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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Ironically, his lot in life was due, in part, to the very skepticism and stubbornness that helped make him the scientist he was. While Einstein gravitated toward the cutting edge of physics, his professors had wanted to focus on the tried and true theories of the past. Choosing to reject the "authoritative" view, Einstein studied on his own time and alienated his college professor Heinrich Friedrich Weber in the process. "You are a smart boy, Einstein, a very smart boy," Weber once told him. "But you have one great fault: You do not let yourself be told anything." He estranged Weber to such a degree that Einstein couldn't get a decent job recommendation after college.
Still, Einstein managed to produce three Nobel Prize-caliber theories in 1905, each of which bucked tradition in its own way. He published a total of five papers that year, introducing three different concepts. The first, presented in two papers, offered a method of measuring the discrete size of atoms and predicting how they'd move, despite the randomness of Brownian motion. While most scientists already believed that atoms were the fundamental building blocks of the universe, Einstein's paper, which practically offered a hands-on way to quantify them, is credited with quieting the naysayers once and for all. The second theory, an explanation of the photoelectric effect, was the product of an experiment that aimed light at metal plates to induce electricity. The amount of energy that came out the other side was inconsistent with what a wave should have produced, but Einstein found the results made sense if he postulated instead that light came in discrete energy packets, now known as "photons." With this theory, Einstein himself thought he was pushing the envelope, writing to his friend Conrad Habicht that his paper on this topic was going to be "very revolutionary." Finally, there was the special theory of relativity, which showed that while the speed of light may be absolute, time and space contracted. An adjunct to this idea, explained in a paper just two pages long, introduced the equation E = mc², which stated that energy and mass were two sides of the same coin.
What is interesting about these three theories is not just that Einstein overturned convention to reinterpret the nature of matter, light, time, and space-it's also that he didn't hesitate to publish, within his own work, what seemed like contradictions. The photoelectric effect turned the concept of light on its head, describing streaming billiard balls of energy, as opposed to the lovely wave everyone accepted. But in formulating special relativity, Einstein happily used that wave theory, beginning with Maxwell's original formulas. In one paper, the assumption that light was made of particles-light "quanta," as Einstein originally called them-successfully solved a problem, so Einstein used it; in the other, that hypothesis wasn't needed and therefore wasn't mentioned. The theories were presented to the public within months of each other, and Einstein believed firmly in the correctness of both. He never apologized for what anyone could see was a contradiction. Einstein's problem, after all, was never with contradictions-it was with accepting that which wasn't solidly grounded in reasonable assumptions.
Satisfactorily interpreting the contradiction, however, would take much of the next decade. Many people were content to let Einstein's photon version of light exist merely as a mathematical construct that helped solve the photoelectric puzzle, without believing in it as a physical reality. But Einstein insisted his light quanta truly existed, and not just as a pretty, theoretical model. Experiments soon proved him right, but they also introduced a fantastic problem: Experiments designed to show light was a wave consistently showed it was a wave, while those meant to show light was made of particles did indeed show it to be made of particles. It wasn't long before the entire physics community accepted what Einstein had instinctively recognized from the beginning: Both facts were true. Light is simultaneously a wave and a set of particles, and it's perfectly acceptable to conceptualize it as whichever one is more useful for the task at hand.
At the same time the world was coming to terms with the schizophrenic nature of light, Einstein was reconsidering his views on Judaism. After spending so much time ignoring his religion, he suddenly found he could no longer remain detached. When he moved to Czechoslovakia in 1911 to take a job at the University of Prague, the Austro- Hungarian Empire required all of its residents to be identified with a defined religion. In a letter to his friend Heinrich Zangger, Einstein explained how, "Dressed in a most picturesque uniform, I took the solemn oath of office in front of the Viceroy of Bohemia yesterday, putting to use my Jewish `faith,' which I put on again for this purpose. It was a comical scene."
But the comical scene quickly ceased to be a joke. In Prague, Einstein learned an important lesson: His Jewish heritage would mark him as different in European eyes, no matter how he perceived himself. The community there was rigidly divided. Christians spent time with Christians; Jews kept to themselves. Not accustomed to being pigeonholed and unable to relate to the observant Jews in the city, Einstein fell in with an intellectual Jewish crowd that included novelist Franz Kafka. The group met regularly at a salon to discuss philosophy and listen to music, and, while not overly religious, his new companions lured Einstein back to what we would now call "cultural Judaism." Later in life, Einstein said that being defined by non-Jews did more to make him a Jew than the Jewish community did. In a letter to Israeli politician Abba Eban, he wrote, "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."
But embracing his heritage did not change Einstein's attitude about organized religion. He saw no contradiction in donning the cloak of Judaism without once again becoming observant- a possibility enabled by the very nature of Judaism, a religion that emphasizes not just memorization, but also analysis and understanding. In Judaism, it isn't enough to learn something by rote; one must find a personal relationship to the ideas and tenets-a mandate that also could be interpreted as tacit permission to pick and choose which parts to embrace.
For Jews in Europe, assimilation was common, as was a stay-quiet-and-bear-it attitude about anti-Semitism, which was certainly on the rise in Germany when Einstein moved back in 1914 to take a job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Perhaps the Prague experience made a difference, perhaps it was his suspicion of authority, or perhaps it was because his fame made him an early target, but Einstein spoke out against the growing anti- Semitism of the country long before others did.
Einstein's deepening relationship with Zionism
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While these years in Germany mark the swell of a general activism that would carry Einstein through the rest of his life, making the initial decision to campaign for Israel was not necessarily an easy one. He had long been a deeply committed pacifist, a philosophy that, for him, was strongly coupled with the rejection of any form of nationalism. He attributed World War I directly to the nationalistic fervor of the German government and blamed the beginning of World War II on the same phenomenon. Uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of condemning nationalism for the Germans yet supporting it for the Jews, he saw value in creating a safe haven for the Jewish people, but worried the cost of Israel's security would be a militarism that stifled the rights of non-Jews. During a 1938 speech in New York, titled "Our Debt to Zionism," Einstein stated that, "Apart from practical considerations, my awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power no matter how modest."
"This is very awkward, very awkward," Einstein muttered to himself as he paced the floor of his Princeton, New Jersey, home. It was 1952, and Einstein had been offered the presidency of Israel following the death of Chaim Weizmann.
Meanwhile, 5,700 miles away, many Israeli leaders were equally distraught. "What will we do if he accepts?" they whispered. For better or for worse, they were never forced to find out. Einstein turned down the offer, telling the Israelis that he didn't have the skills for politics, but explaining to his stepdaughter Margot, "If I were to be president, sometimes I would have to say to the Israeli people things they would not like to hear."
Indeed, he regularly did tell Israelis things they didn't want to hear, specifically, criticisms of Israel's hostilities toward its neighbors. When Einstein decided to leave Germany in 1932, many in what is now Israel were angry that he chose to move to the United States rather than take a position at Jerusalem's Hebrew University; Einstein cited the Israeli treatment of Arabs as one of the reasons for his decision. Later, in the fall of 1948, Einstein went so far as to include his signature on an open letter, printed in The New York Times, that compared the tactics used by Menachem Begin's political party to those of the Nazis. This was one of the harshest comparisons Einstein could have made, and yet he still claimed to love Israel deeply.
In his relationship to Zionism, we see an Einstein who, depending on your point of view, either doggedly held true to his pacifist principles or became increasingly cranky and stubborn as he got older. Regardless of whether he was still exhibiting his legendary skepticism or had moved into downright contrarianism, drawing hard and fast conclusions about a dismissal of Judaism or religion per se was simply not possible.
By the time he had reached his seventies, a growing mulishness had come to pervade many aspects of his life, including his relationship to quantum mechanics. Just as he had helped found Zionism, he had helped found quantum mechanics; by declaring that light was made up of quanta, Einstein was one of the first, along with Max Planck, to show that energy in the universe came in discrete particles, not in continuous streams-an insight that led to a statistical analysis of nature that seems completely accurate to this day. Quantum mechanics is a "statistical" analysis because it is limited to offering predictions and probabilities of where a given particle might be or what its attributes are, without being able to determine such things exactly. Einstein saw quantum mechanics as a useful tool, but kept searching for a theory that could predict exactly where a particle might be at any given moment. Most of his contemporaries, however, led by physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, believed quantum mechanics was an accurate depiction of reality. It was impossible, they said, to determine a particle's exact position or exact speed or exact orientation, not because the math was limited, but because the particle simply didn't have exact characteristics. The position of any given particle, for example, was spread out in space. Its velocity, too, was inexact.
Einstein spent the last decades of his life determined to come up with a more comprehensive theory, a unified field theory that would incorporate both his theories of relativity and quantum mechanics-and, more importantly, destroy the idea that the universe ran solely on probabilities. "God," Einstein said more than once, "does not play dice with the universe." (To which Bohr finally responded: "Stop telling God what to do!") And much as Israeli leaders felt the sting of Einstein's criticism, many of Einstein's physics contemporaries felt personally rejected by his refusal to accept their interpretation of quantum mechanics. Young scientists, like Heisenberg, who had initially entered the field because they idolized Einstein, were reprimanded when they tried to discuss their science with him. Some physicists, like Bohr, kept waiting for Einstein to see the error of his ways, and were, of course, disappointed. Others, like Wolfgang Pauli-who once stuck out his tongue when Einstein cornered him in the halls of Princeton University to announce his latest attempt at a unified theory-regularly mocked him. But today, there are scientists who do believe a grand "theory of everything" is possible, once again demonstrating that Einstein's ability to dig his heels in the mud contributed to a foresight in science that served him well.
In his relationships with light, quantum mechanics, Zionism, and religion, Einstein's rebelliousness and willfulness are obvious. And, if we are to believe his autobiography, we can trace those crucial personality traits back to that defining moment of his youth, when he broke with Jewish observance and internalized a "mistrust of every kind of authority."
That is, however, a pretty big if; Einstein scholars claim that his written recollections sometimes seem modified to suit his later philosophies. But it's hard to resist the fairy tale. Scholars have dissected his papers, his letters, and even his brain in an effort to determine just what gave Einstein his scientific brilliance. While their theories are certainly varied, the constant skepticism pervading Einstein's life has to be considered a prime mover. He wasn't always pleasant, he wasn't even always right, but Einstein's steadfast commitment to what he felt to be true, coupled with the ability to constantly question anything else, determined his relationships with the most important aspects of his life: science and the Jewish people. It may even have been what turned a smart man into a genius.