The cosmos has a sense of humor. How else can one explain that Albert Einstein, beloved icon of math and physics, was born on March 14, or written another way, 3.14, which just happens to be the start of the irrational number pi.
This coincidence has not gone unnoticed. The first Pi Day was held in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium, the museum that mixes art and science, to honor the never-ending number and Einstein’s birthday. In another cosmic coincidence, the Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, brother of Robert, friend and colleague of Einstein at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.
Now Pi Day is celebrated by museums and universities worldwide. Pi Day has its own website, www.PiDay.org, and even Congress has recognized the fun of it all by passing House Resolution 224 in 2009 establishing March 14 as National Pi Day. Celebrations at schools, scientific labs, and museums range from recitations of pi to see who can memorize the longest sequence of the famous 3.14159265 to pie-judging contests, free pie, and all things pie.
Spearheaded by Mimi Omiecinski of the Princeton Tour Company, a consortium of organizations including Princeton Public Library and the Princeton Merchants Association have now embraced Princeton’s own Pi Day event, a tailor-made family-friendly holiday to celebrate Albert and his famous day on Sunday, March 14.
Princeton Tour Company, which offers a spectrum of theme-based walks throughout the Princeton area, including its popular pub crawls, ghost walking tours, and wine and cheese tours, has long offered its signature Albert Einstein Walking Tour. Omiecinski, who has plumbed scholarship and personal recollections of residents who knew Albert, the man and fellow Princeton denizen, regales participants with fascinating tidbits about Einstein’s life in Princeton. These stories emphasize the intense human side of the renowned scientist who, for example, for all his profound intellect still suffered from pinching shoes (helped out by Hulit’s Shoes on Nassau Street) and who called Princeton his home for more than 20 years.
Omiecinski, who was featured in U.S. 1 last spring (“A New View of Our Town,” May 6, 2009), is a Nashville native transplanted to Princeton in 2006, when her husband, Steve, relocated to the home offices of Johnson & Johnson. They have an eight-year-old son, Stosh. A 1988 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Omiecinski holds a degree in social work and began her career in health care marketing and sales. She developed Princeton Tour Company out of her instant adoration of the town. Omiecinski’s parents — her mother is a family therapist and her father is a financial planner — call Princeton their second home, and when her mother, Bella Renner, is in town, she leads the Einstein tour, focusing on the strong women in his life. On Pi Day, she will portray Einstein’s mother.
Pi Day dovetails with the public library’s centennial coming up this October. Proceeds from Princeton Tour Company’s Einstein-inspired walking tour, a pie-throwing event, as well as donations by some area merchants who are offering specials based on the 3.14 number, will go to support the library’s acquisition of science and math resources for all ages. While some may think that a free public library would be completely supported by the local government, that is not the case with Princeton, says Lindsey Forden, development director of the library. Only the operating costs are covered. Stocking the shelves with books, developing programs for patrons, purchasing materials, online resources, and even newspaper subscriptions must be met with private funding.
Pi Day commences on Sunday, March 14, at 1 p.m. at the library on Witherspoon Street with a pie-judging contest and the obligatory pi-recitation challenge for children. Jen’s Cakes & Pastries (“7 Women, 1 Kitchen,” U.S. 1, February 10) will provide the Einstein look-alike prize, a three-dimensional cake in the shape of Albert. Princeton Plasma Physics Lab will offer a family-friendly science afternoon of interactive experiments, such as blowing up marshmallows and getting an electricity-inspired Einstein hairstyle, in the library’s community room. Other activities include continuous screenings of movies including “IQ,” the romantic comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein, which was filmed in Princeton.
At 3:14 p.m. Palmer Square will host a town birthday party and pie-throwing event. After a robust “Happy Birthday” is sung, the first pie will fly. A dollar per throw will be donated to the library. Cranbury Station Gallery will host a special exhibit with vintage photos and articles about Einstein.
Princeton Pi Day’s Facebook site, which already has more than 360 fans, is buzzing with new postings daily. The Whole Earth Center claims its pies “are going to dominate at the pie competition.” Princeton University Press’s Alice Calaprice hopes people will take advantage of the U-Store’s 23.14 percent off deal that day on all Einstein books to buy her book, “The Quotable Einstein,” which also has a new edition coming out in November. Why 23.14 percent? Well, according to Facebook, “they wanted to offer more than 3.14 percent.”
It seems almost every Princeton merchant or restaurant will offer pi-themed discounts, such as Winberie’s, which will offer dessert and a cappuccino for $3.14 and will have Einstein-related specials on the menu. Most in-town restaurants will have similar specials. The Peacock Inn is offering its Junior Suite for $314 per night that weekend. The Princeton Tour Company will offer a $3.14 tour of Einstein’s life with re-enactors hidden at various locations (with 100 percent of proceeds going to the library). Patrons will be engaged by tales of Einstein’s life told by his “mother,” his “girlfriends” and “wives,” jealous professors, and more.
Princeton Historical Society at Bainbridge House on Nassau Street will offer a Happy Birthday Einstein party. During two sessions, from 11 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2 p.m., children will be introduced to the great man not only as a scientist but as a humanitarian, musician, and activist for racial equality. Jennifer Jang, curator of education, says “many children will come into the event knowing a great deal about Einstein from having done school reports and the like, but they do not necessarily have a full appreciation of the depth and breadth of his interests. His love of music in particular is less well known.”
According to Jang, Einstein’s music stand, which is on permanent display at the Historical Society, has become a must-see for Asian tourists especially. Space at the Historical Society’s Pi Day events is limited and reservations are required. Call 609-921-6748, extension 100, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
An interesting question arises as to why such a natural festival of all things Einstein wasn’t created before now. It would seem, according to local urban legend, that Einstein was such a humble, modest man that he didn’t want a celebration of self and even requested that the house he lived in for so many years at 112 Mercer Street not become a museum.
Indeed his secretary, Helen Dukas, guarded his privacy during his life and helped preserve his archives after his death. In the foreword to the Calaprice book, Freeman Dyson describes the 1981 removal of the Einstein archives from the Institute for Advanced Study to Hebrew University, as stipulated in Einstein’s will.
“One night around Christmas, when most of the Institute members were on holiday, there was a sudden move. . . A large truck stood in front of the Institute with a squad of well-armed Israeli soldiers standing guard. . . In quick succession, a number of big wooden crates were brought down in the elevator from the top floor, carried out of the building through the open front door, and loaded onto the truck. The soldiers jumped on board and the truck drove away into the night. The next day, the archive was in its final resting place in Jerusalem.”
It’s entirely possible that Dukas’s zealous pursuit of his privacy and his papers added to the belief that Einstein’s life should not be memorialized. However, written expressions of his reluctance to be feted after his death are not easily found. According to Jang of the Princeton Historical Society, much of what appears about Einstein’s personality in many biographies are quotes from personal recollections and not documented facts.
Websites devoted to listing quotations often include this one: “My life is a simple thing that would interest no one. It is a known fact that I was born and that is all that is necessary.” One biographer attributes it to a 15-year-old Princeton High School student, essentially acting on a teacher’s dare (see Richard K. Rein’s column, page 35). Regardless of the authenticity of that quotation, it is plain that few today would agree with it.
The Institute for Advanced Study houses several items of Einsteiniana. In keeping with the perception that Einstein didn’t want to be memorialized, these personal effects of the great man are not on public view. However, in 2003, the Institute donated 65 pieces of Einstein’s furniture to the Historical Society of Princeton. These items include tables, chairs, chests, cabinets, a bed, and other pieces ranging from a Queen Anne table to more modern examples. Individual items are on view at various times but the entire collection is too large to be a permanent display.
Plans are in progress, however, for a full exhibit in the future. The 2004 purchase of the Updike Farm on Quakerbridge Road by the Historical Society will, once renovations and expansions are complete, allow the Bainbridge House facility on Nassau Street to be opened for larger exhibits. Einstein’s possessions will be among the first to be shared with the public.
Perhaps the most notable exception to the aversion to honoring the fuzzy haired professor can be found in the corner of Landau’s store on Nassau Street, which is the only repository of memorabilia open to public view. In 1994, during the filming in Princeton of “IQ,” Landau’s asked the community to share memorabilia. Hundreds of locals brought in their mementos. While that particular exhibit eventually was dismantled, the desire to create a place for a more permanent collection grew, fueled by friends of Einstein himself. The result is a corner of the shop that is, remarkably, the only permanent Einstein exhibit in the United States. On Pi Day, Landau’s will host an Einstein look-alike contest.
Whatever Einstein’s personal wishes may have been, his inclusion on the A-list of dead celebrities is a reason to party. And Princeton is the logical place to celebrate his renowned achievements.
Like it or not, AE is an international draw. Mimi Omiecinski of Princeton Tour says that Einstein’s house on Mercer Street is one of the most heavily searched phrases on the web. The New Jersey Department of Tourism and Trade has picked up on Pi Day, and its website now promotes Princeton as a destination site. “National event planners are choosing to stop in Princeton as their chartered bus tours travel through New Jersey,” says Omiecinski. She has seen an increase in tours booked by companies as far away as Canada and Washington State.
Serious efforts to preserve the genius of the man have, of course, been made. Not the least of these has been the monumental work of Princeton University Press and Hebrew University in Jerusalem to produce a definitive collection of Einstein’s papers. Under the general editorship of Diana Buchwald, the project is currently up to 12 volumes, according to the Press’s website. This undertaking will eventually contain more than 14,000 documents in 25 volumes. The documents range from Einstein’s first works on the special and general theories of relativity to his letters and other writings on civil liberties, education, Zionism, and other topics. The volumes are divided into two series, one containing the scientific works and the other his personal correspondence.
In addition, a joint venture among the Albert Einstein Archives, the David and Fela Shapell Digitization Project at the Jewish National and University Library, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the Einstein Papers Project of the California Institute of Technology provides access to Einstein’s papers. Here one can see his original class notes or read his travel diary.
Calaprice’s “Quotable Einstein” draws several vignettes from another endearing work about Einstein, the 1979 book “Albert Einstein: The Human Side” by Banesh Hoffmann and Helen Dukas. While pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton, Hoffmann, a British mathematician and physicist, collaborated with Einstein on professional papers. Assisted by Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary, Hoffmann compiled a collection of quotes from Einstein’s personal letters and papers. Readers get a vivid portrait of a man who never hesitated to opine on any topic, including advice to the lovelorn.
As Jang of the Historical Society points out, Einstein was an exceptionally approachable man. His personal correspondence is replete with letters to and from children the world over. While today’s celebrities have legions of “people” to deal with the public, AE undertook to write responses to letters himself. Fifty-five years after his death, people in Princeton still claim him as their own. One of the greatest minds of the ages is still a palpable presence in a town of formidable personages.
The events and activities of Princeton’s inaugural Pi Day seem to be evolving into something akin to Bloomsday, with takes place every June 16, in Dublin. A reflection of the eventful day experienced by Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses,” Bloomsday is now famously commemorated with street parties, readings, pub crawls, and re-enactments. What began as a small remembrance for academics and devotees in Dublin has now mushroomed into a riotous day of rejoicing (pun intended) that brings thousands of revelers to the city and adds greatly to business coffers. Bloomsday celebrations have become anticipated events all over Ireland. Theaters, pubs, shops, and schools throughout the country enter into the spirit of the day with celebrations of their own.
Bloomsdays also have sprung up worldwide over the years. An argument can be made that Einstein is even more famous than Joyce and that Princeton’s Pi Day could grow into an event attended from far and wide. (This connection with Bloomsday is not at all far fetched. The inimitable Sylvia Beach, the bold publisher of “Ulysses,” is among the famous residents of Princeton Cemetery. Indeed, Omiecinski is already planning a Bloomsday tour and pub crawl for her Princeton Tour Company.)
Clearly, there is a wealth of material to expand Princeton’s Pi Day in coming years. The personal correspondence alone could provide rich material for an enterprising actor to develop a one-man show. What better venue to debut such a production than our back yard. The question then arises what other cherished Princeton resident should be the inspiration for the next fete? Paul Robeson springs readily to mind.
All things considered, it makes sense that Princeton’s Pi Day will continue to expand each year. In five years, when Pi Day is a solid part of the social calendar, the date will be 3.14.15. The timing is nothing short of cosmic.
Pi Day Schedule
11 a.m.: Einstein birthday party for children, Historical Society of Princeton. Registration required, 609-921-6748, extension 100 or E-mail email@example.com. The party is also offered from 1 to 2 p.m.
1 p.m.: Pie judging contest and pi recitation challenge, Princeton Public Library, 609-924-9529, www.princetonlibrary.org.
1:59 p.m.: Interactive lab experiments hosted by Princeton Plasma Physics Lab at the public library (159 are next digits in pi).
Also, Einstein walking tours go on sale at the library, $3.14 per person. Participants will be told the location of the first reenactor on the tour. That reenactor will tell the second location and so on. Reenactors will be in place throughout Princeton until 4:45 p.m. Tickets available in advance at www.princetontourcompany.com.
3:14 p.m.: Birthday party and pie throwing contest (birthday cake provided by McCaffrey’s), Palmer Square Green
Also, Einstein birthday cake cutting, McCaffrey’s, Princeton Shopping Center. 609-683-1600.
3:30 p.m.: Sunday stories program with a Pi/pie theme, Princeton Public Libary.
4:45 p.m.: Announcement of the winner of the Einstein look-alike contest. Princeton Public Library, third floor.