A Perfect Mind
When Einstein first published his theory of relativity in 1905, it was said that there were no more than a small handful of scientists in the world who could understand it. Sir Arthur Eddington, an English astrophysicist and one of the early champions of relativity, was asked whether it was true that he was one of only three people in the world who understood relativity. He replied, “who is the third?” He implied, obviously, that he and Einstein were the only two people who understood the theory and there was no third person.
In this series of three parts we will make a good effort to become that third person, although the number today, more than one hundred years later, is much larger. We will make the effort, with and without the math, as it is not possible to understand the revolution of modern physics without a good appreciation of basic relativity.
Albert Einstein was a true intellectual giant and his name today is synonymous with genius. He was born in Ulm on 14 March 1879. Built on the banks of the Danube river, Ulm was best known for having the tallest church in the world. Today it is also known as the birthplace of Albert Einstein.
Einstein was born into a middle class, non-observant Ashkenazi Jewish family. The Ashkenazi are a Jewish ethnic division with roots in the Holy Roman Empire. They established communities throughout central and eastern Europe and made remarkable contributions to philosophy, literature, arts, music and science. Some of the great people who came from Ashkenazi communities are Sigmund Freud, Felix Mendelssohn, Marc Chagall and, of course, Albert Einstein.
Six weeks after Albert was born the family moved to Munich, where Albert’s father ran an electrochemical factory. Albert did not speak until he was three years old and his performance in elementary school was rather mediocre. Einstein has written about two events that had a marked effect in his early childhood. When he was five years old his father gave him a pocket compass. The young Albert was fascinated with the fact that something was causing the compass needle to move. When Albert was ten years old, his family invited Max Talmud, a poor medical student from Poland, who would come for dinner to the Einsteins household and tutor young Albert, introducing him to mathematics and philosophy. Talmud gave Albert the book by Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason as well as Euclid’s Elements, a book that Einstein read over and over again and called the “holy little geometry book”.
Young Albert was a little rebel at school, often protesting about excessive memorization and repetition and the lack of creative learning. Einstein knew at such young age that there is a big difference between memorizing formulas and understanding concepts. In mathematics, physics and philosophy, Einstein studied from extra curriculum books and was well ahead of his classmates and the school curriculum.
Under his mother’s influence, the young Albert developed a love for classical music and started the study of the violin at the age of five. At the age of 13 he discovered the violin sonatas of Mozart and later the piano sonatas of Beethoven. Music became a very important aspect in his life and he often played in chamber groups together with professional musicians. Later in his adult life Einstein would see the purity and beauty of Mozart’s music as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.
When Albert was fifteen years old his father’s company failed and the family moved to Italy but Albert stayed in Munich to complete his high school education. One year later Albert would fail the entrance exams for the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich and was urged to complete his secondary schooling in Switzerland, which he did. He was then admitted at the Zurich Polytechnic at the age of 17 in a program that would train him as a teacher of physics and mathematics. In the meantime he had renounced his German citizenship in order to avoid military service. He received his diploma in 1901 and acquired the Swiss citizenship in the same year. After two frustrating years searching for a teaching job he was employed as an assistant examiner in the Swiss Patent Office in Bern.
Einstein’s work in the evaluation of patent applications was not as dull as we read sometimes in Einstein biographies. Much of the work was quite challenging from a scientific point of view and related to questions about the transmission of electrical signals and electromechanical synchronization of time. One patent Einstein was faced with dealt with how to synchronize clocks across the vast network of European train lines and stations so that trains traveling in opposite directions on the same track did not collide. Such challenges shaped Einstein’s thought experiments that would eventually culminate in his radical theories about the nature of light and the fundamental connection between space and time.
In 1902 Einstein started the Olympia Academy, a small group of friends and colleagues who met in Einstein’s apartment in Bern to discuss science and philosophy. Their meetings would often last until the early morning hours and the discussions played a significant role in Einstein’s intellectual development. The reading suggested by Einstein for the group’s first meeting was The Grammar of Science, a book by English mathematician Karl Pearson, whose ideas revolved around themes encountered later in Einstein’s scientific work. Ideas such as an observer’s perception of the laws of nature, an observer’s contraction of time when he travels near the speed of light and other relativistic ideas. The effects of these ideas on Einstein will become more transparent when we explore the meaning of Einstein’s theories. In 1905 Einstein obtained his doctoral degree at the University of Zurich. He was now married to Mileva Maric, his sweetheart from the Zurich Polytechnic.
This same year of 1905 turned out to be a landmark year for Einstein and for all science. Einstein wrote four groundbreaking papers on the photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, special relativity and the equivalence of mass and energy. The papers were initially ignored by the scientific community, until they received the attention of Max Planck, the most influential scientist at that time. With Planck’s endorsement, Einstein rose rapidly in the scientific community and by 1908 he was recognized as a leading scientist. A series of academic appointments followed at universities in Bern, Zurich and Prague, leading to a full professorship at the University of Berlin in 1914.
One year later Einstein completed his general theory of relativity which had occupied him for years. The theory predicted that light passing by a large mass, such as the sun, would be deflected by gravity. The theory is a gravitational theory and describes relationships between space, time, mass and gravity. It was published in 1915 and four years later the English physicist Arthur Eddington organized an expedition to an island off the west coast of Africa to observe a solar eclipse. Eddington’s observations showed that distant stars that were behind the sun as seen from the earth were actually visible. This could not be seen except during a solar ellipse. The moon comes between the sun and the earth, blocks the sun and creates the necessary darkness to make the stars visible. Eddington’s star experiment confirmed that light from the stars was deflected by the sun’s gravity, displacing the star image and making the star visible. Einstein’s theory that light is deflected by gravity was confirmed. A theory invented by a German was confirmed by an Englishman from Newton’s university! And all this, one year after the World War in which Germany and Britain had fought each other to total destruction. A great subject for newspaper headlines and, for many of us, an uplifting picture after the traumatic war experience.
Following the experimental confirmation of his theory, the outpouring of international acclaim brought worldwide fame to Einstein. In 1921 he received the Nobel Prize for physics, not for the relativity theory, which was still controversial, but for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. In the same year Einstein made his first trip to the United States, a country which was becoming a haven destination for european scientists fleeing authoritarian regimes. A country that was rather suddenly becoming the pre-eminent center of pioneering research in science.
Einstein delivered several lectures at Columbia University and Princeton University. He was quite impressed with the scientific achievements already made there, with and without the science refugees. He was also impressed with the cultural aspects of everyday life, saying that “what strikes a visitor is the joyous, positive attitude to life. The American is friendly, self-confident, optimistic and without envy.”
Einstein was a pacifist and said that science was often inclined to do more harm than good. His aversion to war led him to befriend other pacifists, like author Upton Sinclair and film star Charlie Chaplin. His first meeting with Chaplin during a tour of Universal Studios in Los Angeles was a memorable experience for both men. They had instant rapport and Chaplin invited Einstein and his wife Elsa (Einstein was now in his second marriage) to his home for dinner. Chaplin said that Einstein’s calm and gentle persona seemed to conceal a highly emotional temperament from which came his extraordinary intellectual energy. Chaplin later recalled Elsa telling him about the time Einstein conceived his theory of relativity. During breakfast one morning Einstein seemed lost in thought and ignored his food. Elsa asked him if something was bothering him. He sat down at his piano and started playing. He continued playing and writing notes for half an hour, then went upstairs to his study where he remained for two weeks, with Elsa bringing up his food. At the end of the two weeks he came downstairs with two sheets of paper bearing his theory.
In the 1930s, during the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Einstein’s theories on relativity became a target of the new regime. In 1931 the Nazis enlisted other physicists to denounce Einstein and his theories as “Jewish physics”. At this time the new German government had passed a law barring Jews from holding any official position, including teaching at universities. Einstein learned that his name was on a list of assassination targets and a Nazi organization published a magazine with Einstein’s picture and the caption “Not Yet Hanged” on the cover, offering a $5,000 reward on his head.
Einstein’s departure from his native country was now a matter of time and he managed to leave Germany in 1932. One year later he renounced his German citizenship and turned his passport to the German consulate in Antwerp, Belgium. Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels singled out Einstein, a Nobel laureate, as the prime target in his war against Jewish intellectualism. He ordered that Einstein’s belongings be confiscated, his books burned and his cottage turned into an Aryan training camp. Goebbels declared that “Jewish intellectualism is dead”. Einstein’s reaction to the burnings was rather stoic. He understood that fascism feared the influence of men of intellectual independence.
In 1933 Einstein went back to the United States and took a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, New Jersey. It was here that he would spend the rest of his career trying to develop a unified field theory, a general theory that would unify the forces of the universe and the laws of physics into one framework. Einstein had offers during this time to work in european universities, including Oxford, but decided to stay at Princeton and apply for American citizenship. He had found happiness in his new home in friendly America and in the liberal atmosphere at Princeton.
In 1939, a group of scientists, concerned that Germany was doing research to build an atomic bomb, asked Einstein to sign a letter to Franklin Roosevelt alerting him of the German effort and urging the President to initiate a similar project in the United States. Faced with an ethical dilemma, Einstein acted against his pacifist principles and signed the letter. He later confided that this was the one great mistake in his life but there was some justification, that the Germans would make the bomb first.
In America Einstein continued his work on the unified theory and also became active in civil rights movements fighting racism with passion and commitment and campaigning for the civil rights of African Americans. He also joined Jewish groups and supported Jewish causes. Near the end of his life he said “my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.” When Einstein died in 1955 at the age of 76, American nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer described Einstein as being wholly without sophistication and wholly without wordliness, with a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.
The style of Einstein’s writings reveals a perfect nobility and love for knowledge and humanity. Any attempt to describe and characterize Einstein’s legacy would be necessarily confined in a phrase, a paragraph or even a whole book filled with the same superlatives that have been used for others. Instead, in Parts II and III we will focus on his work and will make an effort to understand the meaning and significance of his scientific contribution.