Science and Spirit

Reprinted with permission from Science & Spirit Magazine.

There is an oft-told legend describing how Albert Einstein revolutionized the theory of light, brilliantly solving a problem that had everyone else stumped. It goes like this: In 1864, physicist James Clerk Maxwell proposed that light was, in fact, a wave-a theory that quickly achieved near-universal acceptance. Scientists assumed these light waves traveled through a medium called the "ether," a background substance that oscillated with light the way air moves with a sound wave. But no one could actually find this mysterious substance, and when even the best experiments to locate it failed spectacularly-most notably, a cutting-edge 1887 endeavor featuring physicist Albert Abraham Michelson, chemist Edward Williams Morley, and meticulously focused light beams-science was in crisis.

But then, with the theory of light crashing around him, Einstein arrived to save the day. Completely dismissing the idea of the ether, Einstein rewrote our understanding of light by introducing both the special theory of relativity, eliminating the idea of a stationary background to the universe, and the concept of the photon, suggesting light might not even be a wave.

It's a good story, this fairy tale, and while it helps illuminate the myth behind the man, only in real life can we truly understand the nature of Einstein's personality and the source of his brilliance. While it's comforting to think the scientific method always follows a neat, linear path from hypothesis to failed experiment to new hypothesis, it's rarely that easy. In fact, no one is sure Einstein had even heard of the Michelson-Morley experiment before he wrote the special theory of relativity. Einstein contradicted himself on the subject, at times saying he hadn't, at times saying he had, and finally saying that he didn't remember. Of course, Einstein certainly knew there was general wonderment at having not yet found the ether, and he also knew that so-called "photoelectric" experiments, in which light was aimed at a metal plate in order to induce energy, weren't getting the results expected-but there was no consensus that the theory of light was in crisis. Einstein gets credit not simply for coming up with new theories of light, but also for noticing there was trouble in the decided absence of a smoking gun.

The ability to recognize something is broken is as important as the ability to fix it, and the ability to choose among the things that work and those that don't is more important still. One of Einstein's defining features was his refusal to accept the whole of any truth without turning it upside down, tapping it, and shaking it several times-and, even then, choosing to believe exactly those parts that made sense to him and not a jot more. Interestingly, his skepticism also allowed him freedom. He was able to relinquish cherished notions, change his mind, and accept the coexistence of two things that made sense to him-even in the face of criticism that they contradicted each other. While he was always comfortable altering his own perceptions when he saw they weren't grounded, he steadfastly refused to abandon any principle he had already proven true. That combination made him a brilliant scientist. It also defined his relationship to religion.

In 1890, a visitor to the Einstein home in Munich, Germany, would have found a bright eleven-year-old boy going through what any parent today would term "a phase." His largely assimilated parents-Herr Hermann Einstein was fond of boasting that no Jewish laws were followed in his house-had hired a Jewish tutor for their young son in an effort to counter the Christian lessons he was taught at school. Einstein, perhaps foreshadowing the all-consuming passions he would display as an adult, threw himself wholeheartedly into these new teachings. Imagine what his stunned parents thought as he doggedly studied the Bible, demanded kosher meals, and joyfully sang songs he had composed to God.

This time period was, Einstein once said, his "religious paradise"-a fascinating turn of phrase for a man who would soon reject organized religion completely. Even through the filter of an adult mind that disdained any form of groupthink, there must have been some nostalgia for the time in his life when explanations of the world were handed out ready-made, when truth seemed simple and attainable.

Einstein consistently said his religious period ended the day he discovered science. That discovery was hastened by medical student Max Talmey, a regular guest at the Einsteins' dinner table, who lent the young pupil a variety of books on medicine, math, and philosophy. As if flipping a switch in his head, Einstein instantly relegated all the religion he'd learned to a set of fantastic myths at best, outright lies at worst. In his autobiography, he wrote: "The consequence was a positively fanatic [orgy of freethinking] coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies; it was a crushing impression. Mistrust of every kind of authority grew out of this experience, a skeptical attitude towards the convictions which were alive in any specific social environment- an attitude which has never again left me." At the age of twelve, Einstein abandoned Judaism, refused to become a bar mitzvah, and vowed never again to set foot in a synagogue.

It would be easy to let this story end there: Religion came first; science ousted it. The two ways of interpreting the universe were at odds and could not comfortably coexist in the same mind. But Einstein's life belies such simplistic descriptions. Whether it was religion or science-or anything else, for that matter-Einstein zealously guarded what made sense to him and ferociously attacked what did not. His relationship to Judaism may have been in the deep freeze, but it had not disappeared. When the Nazis began their genocidal crusade years later, he voiced support for Judaism once again and helped lead a Zionist campaign for Israel. Conversely, when he found, much later in life, that he disagreed with policies of the Israeli government, he had no compunction about voicing his displeasure. Einstein was, without a doubt, an equal opportunity skeptic. His cautious relationship to Judaism mirrored his cautious relationship to physics-and, indeed, the skepticism that underpinned both may have been his greatest scientific strength.

Religion was irrelevant in Einstein's life

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