Albert Einstein developed a bit of a reputation with the former Princeton Borough Police Department during his two decades living and working in the town.
He’d often get lost in his own neighborhood. The police would direct him back to his home after Einstein would resort to knocking on his neighbors’ doors. To thank them, Einstein gave the officers boiled eggs and orange juice, said Mimi Omiecinski, owner of the Princeton Tour Company.
“There’s lots of stories about the playful innocence of Albert Einstein,” Omiecinski said. “Most people would agree Princeton was the perfect landing for the smartest man of the century.”
The legacy of Einstein and his deep connection to Princeton will be celebrated Saturday in the most mathematically appropriate way possible with Pi Day Princeton, an event Omiecinski started in 2010.
Pi Day, which was recognized by Congress in 2009, is observed annually on March 14 – both Einstein’s birthday and the calendar equivalent of pi – 3.14.
This year’s Pi Day celebration, which has grown into an all-day affair in Princeton, holds particular meaning because the once-in-a-century calendar alignment of 3.1415, the first five digits of pi. There’s more, Omiecinski said.
This year is also marks 100 years since Einstein published his theory of relativity.
“That’s why we think this once-in-a-lifetime event is that much more special,” Omiecinski said.
Princeton’s Pi Day features nearly 30 events and activities including the always popular Einstein look-a-like contest, “nerd herd” pub crawl, pie eating and throwing, pizzi pie contest, concerts and an Einstein historic tour.
Einstein’s Princeton connections will be on full display, particularly the more nuanced details about his life, Omiecinski said.
One of the driving forces that brought Einstein to Princeton in 1933 was Adolf Hitler, who wanted Einstein killed in Berlin because he was a German-Jewish intellectual, Omiecinski said.
“He had a $5,000 bounty on his head,” she said.
It was during that time Abraham Flexner contacted Einstein to tell him he was opening the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
“Never in their wildest dreams did they think they were going to get Einstein as their first faculty member. But they did,” Omiecinski said. “After you get Albert Einstein, recruitment is easy. Overnight, the institute became a mecca for the world’s smartest people.”
Among other scholars, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” and John von Neumann, who developed the first computer that made the calculations to build the first hydrogen bomb model, were also institute faculty members.
Einstein lived at two homes while in Princeton: first on Library Place for two years and then on Mercer Street, Omiecinski said.
After experiencing discrimination in Germany, Einstein was troubled by the segregation he saw in Princeton, with Nassau Street businesses open only to certain customers and smaller shops on Witherspoon Street designated for African-Americans, Irish, Jews and Italians.
Known as a modest man, Einstein used his popularity to advocate for civil rights, writing papers, delivering lectures and befriending Paul Robeson, a Princeton resident who became one of the first African-Americans to perform on Broadway.
“Albert Einstein let everyone in Princeton know how he felt about racism,” Omiecinski said.
Lillie Taylor, an African-American woman who operated a beauty salon out of her home on Quarry Street, is the one behind Einstein’s famous frenzied hairdo, she said.
“I would have loved to interview Lillie and asked her what it was like to do that famous head of hair, but I have a feeling that she would have never answered the questions because Einstein was very careful about the friends he kept in Princeton,” Omiecinski said. “They understood that he didn’t want to be treated like a celebrity.”
Einstein also frequented Kopp’s Cycle Shop on Spring Street and Hulit’s Shoes on Nassau Street, but he never learned how to count change in any currency, she said. Rumor has it merchants would let Einstein take what he needed and his secretary, Helen Dukas, would write them a check later.
“But many of the merchants didn’t cash the check because they knew the signature on the check was worth more than the amount,” Omiecinski said.
Dukas would then pay the business owners back in cash, she said.
Einstein died of an aneurysm at the former Princeton hospital at age 76. Some say his ashes were scattered in a far-away waterway, but locals say they were spread across undisclosed Princeton locations, Omiecinski said.
His Mercer Street home was bequeathed to the Institute for Advanced Study in 1986 after his stepdaughter Margot died. Institute officials donated 65 of his belongings — including his grandfather clock, favorite armchair, wooden music stand and pipe — to the Historical Society of Princeton in 2004.
While physicians were performing Einstein’s autopsy, they always talked about how much they wanted to study his brain, Omiecinski said. The Monday after his death, a Princeton schoolteacher announced in class the legendary Einstein had died over the weekend, she said.
“Supposedly a child in the classroom raised their hand and said, ‘Yeah, my dad’s got his brain,'” Omiecinski said.
Thomas S. Harvey, a pathologist at the hospital, took the brain. Einstein’s eldest son Hans allowed Harvey to become the chief researcher of Einstein’s mind, Omiecinski said. Harvey drove around the country for four years to show the nation Einstein’s brain.
But by the time he came back to Princeton, Einstein’s brain wasn’t in top condition, she said.
“I really think Einstein would giggle at that. He never thought he was unique,” Omiecinski said. “Albert Einstein would’ve been completely charmed that nobody was able to ever conclusively prove that he was smarter than any of the rest of us.”