Sunday, December 04, 2011

Advent calendar #4: Einstein's haircut

In Stefan's bookshelf I found a little book "Einstein privat" by Friedrich Herneck who, on the book cover, is described as "one of today's leading Einstein researchers." Herneck interviewed Einstein's former household aid, Herta W., about everything from Einstein's smoking habits, over nicknames used in the family to how often Einstein fed the goldfish. Herta W. had the following to say about Einstein's haircut which, next to going sockless, has become trademark of the ingenious theoretical physicist:
"Wenn seine Haare zu lang waren, wenn es gar zu schlimm geworden war, dann hat [seine Frau Elsa] ihm das Haar mit der Schere abgeschnitten. Das hat er sich dann auch machen lassen. Da Frau Professor aber sehr kurzsichtig war und beim Haarschneiden ihre Lorgnette, ihre Stielbrille, nicht ständig benutzen konnte... Aber Herr Professor war eben nicht zu bewegen, zu einem Berufsfrisör zu gehen."

"When his hair grew too long, when it got really intolerable, then [his wife Elsa] cut his hair off with a scissor. He let her do that. But since Frau Professor was very shortsighted and, during cutting, could not always use her Lorgnette... But Herr Professor could not be bothered to see a professional barber."

"Frau Professor" is (here) the form of address for the professor's wife and a lorgnette are old-fahioned glasses that have to be held on a handle in front of one's eyes. Later in the interview there's more talk about Frau Professor's shortsightedness and it seems it was indeed serious. She was however too vain to permanently wear thick glasses.


  1. Hi Bee,

    Perhaps Elsa was Einstein’s solution to Russel’s paradox, since she never shaved herself for fear of cutting her throat, while as with Einstein the rest didn’t fully appreciate the risk :-)

    “A man of Seville is shaved by the Barber of Seville if the man does not shave himself. Does the barber shave himself?”

    -Bertrand Russel



  2. I don't believe it. Einstein's iconic haircut was too pretentious to be random. I have the impression that he consciously promoted the image of the unconventional rebel. Like the iconic figure of Che it is too perfect to be accidental.

  3. The interview seems very authentic too me and Elsa's shortsightedness seems to have been well known and is confirmed by many other people. What psychoanalysis would say were Einstein's deeper reasons to avoid a barber is another questions. But I don't see anything pretentious about his haircut. It looks like it was cut to keep the hair out of his eyes and not so long as to hang onto his shoulders, that's pretty much it. Best,


  4. The story maybe true but does not explain his haircut like you said in the post.

    For example this isn't natural. It takes effort to comb you hair like that. It's a hair style and a statement. At least this my impression but maybe I'm wrong; I don't know much about Einstein's personality but it's hard to believe that this haircut is not intentional.

  5. I think he was genuinely in his own universe.
    I read that while at Princeton he would be crossing a street and suddenly stop midway, lost in contemplation. The locals, who could recognize him by his white mane, would wait patiently until he ambled on.
    What I found to be an interesting contrast for an abstracted theorist was his passion for sailing a small boat in very rough weather. He was dismasted once and was rescued twice, as I recall. Furthermore, he did not know how to swim and refused to carry a life jacket.
    Crossing the Atlantic he spent a long time on deck in bad weather just watching the ocean.

  6. Is it just my imagination or does he look a bit like Stalin in this picture? The expression somehow looks similar.

    (Note:I do not mean anything else by this statement.)

  7. Methinks the "pretentious"ness is in the eye of the beholder.

  8. Hi Giotis,

    Well, I'm no Einstein researchers and I'm not striving to become one, so maybe you're right. I didn't say this explains Einstein's haircut, I just wrote that's what Herta had to say about it. Anyway, I'm also no hair specialist, but the way you get your hair in a form like the one you see in the photo you link to is fairly easy. You comb it backward and get some wind from behind. Depending on the texture of your hair it will just stay this way. I have the sort of slightly curly hair that when it's short I can comb it all I want it will point into all directions half an hour later; it's just hot heavy enough to stay put and I'm in no mood to splatter something on it to get it in a prettier shape. Maybe that's why I find Herta's explanation more plausible than you. Best,



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