Princeton scientist Albert Einstein rented a house on the North Fork for the summer of 1939. It was a small beach shack on Nassau Point in Southold where, at the age of 60, he felt he could enjoy the salt sea air, sailing his 15-foot sailboat on the gentle waters of Peconic Bay—he’d brought it with him—and the peace and quiet of a rural community. With him came his secretary to keep his schedules and cook his meals, and for much of the time his married daughter Lieserl, who visited him and did his shopping for him. Einstein worked at least part of every day advancing his theories at a blackboard in the shack’s tiny living room.
Einstein was one of the most famous men in the world at this time. Born in Germany and raised there and in Switzerland, he had studied theoretical physics at school and, while working as a federal patent examiner in Switzerland, developed formulas advancing a whole new way of looking at how the world works, which proved Isaac Newton’s theories wrong. Einstein’s new theories shocked the scientific world. It also sent him off to tour the world. In 1921, New York held a ticker tape parade up Fifth Avenue in his honor.
Fleeing Hitler’s black shirts attacking Jews in 1933, he came to America and took a position at Princeton, heading up a new division called the Institute for Advanced Study.
What to do for summer vacation? In June 1939, he came to the beach shack at Nassau Point and worked on a new unified theory that he hoped would further explain how the universe works.
While in Southold, Einstein befriended David Rothman, the owner of Rothman’s Department Store on Main Street in Southold. Einstein, a trained violinist, had learned that Rothman and several of his friends played Mozart and Beethoven in a classical string quartet at one or another’s homes in the evening twice a week. Einstein asked if he could join them and of course the answer was yes. Rothman, delighted to have a friendship with Einstein, kept a journal of their time together that summer.
In August, several prominent scientists, seeing that war was looming, drove out from New York to visit Einstein at his little beach house. They had written a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him that the Germans were actively trying to build an atomic bomb. They felt America should have a lab to do that too and beat the Germans to the punch. But they also felt they needed the famous Albert Einstein to sign the letter so it would be read by the president. Einstein signed, and subsequently it was read by the president, and so the top secret lab in Oak Ridge, Tennessee was quickly built and opened. Five years later, the lab split the atom and got the bomb before the Germans could do so.
Einstein’s visits are memorialized in Einstein Square, a small, peaceful oasis on Main Street in Southold with benches surrounding a pedestal of a bust of Einstein. It’s a place, just adjacent to Rothman’s Department Store, where a visitor can sit and contemplate the universe and the accomplishments of this great man