Asked to name a famous scientist, most of us would unhesitatingly say ‘Albert Einstein’. He is the face of twentieth-century science, with his familiar mane of white hair and moustache. But few of us can understand his physics, so why did he become a modern icon? A hundred years ago, the young Albert Einstein published a series of papers that were to change the world of physics. This topic sets the scene for the ‘miraculous year’ that made his name in science and sketches his impact on physics through to today. We look at how Einstein’s fame spread far beyond the scientific community, and our need for a friendly face to represent the obscure.