On This Day

Albert Einstein Changed the Shape of the Universe

Most of the Albert Einstein quotes that get passed around are generally inspiring, things that downplay the need for scientific research and years of work, and frontload the importance of imagination. Two in particular seem to pop up repeatedly. The first, a famous piece of advice that is passed down to legions of students, was written by Einstein to a high school student who wrote to him in 1943, “…Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics; I can assure you mine are still greater.” The other is rival mathematician David Hilbert’s diss,”Every boy in the streets of Göttingen understands more about four dimensional geometry than Einstein.” I find that strange. Why is there this need to simplify one of the greatest thinkers in human history?

These quotes, along with the pictures of the crazy hair and his tongue sticking out, serve to dumb Einstein down, make him friendly, like a sweet old grandpa who wants to make up stories about space. (I’m not even getting into I.Q. and Young Einstein, and you cannot make me.) But of course this wasn’t the case. In actuality each of his discoveries was hard won. After he failed to find work in a university, he worked in a patent office, but the idea of Einstein as the savant, scribbling notes down in between jobs isn’t quite accurate. Rather than a dreamy young man gazing out a window, imagine a desperate new father, who feels that he’s failed at his life’s work before he’s even 30, and takes a dull job in order to feed his family. Even the daydreaming aspect of this isn’t quite right. Instead, he was enacting carefully considered “thought experiments” – running scenarios repeatedly, asking questions, paying attention to every detail to make sure he was getting physics right.

During the first World War, he found himself as one of only a few pacifists in his university, surrounded by colleagues eagerly using their math and physics expertise to create horrifying chemical weaponry. As the war worsened, he also found himself starving in a blockaded Berlin.

In America, he didn’t just watch in horror as World War II unfolded, he looked at his adopted home and critiqued its culture as well. At a time when poor health made travel difficult for him, and he normally turned down invitations to speak anywhere outside of Princeton, he travelled to Lincoln University, the first degree-granting black university in the U.S., and lectured not only on physics, but also took the opportunity to discuss racism, saying:

There is … a somber point in the social outlook of Americans … Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am dearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of ‘Whites’ toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. … The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.

Of course, while he may have spoken out, he couldn’t change the fact that most of the media ignored the campus visit. It was only covered in the black press, and finally written about more widely years later.

He also wrestled with pacifism. He wrote to Franklin Roosevelt to urge the president to keep uranium out of Nazi hands, but also opposed the idea of the U.S. using it. He spoke at length about the need for humans to leave violence behind them if they wanted civilization to continue. He also particularly admired Gandhi, saying:

I believe that Gandhi’s views were the most enlightened of all the political men of our time. We should strive to do things in his spirit: not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil.

Of course, he was aware of his own role in the atomic age. Faced with a letter from a Japanese correspondent, he writes that while he “always condemned the use of the atomic bomb against Japan” he tried to focus on the “consolation” that now that humans could see what nuclear weaponry was capable of “the deterrent effect will prevail and the development of international security will accelerate.”

What interests me in this is that people have latched onto the goofy public persona of Einstein, in order to humanize him, when there is all this far more interesting history we could use. But even more than that: why do we love the idea of Einstein as lovable screw up? It’s a false idea, and it misrepresents him. Yes, it’s extremely important to teach kids that you have to work at being a genius. But there’s no need to mythologize someone as a failure to do that. Einstein was not bad at math; he was working at such a high level that it took him a few years to work out his theories, and his theories happened to involve spacetime and the movement of planets, so they weren’t really things you could test easily. (Actually, if you’d like to see David Tennant test the Theory of General Relativity, he plays Arthur Eddington to Andy Serkis’ Einstein in Einstein & Eddington. B+ would watch again!) Of course, lately its gotten a little easier with the discovery of gravitational waves, and honestly, I can’t explain this too well, so here’s physicist Brian Greene and Stephen Colbert to do it for me:

That’s before we get into the thing that actually made him famous, which is literally his ability to sit and think. This is not a popular activity right now. Just sitting still, and allowing your brain to sift through possibilities and make connections that require time. It was the combination of Einstein’s openness to imagination, and his dedication to “Sitzfleisch” – the willingness to sit and concentrate for hours at a time – that led to his ability to think through problems that have shaped how we see our universe.

It may not be a comforting thought, but it is an exhilarating one: the universe is constantly changing, moving, shifting. Even as I type this our Earth is bobbing on a gravitational wave, expanding and contracting, and, well, changing. Constantly. And I don’t think it’s too huge a stretch to say that Einstein’s ability to see that allowed him to see the ways human society needed to change, in order to continue long enough to allow future scientists to keep discovering things. The universe isn’t a static place, it’s a dance, an interaction between mass and time and gravity, and it took someone as unique and stubborn as Einstein to help the rest of us see that.


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