Why Did Rockefeller Belittle Einstein?

24/10/2013 14:32 BST | Updated 22/12/2013 10:12 GMT

100 years old this year, The Rockefeller Foundation likes to tell the tale of its founders' responsiveness and foresight:

'When a young Albert Einstein sent a request for $500 to John D. Rockefeller's top lieutenant, Rockefeller instructed his deputy, "Let's give him $1,000. He may be onto something." It was bold and daring, intrepid and risk-taking.'

Time is important, as Einstein of all people taught us, so it's relevant to know when that story took place. The answer is astonishing: it was 1924. The 'young' Einstein was 45 years old. He'd won a Nobel Prize the year before. The request was 19 years after he published his special theory of relativity, which shows among other things that E=mc2. It was 19 years after he laid the foundations of quantum theory (by explaining the photo-electric effect). And also 19 years after he'd explained the bouncing around of gas atoms that you probably saw down a microscope at school. (1905 was a big year for Einstein: one of the most significant for any scientist, ever.) It was seven years after publication of his general theory of relativity about the nature of space-time: arguably the greatest achievement of the human mind, and five years after observational confirmation of a major prediction of general relativity, hailed by The Times of London as a 'Revolution in Science - New Theory of the Universe'.

So what's with the 'may be onto something'?

The story is striking for two reasons. First, that despite all those achievements, a Nobel winner was scrabbling around for tiny amounts of money, and having to approach donors himself. In today's money, Einstein's request was for just $6,500 - about £4,300 - not quite enough to rent a decent office in London. Let's hope that leading scientists don't still have to waste time pursuing such tiny amounts. And as for 'intrepid and risk-taking', Rockefeller was probably the richest person in history, worth in today's money 10 times what Bill Gates is worth.

And second, Rockefeller didn't even trust Einstein with that money, but divided his gift into four instalments. The Nobel winner, re-framer of the space and time, could apparently not be trusted with more than $1600 at a time.

Hardly 'bold and daring, intrepid and risk-taking', then. Instead, a depressing tale of a lionised genius forced to beg. No wonder Einstein commented that: "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the former."