Jürgen Renn in conversation with Liane von Billerbeck

Albert Einstein around 1920. By then he had been nominated countless times for the Nobel Prize, explains Jürgen Renn. (Imago / Everett Collection)

Albert Einstein was the most important scientist of his time. Nevertheless, he only received the Nobel Prize for a discovery made in 1921 – well after the theory of relativity. Historian Jürgen Renn finds this to be a “dramatic story”.

This is Albert Einstein’s most famous discovery: the theory of relativity. And yet he did not receive the Nobel Prize for it. Not only that: the award was denied for a decade. The reason is as simple as it is surprising, as science historian Jürgen Renn explains.

“The story is really dramatic,” explains the director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. “Einstein has been nominated for the Nobel Prize approximately 60 times since 1910.” The Swedish committee had “strictly refused to award him the Nobel Prize”. The reason: The acting president, an ophthalmologist, just didn’t understand the theory. Then, however, international pressure would have increased.

Einstein received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 for his explanation of the photoelectric effect, retrospectively to 1921. At that time, people were still looking for “an effect,” an “observation,” Renn says. “The Nobel Committee particularly honored such experimental work.” Theoretical things like the theory of relativity were controversial then – unlike today.

When Einstein – here with his second wife Elsa – found out about the award, he was on a world tour and was in Japan. (image / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage)

When Einstein found out about the award, he was on a world tour and was in Japan. He did not go to the awards ceremony. “It was so clear that Einstein was the most important scientist of his time that he hardly needed him,” says Renn. But he had counted on the Nobel Prize for a long time: he had already given the money to his divorced wife as a pledge. “It was very sovereign behavior, if you will,” says Renn.

Einstein then used the glory of the Nobel Prize “very systematically for international understanding” during his journey. In the period of a few years after World War I, he was a “missionary of the internationality of science”. All the more so since Einstein had spoken out against the war and was one of the few “beloved” German scientists abroad.