indeed, technical innovations, social and economic circumstances, and an eclectic cultural life were all factors reflected in the changing mentality of late nineteenth-century Western citizens, and were responsible for the success of the new publication style combining journalism and photography. However, as we will see, it was only after the Great War that it reached its peak.

The exceptional events that took place in Europe and America during the nineteenth century created, with illustrated journalism playing a preponderant role in this, a new way of being and acting in the world. The period of the rise and consolidation of photography, roughly the third quarter of the nineteenth century (1848–1875), has been considered to be the age in which the world economy became capitalistic.[source] Monarchical regimes all over Europe were shaken to their very foundations and everywhere the semi-industrialized economy gave rise to struggles between the new rising social classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The working class and, very significantly, the small producers of goods and services began to organize themselves in search of social change. Printed materials played a vital role as a method of communication in this. The ongoing social conflict produced in the population, as never before in history, a growing concern about their fundamental participation and responsibility in state matters. And newspapers were considered a good point of reference for understanding the social world and for starting the action. The international arena too was a matter of concern for Westerners. By the mid-nineteenth century a few developed countries had taken control of the globe and accumulated wealth at the expense of the rest of the world. This gave rise to potential conflicts amongst the main powers; a serious situation that certainly stirred the interest of the public. As expected, illustrated journalism exploited this need for information in order to increase its audience (photographs from the Crimean war 1853–1856 had already been taken by the British photographer Roger Fenton). The human migrations that took place in this period were also unprecedented. It is estimated that from 1846 to 1875 more than 9 million people left Europe, mostly for America, a quantity representing four times the population of London at that time. The desire of these emigrants to take with them the portraits of the families they had left behind gave further momentum to the development of photography. The patenting of the postcard in America in 1861 and its later popularization in Europe, as well as the creation of the General Postal Union in 1874, also fostered the creation of a novel rapport between the viewer and the image. Gisèle Freund once said that photography opened a new window unto the world. The faces of public personalities, local and global events, the cultural world, and new technological advances, everything became familiar. With photography the gaze became wider and the world shrunk. According to her, when the individual portrait was substituted by the collective portrait, photography initiated the age of visual mass media.[source] This was the context that several years later would give life to photojournalism.

It was only after the First World War that all these elements, accumulated over decades, gave rise to what is now known as photojournalism. And it was in post-war Germany that this occurred. (So far I have described photo-illustrated journalism, that is, printed publications where photographs accompany, and are secondary to, a text; in photojournalism, on the other hand, photographs are the center of attention, not the text.) Tim Gidal, a German pioneer photojournalist, summarized the essential preconditions for modern photojournalism: “The years after the First World War were years of profound political, economic and social changes, they were years of inflation, of desperation and – this is essential – of a new hope for a better future in a liberated and a liberal political world.”[source] With the end of hostilities, the German Empire also saw the fall of the constitutional monarchy and the declaration of the Weimar Republic. Soon after, followed years of social upheaval, including bloody armed revolts and several coups, all this accompanied by a mounting extremist nationalism. Scholars have observed that despite the political and institutional unrest of the Weimar Republic — confrontations involving primarily nationalists, social democrats, and left-wing political activists — the period was undoubtedly one of the richest in German culture. Indeed, theatre, dance, film, photography, literature, journalism, architecture, and visual arts, all flourished in an exceptional manner. But Weimar’s Germany is not only accredited for having had strongly innovative cultural movements; it was also the land where the most advanced science was being carried out. The country boasted notable scientists at the forefront of natural investigations, among them: the authoritative physicist Max Planck; the greatest mathematician of the time, David Hilbert; and the world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein. And, last but not least, a new generation of German physicists were revolutionizing the understanding of the microphysical world.

By the second decade of the twentieth century Germany had, in contrast to other European countries, a very low rate of illiteracy; with the most educated population concentrated mainly, whether living in rich neighbourhoods or in working class areas, in the main cities. All these circumstances, and others that I will not mention here, changed the typical Weimar citizen into someone interested in what was happening around him or her (by then, women had gained a manifest role in German society, consider Rosa Luxemburg, for instance). In this context, newspapers were the main source of information. Amid the major subject treated by German newspapers were politics, culture, technology, and fashion, but other topics of general interest were also touched upon in order to satisfy and attract a curious and discerning audience.

In this context of public concern for social issues, some visionary editors understood the importance of the photographic image and took advantage of it. The idea was to use as many photographs as possible in newspapers and magazines. As the economic success of these publications show, the method was well received by the audience. Photojournalism allowed the reader to easily capture the most important news. In addition, the low cost of every issue, guaranteed by the improvements made to the printed press, made photographic journalism a lucrative business – much more than it had been in its early stages around the turn of the century. It should be said that there was a fundamental difference between this incipient photojournalism and the one that had been practiced until then. The editors of this new sort of publication were not interested in writing stories and accompanying them with photographs, as visual explanations of the main text, rather in telling full stories with photographs. Photography was the main actor and the words were simple supplements to it. The text depended on the image and not the other way round. Thus, in its most basic conception photojournalism was, and still is today, a visual experience rather than a written one. Instead of a reader, it would be more appropriate to talk about a viewer-reader, emphasizing in this way the imagery context of the genre. With the first systematic thoughts on page layout, commercialization of the publications, and a whole new generation of professional photograph editors and photographers, photojournalism was introduced in its modern sense. German weekly magazines such as Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Münchner Illustrirte Presse are recognized as the first publications of the genre.

Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung was published weekly from 4 January 1892 onwards. A few years after its inaugural launch the magazine became very popular in Germany, triggering a revolution in modern mass media. It is estimated that by the second decade of the century every week Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (BIZ) was sold to around one million people; reaching several million readers in a population of about 65 million. The full illustrated covers were seen by millions of people in Germany; whether whilst they were buying something in the well-stocked kiosks that filled the streets of every city or taking a casual look at an issue purchased by someone else. In its content, the magazine was never conceived as a competitor to daily newspapers, but rather as a complement to them. Since 1894 the editors-in-chief of BIZ, and most markedly Kurt Korff (a journalist who was latter involved in the initial conception of Life magazine), took action to make sure that the magazine focused more on long-term international issues rather than on local or national matters; unusual in those days, BIZ even had several reporters based around the world. As an alternative to daily publications, BIZ also overlooked reporting on several national political happenings, though transcendental, that could be found in other newspapers. For instance, the end of the monarchy in 1918 and the “Kapp Putsch” in March 1920 were not reported on by the magazine. Alternative in-depth reportages and news coverage were the main content of BIZ. In terms of technical matters, the magazine was innovative in the use of offset printing and linotype machines, reducing production time and the final cost of the issue to the public. Its popularity within the German population, the original choice of its content, and the innovative reproduction techniques, were very remarkable issues; however, if BIZ deserves special consideration in this account it is because of the prominence it gave to photography.

In contrast to previous German magazines that had required a subscription, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung was sold in newspaper kiosks around the country. BIZ was printed in Ullstein-Verlag printing workshops on Mondays and put on the market on Thursdays. This ground-breaking distribution manner required that the BIZ editors paid more attention to the cover. This attitude was supported by Dr. Franz Ullstein as early as 1900 when he noted to his photograph editors and designers that the cover had to be the main focus of their concerns. According to him, and all the editors that followed, the cover was the main attribute of the magazine in making it more appealing to the public. In principle, it consisted of a big picture with one or, at the most, two titles. The frontispiece would feature public personalities, including politicians, bankers, industrialists, and artists. If the picture was a portrait, as was usually the case, a short explanatory caption placing the personality in its context would be added. To photograph and publish the faces of public personalities was a novelty, and BIZ made it into a fashionable practice for young photo reporters and a daily experience for the viewer-reader. This approach was further emphasized in the late twenties under the influence of the self-taught photo reporter Erich Salomon.

In Germany, the first mass-reproduced photograph of Albert Einstein appeared on 14 December 1919 on the cover of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Figure 1). The close-up portrait shows a young man with his chin resting on the fingers of his right hand and staring into the distance. The position of his hand as well as the downward gaze attempts to signify that the sitter is in deep concentration, certainly thinking about very important matters (by “signify” I mean the interpretation that someone seeing at this picture in Germany in 1919 would give to the features shown in the photo). The black and white printed photograph only shows part of the original shot (see Figure 1), the former giving full priority to the features of the face. Hair and forehead (top 1/3), and eyes and nose (middle 1/3) are symmetrically framed. The bottom 1/3 of the picture consists on the moustaches and the mouth (1/6), and the fingers and suit (bottom 1/6). The photograph is intentionally symmetrical, apart from the bottom elements, fingers and costume, and the conventional shadow on one side of the face. (A more attentive observation reveals that the three fingers on the left side of the photograph are in fact symmetrical to the collar of the white shirt on the opposite side.)

1. Early mass-reproduced photographs of Albert Einstein: Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung,
cover, 4 December 1919; full picture (ca. 1910); L’Illustration, cover, 1 April 1922.

The legend at the bottom declares:
A new Great in the World History: Albert Einstein,
whose researches, signifying a complete revolution in our concepts of nature,
are on a par with the insights of a Copernicus, a Kepler, and a Newton.

The impact of this photograph on the German public was observed by the journalist, and Einstein’s son-in-law, Rudolph Kayser, alias Anton Reiser. In his biography of Einstein, Reiser notes that:
Back in the year 1919, there appeared, on the title page of the Berliner Illustrierte [sic] Zeitung, the portrait of Albert Einstein. Hundreds of thousands of people saw this face for the first time; heard for the first time the name of this Berlin professor of physics; learned for the first time, through the printed article, about the problems of the theory of relativity. In all probability, his face made as deep an impression on the readers as the popular and abbreviated summary of his great discoveries. From then on, it became the property of the great number of people who derived from these features a living impression at once undeceiving and unforgettable.[source]

In fact, even though Einstein was one of the most prestigious and publicly known scientists in Germany before 1919, it was only after the observational conclusions of the eclipse that he really reached public notoriety. In other European countries, including Great Britain, France and the United States, he was not a public figure at all. The French historian of science Michel Paty has argued that most French scientists did not know and had not even heard of him before 1919.[source] Nonetheless, during the period 1919–1922 Einstein’s fame grew significantly. Certainly, the press played a decisive role in this respect. Wherever he went, within Europe, America, or Asia, the media were very enthusiastic. Hundreds of articles were written, explaining the controversial theory of relativity and describing the man behind it. Most of the articles published in this period, if not all, came with a photograph of the great scientist (see Figure 1). Commenting on the euphoria surrounding Einstein’s image, a truly visual phenomenon, the 1 July 1921 the Frankfurter Zeitung noticed that he was “the most photographed man of the present day”[source] (see Figure 2). It is worth stressing that most of these pictures were not spontaneous, in fact, the exposition time was too long, still taking several seconds, and small lightweight portable cameras had not yet been invented (the Leica was introduced in 1925 and the Ermanox camera only one year earlier). Einstein’s photographs were, as most painting portraits had always been, the confluence of various personal interests: the commissioner (the newspaper or magazine), the portraitist (the photographer), the intermediaries (local scientists), the sitter (Einstein himself), and, as we will see in the second part of this essay, the beholder. Einstein’s endorsement of his portrayal wherever he went must be understood as part of the promotional campaign he, and others, planned for his theory – and persona.

2. Einstein sitting for a photographer during his extensively covered visit to England in 1921.

With the final ascension to power of Hitler in 1933, Einstein was not the only one to flee Germany. In fact, the end of the Weimar Republic marked the beginning of a period characterized by the extermination of any sign of intellectual autonomy; the air of freedom that had pervaded the streets of Germany in the twenties was over. Intellectuals refusing to follow the directives fixed by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, led by Göbbels, were compelled to emigrate. Of course, professional photojournalists were not the exception. Many of the freelance photojournalists gravitating around Doctor Erich Salomon from the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Stefan Lorant, the talented editor and art director of Münchener Illustrirte Presse, a magazine highly inspired by BIZ, had to leave Germany and find refuge in different Western countries; most of them went to the United States. Of particular importance to this discussion is the influence that these German expatriates, many of them Jews, had in the origin and development of photojournalism in the United States. And not only because the genre found in the United States its highest elaboration, but also because this was the country where Einstein decided to spend the rest of his life. By the mid-thirties, cutting edge photojournalism and Einstein had moved to the United States.

One of the professional photographers who emigrated from Nazi Germany was Kurt Korff, the editor of BIZ already mentioned. On his arrival in New York he joined the prosperous organization of Henry Robinson Luce, the young entrepreneur founder of Time (1923) and Fortune (1930). Luce was on his way to launching the most successful photo magazine of all time: Life (23 November 1936). Even though Luce had gained some previous experience with photojournalism, the contribution of German expatriates to the success of Life, in particular the contribution of Kurt Korff and Kurt Szafranski, also a former editor-in-chief of BIZ, has been widely acknowledged. The first issue of Life magazine, containing several pictures of the brilliant German-Jewish photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt (previously at the Münchener Illustrirte Presse), was published with the following prospectus:
To see life, to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousand of miles away, things hidden behind walls and rooms, things dangerous to come; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed. (Italics added.)

According to the magazine, as we can read in this opening issue, half of the world’s population wanted to see. The concept of Life was very simple after all: to exploit photography as much as possible in order to tell interesting stories; an old idea that, as we have explained, was at the heart of the success of its European predecessors. With a cover usually displaying a person, most of the time a distinguished personality, and a content made up of photographs organized in so called photo essays, the image was the heart of Life. In Life the eye was guided not by words but by high art photographs that reported on interesting social, political, and cultural events. To see, to see, and to see; this was Life’s basic idea. Moreover, as Life’s longtime writer and assistant editor Loudon Wainwright once said, it was essential to Life to see things the way its audience saw them (that is, to highlight the sense of objectivity that photography always had – “to eyewitness”).[source] These reasons are not sufficient to explain the great success of the magazine, but they are very important and are the only ones that we are concerned with here.

As stated in the prospectus quoted above, Life was not only an entertainment magazine; it was also intended to instruct the reader, or better, the viewer. Art, technology, and science were common themes of the photo essays, informing the viewer-reader of the new tendencies in fine art (“paintings”), technological breakthroughs (“towers”), and the progress of science (“discoveries”). With respect to science, Einstein, a preferred subject of newspapers and magazines, could not be ignored by Life. Einstein’s fame by then is well illustrated by the following story: it is said that a man once stopped him in the street and told him that his face looked familiar; Einstein replied that he was a photographer’s model. This could not go unnoticed by Life’s editors. About one year after its maiden issue, in early 1938, Life ordered a set of photographs to Lotte Jacobi, a German refugee and old acquaintance of Einstein. She had first met Einstein in Berlin, in the late twenties, where she photographed him. From then on Einstein felt a sincere admiration for her work. He himself recommended her to Life for the pictures of the photo essay (see Figure 3). They met in Einstein’s residence at Princeton for the shooting session. In the main photograph we recognize an old Einstein smoking his pipe.

3. Life, 11 April 1938.

Life rejected some of Jacobi’s photographs because they were inappropriate, that is, not fitting “the Einstein” of the viewer-reader (see our discussion below concerning the constant negotiation between portraiture and the audience). However, one of these pictures appeared that same year, one week before the Life issue, on the cover of one of Luce’s most successful magazines: Time (see the second picture of Figure 4). Let us pause here and say a word about Time.

Although Time has never been a picture magazine, it has always devoted particular consideration to its cover (as had all the other magazines created by Luce). In a special volume dedicated to the magazine’s seventy five years, the editor of the publication, Frederick Voss, from the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, noted that since its maiden issue and “for many years to come, TIME’s cover would generally bear the likeness of a newsworthy individual.”[source] And, the impact of Time’s cover to American visual culture has been very significant.
Almost from the magazine’s inception in 1923, the cover of TIME has been a cultural touchstone in American life. The famous and the infamous, the heroes and the scoundrels, the significant trends and the momentous events of the day have appeared on it, portrayed by artists and photographers who gave TIME its signature visual style. (Time, 3 April 2008.)[source]

Returning to Einstein; the cover of the 4 April 1938 was not his first. In fact, his first frontispiece was one decade earlier: on 18 February 1929. His third cover appearance was after the war: on 1 July 1946. This painting portrait is very interesting for there is an explicit association between Einstein and the nuclear bomb. Indeed, many people got to know Einstein in this warlike context. The portrait is an ink and gouache on board painting preserved in the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, and was executed by the prolific cover designer of Time and Fortune, Ernest Hamlin Baker. The cover of the 19 February 1979 (Einstein had already died many years before) is a painting based on a photograph taken by Philippe Halsman in 1944 at Princeton.

4. Time magazine covers: 18 February 1929; 4 April 1938; 1 July 1946; and 19 February 1979.

In this section I have tried to examine how Einstein’s fame through his entire life and beyond was intimately tied to the method that dominated the reproduction of the image during the first half of the twentieth century: printing press. And in particular to a specific kind of mass medium: photo magazines. His fame and distinguishable image grew and consolidated thanks to his constant presence in the public visual space. That things were to change was made evident when in April 1972 mass media declared: “Life is dead.” Photo magazines were giving way to a new way of seeing. Not still images but moving ones; not printed pictures but electronically conveyed ones; not photo magazines but television.

The opening issue of Life in 1936 comprised 96 pages, with advertisements taking up a third of the publication. This was enough to make the magazine into a profitable business. However, with the advent of television and its quick acceptance by the population, advertisers could reach greater audiences with a lesser amount of money. The economic advantage of the new electronic invention was something that editors from photo magazines could not ignore. In the United States, for example, the few thousand television sets sold in the early forties had grown astronomically to several million by the end of the decade. However, during these years the general population still considered photo magazines to be the most reliable source of information. The genre was in its heyday, with tens of millions of magazines being sold every week around the globe. But the inroads television made into the advertisement market proved devastating for photo magazines in the next decades. Between 1960 and 1975 the number of television channels multiplied by ten and a television set was present in almost every family home in the Western world. Photo magazines could not compete with the immediacy of television and its cheap advertisement rates. Photo magazines were dead. Ever since the invention of television, the world has been connected by means of images that flow around it at the speed of light. And with television the process of seeing reached a higher level in Western societies. All this had an impact on the ways Einstein’s image was produced, circulated, and consumed. Einstein too had to update his face.