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Happy Birthday Albert Einstein: Sailing the CT Coast

By Phil Devlin.

In the month of September, 1905, Einstein’s paper on the special theory of relativity is published in the Annalen der Physik.The renowned physicist, born on March 14, 1879, spent the summer of 1935 in Old Lyme, CT, often sailing on the Connecticut coast.

Henry David Thoreau and Albert Einstein had something in common: They both loved simplicity. Both also shared a love for nature. For Einstein, that love of nature found expression in sailing.

The simplicity of the interplay of boat, wind, and water appealed to him. He learned to sail in Switzerland as a young man and continued to do so for more than 50 years.

After fleeing the repression of Jews and intellectuals in Hitler’s Germany and coming to Princeton in 1933, Einstein often spent the summers at the seashore. He rented a home called the “White House” in Old Lyme during the summer of 1935 and took his 17-foot sailboat named Tinef with him.

Despite sailing for over half a century, Einstein was not a very accomplished sailor. According to his biographers, he would lose his direction, his mast would often fall down, and he frequently ran aground and had near collisions with other vessels.

Often sailing near the mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook, Einstein ran aground on a sand bar once. The New York Times took note, running the following headline in the summer of 1935: “Relative Tide and Sand Bars Trap Einstein.” Another newspaper put it this way: “”Einstein’s Miscalculation Leaves Him Stuck On Bar Of Lower Connecticut River.”

Interestingly, Einstein seemed to be indifferent to the dangers of sailing, and the perils were particularly acute since he didn’t know how to swim! It is rather amazing that he didn’t drown. In I944, for example, while sailing on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, Einstein’s boat hit a rock and capsized. A rope entangled his leg, and he was trapped briefly underneath the sail, but he managed to find his way to the surface without panicking and was saved by people on a passing motorboat.

Those who knew Einstein claim that he always took a pencil and a pad of paper with him when he sailed, so that if he got stuck or if the wind died, he could write down his thoughts. Since he liked solitude and privacy, perhaps this was just another aspect of sailing that appealed to Einstein. Perhaps even aspects of his famous Theory of Relativity were formulated onboard a sailboat.

Here is how Einstein explained his theory in simplified fashion to members of the public: “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT’S relativity.”

Here are some other interesting quotations from the renowned physicist with the fly-away hair, some of which were may have been formulated onboard a sailing boat — perhaps off the coast of Connecticut:

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex … It takes a touch of genius and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.”

“Human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust, we all dance to a mysterious tune intoned in the distance by an invisible player.”

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”

“The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”

“Only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

“The most aggravating thing about the younger generation is that I no longer belong to it.”

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning.”

“How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose we know not, though sometimes we sense it. But we know from daily life that we exist for other people first of all, for whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends.”


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