It may be surprising that one of the greatest icons of the past century was a physicist. Albert Einstein revolutionized the way we see the universe and brought real changes to our lives, and he became a celebrity with his eccentric looks, his outspoken views and the boldness of his imagination.
The language of theoretical physics is one that few of us speak or understand. It has symbols that try to make order out of the seeming chaos of the universe, that calculate both the actions of the tiniest things in it and the tremendous forces that created it.
Alice Calaprice worked as an editor of Einstein's collected papers at Princeton University Press, and is the author of six books about him.
"First of all, I think people appreciated that fact that he was a genius - not everybody is a genius," she says. "He was so very human, and his modesty and humility, and his good sense of humour, and his hair, of course. He must have been a cartoonist's dream. And I think all of these things, combined with the period of history that he lived in, made him an icon all over the world."
Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont. He says you can't talk about physics today without giving Einstein his due.
"It would be like thinking about psychoanalysis without Freud, you know, or rock and roll without Elvis or the Beatles," he says. "From the point of view of those who work in his shadow, who work in his field, he laid the groundwork for what we do, and therefore we're enthralled. I think, actually, we're not enthralled enough."
Enthralled enough to declare this the year of physics, with global events celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miracle" year, when he published four papers that changed our understanding of the cosmos.
In Princeton, N.J., people gathered to make sure the memory of the man lives on in the town that Einstein called his home for the last two decades of his life.
They watched as American sculptor Robert Berks unveiled his bronze bust of the physicist - on the anniversary of the day Einstein died 50 years ago.
This is the first public monument to Einstein in Princeton. It took years and the commitment of a small group to make it happen.
Mel Benarde led that drive.
"I said to myself, there's nothing here. Not a street, not a plaque, not a statue. There were the people who said Einstein wouldn't want it, and I had to beat that down. I had to keep writing and showing that Einstein would have wanted it," he says. "It was the people who were living, not the dead, who were important. The kids needed models. We have so few models that didn't have feet of clay."
The humble resident who might not have wanted a statue was a different man from the arrogant European youth who constantly questioned authority.
"He was kind of brash and he didn't get along very well with his professors in school or at university because he was pretty arrogant and he didn't want to go to their lectures," Alice Calaprice says. " And he had his friends take notes and he preferred studying on his own. And then he had a hard time getting letters of recommendation from the faculty when he was looking for a job."
The only job he could find in 1905 was in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland. But it was there, as a loner, excluded from Europe's best universities, that he found the time and space to put his great imagination to work.
Einstein liked to do what he called thought experiments, in which he would mentally step outside the bounds of normal physics and contemplate the universe.
One of these thought experiments involved the concept of time. Everybody before Einstein, from Newton back to the ancient Greeks, believed that you can't mess with time. It's constant. It's absolute.
There was a clock tower that Einstein passed every day on his way to the patent office in Bern.
He wondered what that clock would look like if he were travelling at the speed of light. He realized that from that perspective the clock tower would appear to stop while his own watch would keep on running.
Time is not constant. It's flexible, whether you're moving or not. He said the same thing about space. You can bend it and twist it, and not only that, he could prove it mathematically, and it was that kind of thinking that shook the foundations of science itself.
But that was just one of his discoveries that year.