The Valiant Swabian
By John Updike
New Yorker, April 2, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson
When youthful and frisky, Albert Einstein would refer to himself as "the
valiant Swabian," quoting the poem by Ludwig Uhland: "But the valiant
Swabian is not afraid." Albert — the name Abraham had been considered by his
unreligious parents but was rejected as "too Jewish" — was born in Ulm, in
March of 1879, not long after Swabia joined the new German Reich.
Albert's teachers, though giving him generally high marks, noted his
resistance to authority and Germanic discipline, even in its milder Bavarian
form. As early as the age of four or five, while sick in bed, he had had a
revelatory encounter with the invisible forces of nature: his father brought
him a compass, and, as he later remembered it, he was so excited as he
examined it that he trembled and grew cold.
In 1905, Einstein
produced in rapid succession five scientific papers that (a) proposed that
light came not just in waves but in indivisible, discrete packets of energy
or particles called quanta; (b) calculated how many water molecules existed
in 22.4 litres; (c) explained Brownian motion as the jostling of motes of
matter by invisible molecules; (d) expounded the special theory of
relativity; and (e) asserted that mass and energy were different
manifestations of the same thing and that their relation could be tidily
expressed in the equation E=mc².
In 1903, Einstein had not been able
to secure any teaching job; his cavalier and even defiant attitude toward
academic authority worked against his early signs of promise. Marcel
Grossmann, a brilliant math student whose meticulous lecture notes helped
Einstein get high grades at the Zurich Polytechnic, managed to secure him a
job at the Swiss Patent Office, in Bern.
The general theory of
relativity took longer, from 1907 to 1915, and came harder. Generalizing
from the special theory's assumption of uniform velocity to cases of
accelerated motion, and incorporating Newton's laws of gravity into a field
theory that corrected his assumption of instant gravitational effect across
any distance, led Einstein into advanced areas of mathematics where he felt
Paul Dirac called general relativity "probably the greatest
scientific discovery ever made," and Max Born termed it "the greatest feat
of human thinking about nature, the most amazing combination of
philosophical penetration, physical intuition and mathematical skill."
Though Einstein was to reap many honors and was to serve humanity as a
genial icon and fount of humanist wisdom for three more decades, he never
again made a significant contribution to the ongoing life of the physical
God frequently cropped up in Einstein's utterances,
although he firmly distanced himself from organized religion. In a
collection of statements published in English as "The World As I See It,"
there is this on "The Religiousness of Science":
The scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. ... His
religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of
natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that,
compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is
an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle
of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the
shackles of selfish desire.
In 1913, an invitation was personally delivered by two pillars of Berlin's
academic establishment, Max Planck and Walther Hermann Nernst, to come to
Berlin as a university professor and the director of a new physics
institute, and to become, at the age of thirty-four, the youngest member of
the Prussian Academy. Einstein stayed in Berlin until 1932, when the
combination of rising Nazism and tempting offers from America impelled him
to leave Germany.
He loved America, and never returned to Europe, let
alone to Germany, whose crimes, he wrote the chemist Otto Hahn, "are really
the most abominable ever to be recorded in the history of the so-called
In his own freedom of thought, the valiant
Swabian demonstrated how to be free.
AR Einstein is a wonderful
inspiration — great physics and a lovable human being. Walter Isaacson seems
to have done excellent work in this book. And John Updike is always not only
insightful but also a pleasure to read.
The Other Einstein
The New York Review of Books, 54(10), June 14, 2007
Edited by Andy Ross
Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson
Schuster, 675 pages
Einstein: A Biography
by Jürgen Neffe,
translated from the German by Shelley Frisch
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
'Subtle Is the Lord': The Science and the Life of Albert
by Abraham Pais
Oxford University Press, 552 pages
Private Lives of Albert Einstein
by Roger Highfield andPaul Carter
Martin's, 376 pages
Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance
Penguin, 416 pages
Einstein's Clocks, Poincaré's
Maps: Empires of Time
by Peter Galison
Norton, 389 pages
Einstein on Politics
edited by David Rowe and Robert Schulmann
Princeton University Press, 560 pages
Einstein on Race and Racism
by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor
Rutgers University Press, 206 pages
The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein
by Albert Einstein
Princeton University Press, ten volumes, 4,252 pages
The myth of Einstein presents us with an elderly sage, a clownish
proto-hippy with long hair, no socks, and a bumbling, otherworldly manner.
As Isaacson writes it: "Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His
inner security was tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by
Jürgen Neffe's book was a big success in Germany. Neffe also
tells the heroic story of the scholars hired by the Einstein Papers Project
to catalog and publish Einstein's collected papers. The project was launched
in 1986 under the joint sponsorship of Princeton University Press and the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem. As Neffe explains, the executors "made life
difficult for anyone who tried to gain access to the approximately 42,000
items in the archives."
Anyone who really wants to get to know
Einstein can do no better than immerse themselves in the books and papers
coming out of the Einstein Papers Project, which has so far published ten
volumes of correspondence and writings spanning the period from Einstein's
youth up to 1920. Less ambitious readers will find Isaacson's workmanlike
biography well worth reading.
The young Einstein, the one who
actually made the great discoveries we associate with his name, is nothing
like the mellow sage described during his Princeton years. He was seen by
his contemporaries as arrogant, intolerant of authority, charismatic,
good-looking, manipulative, and avidly engaged in his relationships with
women, his children, his friendships, his music. We need to know how this
revolutionary turned into the otherworldly sage.
show that in fact he was capable of considerable sensitivity to the feelings
of other people. Here, in a letter quoted by Isaacson, is how he resolved a
difficult conflict with the great mathematician David Hilbert over who
should get credit for the equations of general relativity in December 1915:
"There has been a certain ill-feeling between us, the cause of which I do
not want to analyze. I have struggled against the feeling of bitterness
attached to it, with complete success. I think of you again with unmixed
geniality and ask you to try to do the same with me."
discrepancies in the myth of Einstein are important, not so much for their
own sake but because they point to contradictions in the perception of his
scientific legacy held by laypeople and scientists alike. The early Einstein
was brash and revolutionary. His thinking was closely tied to experimental
science and engineering practice. It was intuitive.
The key issue in
the assessment of Einstein's later years is his conviction that quantum
mechanics could not be correct. Although in 1905 he had been the first to
identify the need for a new quantum physics, he dissented strongly from the
view that our understanding of quantum phenomena was put in final form by
the invention of quantum mechanics.
By the time Einstein moved to
Princeton in 1933, he had already parted ways with most of his colleagues.
Although all the subsequent developments in physics were based on Einstein's
early work, Einstein left very little legacy from his work at Princeton
within the scientific community. There is an entire field now devoted to
questions raised by the counterintuitive aspects of quantum mechanics called
the foundations of quantum mechanics. Einstein had principled objections to
the quantum theory.
Einstein's executors saw their role as
establishing the legacy of one of history's greatest scientists. But the man
himself was an embarrassment. Politically he had supported causes such as
socialism, pacifism, and racial justice. Einstein's political engagements
were an embarrassment even for the director of the Institute for Advanced
Einstein's scientific colleagues had even more to gain by the
establishment of a myth that left him honored but unheeded. During his years
as a professor and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Physical Institute at the
University of Berlin up to 1933, Einstein was a formidable obstacle to those
who sought to establish quantum mechanics.
But once Einstein moved to
the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton he was no longer seen as a
leading figure among scientists. His dissent from quantum mechanics and his
entire philosophical approach to scientific research was an embarrassment to
his younger American colleagues. The solution was to elevate Einstein to the
status of a sage.
Einstein was famous, as no scientist has been
before or since, so his every move was under scrutiny. And, in view of the
tragedies that had driven him to give up his European home and move to
America, we can imagine he felt compelled to continue to use his fame to
speak out for principles and causes he believed in.
dissent from quantum mechanics and immersion in the search for a unified
field theory were not failures but anticipations. Many string theorists
would disagree with Einstein about the incompleteness of quantum mechanics,
but much of what goes on in string theory these days looks a lot like what
Einstein was doing in his Princeton years.
None of the biographers
mention the writings that look "to a renunciation of the space-time
continuum, and to a purely algebraic physics." What Einstein is saying is
that the smoothness of space is an illusion and the fundamental description
of space will be in terms of algebra and not geometry.
precisely where most current work on unifying quantum mechanics with general
relativity, apart from string theory, has led. Non-commutative geometry,
spin foam models, loop quantum gravity, quantum causal histories, and others
are each based on such an algebraic framework for spacetime. Einstein
appears to have anticipated much of contemporary research aiming to bring
together and close the great revolutions he began.
As for quantum
mechanics, a significant proportion of those who have thought the matter
through find themselves in agreement with Einstein.
AR Lee Smolin has enlisted
Einstein in support of his own views on string theory and loop quantum
gravity, and quite rightly too. Anyone in physics now with the sort of
temperament Einstein displayed a hundred years ago should be looking at
radical approaches to quantum gravity, such as the topoi approach of
Isham and Döring and the twistor
ideas of Roger Penrose. We need to put Einstein the
mythic clown aside and focus on the burning foundational issue in physics
before we leave Einstein's ghost to rest in peace.
By George Johnson
Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
The Human Failings of Genius
By Hans C. Ohanian
Norton, 394 pages
Assuming that the two signals are traveling at the same speed, Einstein
wrote, "is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the
physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own free
will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity."
of light is either constant or not, and only measurement can decide what it
is," writes Hans Ohanian.
We have all heard that math wasn't
Einstein's strong point, and Ohanian ruthlessly lays out the details. A
12-page marathon calculation in Einstein's doctoral dissertation, "A New
Determination of the Molecular Size," was "a comedy of errors" based on
"zany" physical assumptions. "Einstein's dissertation should have been
Einstein went on to commit more errors in the papers he
wrote in 1905, what came to be called his miracle year. The miracle, as
Ohanian tells it, is that Einstein could have been wrong on so many details
while coming through, in the end, with some of the greatest insights of the
E=mc2 was not such an important equation. But
Einstein left a hole in his argument "almost big enough for a truck to drive
through." He proved the case for slow-moving bodies and then extrapolated to
fast-moving ones. "The mistake is the sort of thing every amateur
mathematician knows to watch out for," Ohanian scolds.
Einstein's friend Marcel Grossmann tried to help him with his figures but
not always to good effect. When Einstein was trying to get his mind around
curved space-time, one of Grossmann's bungled equations led him astray.
Einstein didn't notice.
Some of what Ohanian marks down as errors
seem more like philosophical disputes. Einstein's quest to find a unified
theory and to expunge quantum craziness from physics ultimately failed. But
that doesn't mean it wasn't a noble attempt.
Most important, Ohanian
notes, Einstein's instincts were dead on. Light is made of photons. Mass is
equivalent to energy. Space-time is curved. Nothing can exceed the speed of
light. Einstein, Ohanian writes, had "a mystical intuitive approach to
AR Einstein is still a
wonderful inspiration. Ohanian has added a few touches of shadow to the
portrait. Good move.
Einstein and the Quantum Boys
By John Derbyshire
The New Atlantis, Summer 2008
Edited by Andy Ross
Faust in Copenhagen
A Struggle for the Soul of Physics
By Gino Segrè
Viking, 384 pages
The emergence of modern quantum mechanics is a difficult story to tell. So
many different threads have to be woven together that a chronological
narrative can't be given. Gino Segrè has focused on the Copenhagen
conference of April 1932. The Copenhagen gatherings were held annually from
1929 to the onset of the Second World War. The 1932 conference was the
Segrè looks at seven key physicists. One of them, Wolfgang
Pauli, did not actually attend the 1932 meeting. Three others of Pauli's
generation (ages 25 to 31) were present in Copenhagen: Paul Dirac, Werner
Heisenberg, and Max Delbrück. To balance these four young revolutionaries,
Segrè includes three older (ages 46 to 53) participants: Niels Bohr, Paul
Ehrenfest, and Lise Meitner.
The year 1932 was pivotal for quantum
mechanics. The theoretical foundations had been laid down, from Max Planck's
great 1900 paper implying the quantization of energy through Pauli's
postulating of the neutrino at the end of 1930. Now the experimentalists
were taking over. Weeks before the 1932 conference, James Chadwick observed
neutrons. In the summer of that year, Carl Anderson observed the positron,
postulated by Dirac in 1928. Experimental results then came thick and fast.
The year 1932 was preceded by a long theoretical slog that culminated
with a sensational burst of creativity from 1925 to 1930: Heisenberg's
matrix mechanics, Schrödinger's wave mechanics, Pauli's exclusion principle,
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and Dirac's relativistic equation. It
was followed by the great experiments: Anderson's positron, the splitting of
the atom, Fermi's chain reaction, the Bomb.
Four of Segrè's seven key
physicists were Jewish or of Jewish descent. Three of the four fled the
Nazis. Pauli went to the United States, then to Switzerland. Meitner went to
Sweden, then England. Bohr took the same route as Meitner somewhat later,
going on to the United States, but returning to Denmark after the war.
Of the Gentiles, Dirac relocated from Cambridge to Florida in 1970,
Delbrück switched to molecular biology and lived out the rest of his life in
California, while Heisenberg stayed in Germany through the war and
afterwards, to his death in 1976. What precisely Heisenberg was up to in the
war years remains unclear.
Paul Ehrenfest shot himself in 1933, five
days after attending that year's Copenhagen conference. The darkening
shadows over Europe, and the decision by his beloved friend Einstein not to
return to Germany, were factors in his unhappiness, but there were personal
Niels Bohr convened the Copenhagen conferences. Bohr had
made his name as a physicist with five papers published between 1913 and
1915 defining what is now known as the Bohr model of the atom. He had
studied under Ernest Rutherford at the University of Manchester. His five
papers had resolved some conundrums raised by Rutherford's "solar system"
model for the atom, by applying Planck's quantum principles to the electrons
in their orbits around the nucleus.
Having achieved fame, Bohr was in
want of a professorship. Denmark responded by creating its first
professorship in theoretical physics and appointing him to fill the
position. Bohr returned to Copenhagen in 1916.
Bohr spent the next
few years in lecturing and energetic fundraising. By 1921 he had his own
institute in Copenhagen. It would be a haven for many of the world's
greatest physicists for the next decade and a half. The Copenhagen phase of
modern physics was underway.
The terrific theoretical turmoil of
1925-27 brought forth a new way of thinking about the subatomic world. These
were the years when it dawned on researchers that our everyday intuitions
are simply not appropriate to events in the realm of electrons and protons.
The Solvay conferences had begun in 1911. The 1927 conference was the
fifth. Einstein was 48 years old. Segrè quotes him as saying to a friend: "I
have thought a hundred times as much about the quantum problems as I have
about the General Relativity Theory."
In December 1926, Einstein
wrote to Max Born: "Quantum mechanics is very impressive. But an inner voice
tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory produces a good deal
but hardly brings us closer to the secret of the Old One. I am at all events
convinced that He does not play dice."
By the time of the Solvay
conference ten months later, Einstein had definitely set his face against
the Copenhagen interpretation. Throughout the conference, Bohr and Einstein
engaged each other in private conversations. Though Einstein could not be
reconciled to the Copenhagen interpretation, he and Bohr repeatedly
expressed their admiration for each other.
It was in this period that
the deep metaphysical problems posed by quantum mechanics first came into
view. Segrè: "Now, almost eighty years after Solvay, the repeatedly verified
Bohr interpretation still stands, as solid as ever, but still questioned, as
it should be."
Aspects of quantum mechanics — the ontological status
of Schrödinger's state vector, and of the wave function's collapse when it
encounters an observer — remain matters of argument today. Most working
physicists accept the math as an adequate description of all their
measurements without fussing over the underlying realities. Others accept
the wave function but balk at the collapse, preferring a "many worlds"
interpretation in which the superpositions of the wave function persist in
realms inaccessible to each other, each realm presumably populated by its
Segrè writes that it "came as somewhat of a revelation
to find what a key figure Bohr was" in these critical years. The Dane was an
intellectual impresario, responsible for making Copenhagen "the mecca of
Many of these physicists were very young.
Wolfgang Pauli had formulated the exclusion principle by the time he was 25.
Werner Heisenberg was only 23 when he discovered matrix mechanics and just
25 when he developed the uncertainty principle. Paul Dirac's reconciliation
of quantum mechanics and special relativity came when he was 26. All three
eventually received the Nobel Prize for work they had done before the age of
The revolutionary discoveries in the 1920s inspired the term
Knabenphysik — boys' physics. Even for the revolutionaries, the transition
from being prodigies to professors was difficult.
Gino Segrè has
written an admirable book.
AR Einstein never really
"grokked" quantum mechanics, but who ever did? Richard Feynman didn't,
despite his Nobel Prize for QED. No cause for shame — cause rather for me to
get to work and explain my fancy new way (hatched when I was 25, although I
didn't understand my own ideas until many years after 1975) to grok it!