The Story Behind Albert Einstein’s Iconic Tongue Photo

Published July 3, 2017
Updated April 4, 2019

The Pacifist Who Devised A Weapon Of Mass Destruction

Einstein Picture With Szilard

Wikimedia CommonsEinstein and Szilard after the war, recreating their collaboration on the infamous letter that sparked the Atomic Age.

Driving Albert Einstein away proved to be a bad decision for Germany.

No sooner had Einstein been granted permission to stay in the United States than the regents at Princeton met to discuss his application to teach at their Institute for Advanced Studies. The meeting wasn’t to consider whether or not to hire Einstein — that was a forgone conclusion — but only to work out his salary.

The board never reached a consensus and decided to let Einstein name a figure that would suit him. Einstein, in response, asked for $250 a month — about $50,000 a year in 2017 USD. Horrified, the university pressed him to accept a salary three times higher. Einstein agreed, and spent the last 22 years of his life at Princeton.

The same year Einstein was negotiating his salary at Princeton, another refugee from European dictatorship, Leo Szilard, was driving in London when he had an idea: What if an element could be found that emitted more neutrons when it split than it took to split it?

Comparing notes with Einstein later, the Hungarian scientist drafted a joint letter for President Roosevelt that described the potentially unlimited power of an atomic chain reaction. This letter sat doing nothing for a while, until 1942, when it inspired the Manhattan Project.

After the war, while Szilard became a strident supporter of ever bigger bombs in the US arsenal, Einstein repented from his role in developing the atomic bomb and worked for the last ten years of his life to put the genie back into the bottle that he and Szilard had rubbed.

The Nutty Professor

Einstein Face Portrait

Wikimedia Commons

By the time the famous tongue photograph was taken, in 1951, things were a lot quieter for Einstein. He had spent the war years teaching at Princeton and generally basking in the adulation of a world that thought he was the greatest genius of all time.

Reveling in his image as the quintessential otherworldly scientist, Einstein deliberately cultivated eccentric mannerisms and habits. He rarely wore socks, for example, with the explanation that the big toe area just wore out quickly no matter what, and that shoes alone should do the job of holding a foot.

He also acquired an increasingly odd-looking wardrobe featuring bizarrely-patterned dressing gowns, and let his hair and mustache take over much of his head. When reached for interviews, he often gave them on his porch while wearing fluffy pink slippers. He was also quick with a joke for most visitors and seldom seen without his pipe, which he claimed aided in steady thinking.

It was this Einstein who attended his 72nd birthday party, which the staff at Princeton had thrown. There, he met professional photographer Arthur Sasse, who took several photos of Einstein as he shook hands and indulged in what for him was the rare glass of cognac.

As the party came to a close and a tired Einstein entered his chauffeured car, Sasse snuck up to the open door and called to him for one more photo. Einstein turned toward him and stuck out his tongue just as the flash went off.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.