Introduction, Some notes on Albert Einstein
As a scientist Einstein was of such a stature that he could look back across almost three hundred years to Isaac Newton without having his view much obstructed by those who came between. The creative life of such a man would be profoundly interesting even if it had been lived, like Proust's, in the seclusion of a cork-lined study. In fact, however, the scientific revolution to which Einstein contributed so largely, took place just as Europe was subsiding into one of its recurrent fits of insanity. The story of Einstein's life is not only the story of a man of genius, but also that of a momentous period in human history culminating in the dawn of a new age.
Einstein celebrated his twenty-first birthday in 1900. His prospects for eclipsing Isaac Newton did not, at that date, seem too bright. A more immediate concern was to find a job. He had graduated that year from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, leaving with quite good marks but with a legacy of ruffled tempers among his professors. Universities, then as now, were not too well-adapted to the nurture or even the toleration of towering genius. Nor were, or are, geniuses well adapted to tolerating these meddlesome institutions. Einstein already had the impressive halo of hair that would become his trademark ("Charlie Chaplin with the brow of Shakespeare" was the description given of him later). To day we associate Einstein's appearance with his concern for another world, beyond the trivia of this one - and we are entirely right to do so. However, it was not primarily saintliness, but lack of attention that caused his hair to stick out. It was this aspect of the matter that prospective employers most easily recognized. Here was a man who disliked rules - a troublemaker. It was a fair inference.
Einstein had spent six years at a high school (Gym nasium) in Munich where he had learned to loathe disci pline, particularly the sort of mental straight-jacket which he associated with his schooling. At the same early age he conceived a thorough detestation for Germany, the coun try in which his family had lived for centuries. When his parents decided to leave Munich, owing to one of the many bankruptcies of his father's small engineering work shop, the Gymnasium hurried to expel Einstein before he could announce his departure. ("Your presence in the class is disruptive and affects the other students," was the way it was put.) Not long afterwards Einstein badgered his easy-going parents into allowing him to renounce his German nationality - he was sixteen. For the next five years he remained stateless. It was in 1900 that he ac quired Swiss nationality and a Swiss diploma - but no job. Another nine years passed before he was able to land a university post.
The bulk of those nine years he spent as a minor em ployee of the Swiss Patent Office in Berne.After his day's work was over he would go home and pursue specula tions - which had germinated while he was at the univer sity - regarding the nature of molecular motion, the na ture of radiant energy, and the nature of space and of time.
All of these scientific projects were of an awesome magnitude. It was not merely a matter of a mathematical genius leaping from symbol to symbol across the page and arriving thereby at a startling new result. Only trivial results could be obtained in that way. This was a vastly more demanding undertaking, requiring, in addition to the highest mathematical skill, that paradoxical thing: a soaring, but disciplined, imagination. It is the quality of genius to be able to spin fantasy (not once but many times) and then to hold this elusive fabric firm while it is subjected to critical examination.
The Prussian-style school in Munich, which Einstein abhorred, is sometimes credited through its very awful ness with giving him the impetus to revolt against ortho dox science. If we are to be that generous in assessing the value of his schooling, we might also credit it with instill ing in him some of the fantastic discipline which allowed him to push his work, through repeated exhaustion and disappointment, to a succession of spectacular successes.
A young man who visited Einstein in his apartment in Berne described the scene:
He was sitting in his study in front of a heap of papers covered with mathematical formulas. Writing with his right hand and holding his younger son in his left, he kept replying to questions from his elder son Albert who was playing with his bricks. With the words, "Wait a minute, I've nearly finished," he gave me the children to look after for a few moments and went on working.
In 1905, at the age of twenty-six, Einstein published five papers in a German scientific journal (Volume 17 of Annalen der Physik - now a collector's item worth several thousand dollars a copy). All contain the founda- tions of new theories of the highest importance "blazing rockets which in the dark of the night suddenly cast a brief but powerful illumination over an immense unknown region," as they were later described by Louis de Broglie. There had been nothing like this fireworks display since Newton produced, in one brief period, the revolutionary new math called calculus, an explanation of the colors hidden in white light, and the law of gravita- tion. Within a few years the most perceptive scientists were describing Einstein - still stuck in his Patent Office job - as being perhaps "the Copernicus of the twentieth century" (from a letter written by Max Planck in 1910).
In the Special Theory of Relativity Einstein argued that time and space (both assumed since the early days of science to be absolute and unalterable aspects of the world into which we are born) were in fact "relative" quantities dependent on the motion of the observer. The only yardstick which held firm was the speed of light. This remained constant to the bizarre extent that any effort to increase it by, let us say, mounting a lamp on a rocket hurtling towards the observer, would not alter the speed of the light in the slightest. Out of these extraordinary considerations he was led to conclude there must be a very simple connection between energy and mass. Bodies moving with vast energy should gain slightly in mass. Conversely, a little mass should be convertible into vast amounts of energy...
How can things like this, which fly in the face of common sense, be true? And if true, how can they be overlooked for centuries? The answer is that common sense is based on common experience, which is absurdly narrow compared with the possible realm of experience. The realm of common sense is all the time expanding (today we hear at a distance through the radio, see in the dark through radio, some of us exist without weight in outer space, and others have experienced the conversion of mass into energy through the agency of atomic power plants - or bombs). One can imagine a time when the notion that moving clocks tick slowly relative to clocks at rest a part of the SpecialTheory - becomes a common- place, instead of lying, as in 1905, at the furthermost reach of human intellect.
A few years later Einstein was writing to a friend to say that the very idea of having two clocks available to one observer strained his imagination, living, as he still was, on the income of a Patent Office "Technical Expert, Second Class" (recently promoted from third class). The modem Copemicus was again hunting for a university post. A professorship of theoretical physics was to be filled at Zurich University in 1908. Einstein was a strong candidate, but the job was offered instead, on political grounds, to Friedrich Adler. Adler replied to the offer,
If it is possible to obtain a man like Einstein for our university, it would be absurd to appoint me. My ability as a research physicist does not bear even the slightest comparison with Einstein's. Such an oppor- tunity to obtain a man who can benefit us so much by raising the general level of the university, should not be lost because of political sympathies.
This sort of declaration is uncommon. (It would be rare to encounter it in Canadians given preference, on the grounds of nationality, for university jobs over foreign candidates... As a matter of fact the same Adler once again proved himself exceptional eight years later when, as the apotheosis of the socially conscious professor, he shot and killed the Prime Minister of Austria).
Einstein got the job. Two years later he moved to the better-established German University of Prague, then located in Austria-Hungary. This time Einstein nearly lost out to Dr. Gustav Jaumann who had the advantage of being Austrian by birth. When Jaumann heard that Einstein's candidature had some support, he withdrew for a different reason from that which prompted Adler. "... I will have nothing to do with a university," Jaumann declared, "that chases after modernity and does not appreciate merit."
It was in Prague that Einstein approached a new under- standing of the nature of gravity. In 1911 he concluded that his theory of gravity required that light rays should be bent as they passed a massive body such as the sun, and he predicted by how much they should be bent.
The full flowering of genius is rarely a protracted affair. Einstein's greatest work, the General Theory of Relativity, was now well under way. In 1914 he moved to Berlin. He had been lured there, despite his antipathy toward Germany, quite simply because Berlin was the world's capital for science. It was a remarkable fact that, despite his incredible successes in the secluded environs of the Patent Office, Einstein was very conscious of his need for the best possible scientific milieu.
A year and a half after his arrival in Berlin, in Novem- ber of 1915, he completed a paper entitled "The Founda tion of the General Theory of Relativity." This paper greatly broadened the arguments which he had presented a decade earlier regarding the nature of space and time. Space did not conform to the sort of geometry described by Euclid - and used by Newton - but to another sort of geometry appropriate to lines drawn on spheres. The "curvature" of space was, according to his theory, particu larly marked in the neighborhood of massive bodies. It would therefore most clearly evident in the curvature of light as it passed by bodies of great mass.
This was very abstract stuff, and was to remain so for some years. "The theory appeared to me then, and still does," wrote Max Born, "the greatest feat of human think ing about nature, the most amazing combination of philo sophical penetration, physical intuition, and mathematical skill. But its connections with experience were slender."
Events in November 1919 changed that. A British expedition succeeded in observing the bending of light coming from certain stars, as the light passed the sun during the course of a total solar eclipse. (Six successful photographs were taken during a hair-raising moment while the clouds separated.) The light not only bent, it bent by the amount that Einstein had predicted.The parting of the clouds had revealed a new view of the universe.
It wasn't exactly a new universe for Einstein. He was already deeply convinced that he was right: "... I no longer doubt the correctness of the system, whether the observation of the eclipse succeeds or not. The sense of the thing is too evident," he wrote early in 1914.
Though it wasn't a new universe for him, it was a new world. Almost overnight, in November of 1919, he became the world's most famous scientist, a star of the first magnitude. (Over one hundred books on relativity were published within a year.) He would continue to struggle in a heroic fashion with the greatest scientific problems, but his most productive years were over. There were a number of reasons for this. One, it would appear, was the fact that the storehouse of 19th century mathe- matics, on which 20th century physics depended for sustenance, had been cleared of its greatest treasures.This store would need to be restocked before further major leaps forward in physical understanding would be possible. Another reason was that from November 1919 on, Einstein was to be buffeted continually by adulation and by vilification, by challenges to his conscience (of which he had a great deal) and his political skill (of which he had less). He would be hailed as the greatest Swiss scientist in history, the greatest German scientist, the great est Jewish scientist, and the greatest American scientist; and he would be bitterly attacked by members of each of these groups (with the exception, perhaps, of the temper ate Swiss). He would be asked to lend his name and his voice to such causes as pacifism, Zionism, the atomic bomb project, international government, and disarma- ment. The extent to which he did so, and the special circ umstances that prompted him in each case, would make the subject for a fat volume1.
What Gabriel Emanuel has achieved in a small compass in his well-researched, entertaining and thought provoking play, is to make a line-drawing of Einstein that, with great economy of means, suggests the spirit of the man. This was a very great man, an inquiring and lovable figure, plagued nonetheless with doubt, disappointment and failure, in common with the rest of mankind.John C. Polanyi, Professor of Chemistry, University of Toronto, and Nobel Laureate, 1986. 1 See Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald W. Clark, on which this article, first published in The Toronto Star in 1976, was based.
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