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The story behind Einstein’s most iconic photo and how it was almost lost to history

Famous photo of Einstein with his tongue out.Albert Einstein loved this image so much he requested multiple copies to send to friends.

Bettmann / Contributor

  • Albert Einstein’s most iconic photo of him sticking out his tongue was almost lost to history.
  • Editors hesitated to release it because they feared the expression downplayed his eminence. 
  • Author Mike Rucker explains how Einstein’s fun and curious nature played to his greatness.

The following is an excerpt from Mike Rucker’s new book, “The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life.

Book cover of Mike Rucker's "The Fun Habit"

Simon & Schuster

Despite his complex mind, Einstein was known to be a lot of fun. 

You inevitably know the cropped version of this iconic portrait, but you might not know the backstory.

The photo was taken by Arthur Sasse, on March 14, 1951, Einstein’s 72nd birthday. In the uncropped photo, we can see Einstein sitting in a car, between his wife, Elsa, and Dr. Frank Aydelotte, the head of the Institute for Advanced Study.

The story goes that as they were leaving his birthday celebration for their home in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein was repeatedly asked to smile at the cameras. 

When Sasse asked for one last photo, he defiantly made a funny face. Einstein liked the resulting image so much, he immediately ordered multiple copies so he could sign and send them to friends as a joke.

Famous photo of Albert Einstein with his tongue out.Editors hesitated to release this photo of Einstein to the public.

Bettmann / Contributor

Later on, he used this photo to make greeting cards. Einstein rarely let others get in the way of his fun.

He was quick to joke, rarely wore socks (he thought that the shoes should do the job), let his mustache and hair grow, and gave interviews on his porch in fluffy pink slippers.

Photo of Albert Einstein on his porch at home in Princeton, New Jersey.Albert Einstein on his porch at home in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ernst Haas / Contributor

His commitment to fun ran deep — and yet when Sasse sent his photo to editors for publication, they debated whether it was even appropriate to make it public, given Einstein’s eminence.

It only ever saw the light of day because Sasse related how much the great scientist himself loved the image.

According to Walter Isaacson’s biography, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” the personality traits that contributed most to Einstein’s greatness were curiosity and nonconformism.

Photo of Albert Einstein taken on December 30, 1932.Einstein was known for his nonconformism.

Bettmann / Contributor

Scientific studies suggest that humor and intelligence are associated. People who show an aptitude for fun also seem to have superior cognitive abilities.

Einstein was excellent proof of that. Legend has it that Einstein said his other great idea (after relativity) was adding an egg while cooking a bowl of soup, so that you can boil an egg without making an extra pot dirty.

Excerpted from “The Fun Habit: How the Pursuit of Joy and Wonder Can Change Your Life.” ©2023 by Michael Rucker and reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster Atria Publicity.

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