Einstein: Person of the Century

by Jonathan Ormes

Paint Branch UU Church
Adelphi, Maryland
July 8, 2001

When the Worship Committee asked if I wanted to do a summer service on Einstein, I was flattered, but concerned that I didn’t have much special knowledge of Einstein that isn’t part of the culture already. He was, after all, recently written up as Time magazine’s Person of the Century. They make a very compelling case that no other single individual has had as much impact on 20th century thought and science as Albert Einstein. I commend that article to you.

I encounter the impact of Einstein and his scientific contributions in my day-to-day work. So I rationalized taking on this task because I thought to myself that I might learn something interesting by doing it. I have, in fact, learned a great deal, especially about his contributions beyond physics. It has also had a personal impact as I learned about the growth of anti-Semitism following WW I, not only in Germany but also in the United States.

Much of what I have to say today about Einstein comes from the book Einstein: A Life a new biography, copyrighted in 1996 by Denis Brian. It includes some recently released information previously held private by his estate. Otto Nathan, Einstein’s friend and executor, and Helen Dukas, his long time secretary-housekeeper, had successfully sought "to sustain the shining image of Einstein as a secular saint". Dukas had saved enormous amounts of his correspondence, even things he threw into the wastebasket and other correspondence he never saw from all kinds of people wanting something from him. Some, but not all, of those papers have now been released and biographers can begin to get a more balanced picture of this extraordinary genius.

Let’s begin with his biography. Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879 in Ulm, Germany to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. A sister, Maja, was born 2 years and 8 months later. Einstein claimed to not have talked until the age of 3 when he could speak in complete sentences. However, his grandparents are quoted as being impressed by his "droll ideas" at a much earlier age. Being a grandparent of a recently 3 years old grandson, I’m not sure who I believe, Einstein and his self-image or the doting grandparents. In any case Brian wrote "He clearly hoarded his words, doling them out at rare intervals to a favored few: the child equivalent of an introspective adult who shuns small talk".

To give a flavor of his early years, I have abstracted the following from Brian’s biography: while quiet and withdrawn with other children, his sister reports he had a violent temper. She learned to recognize that his rage was about to erupt when he "turned from red to yellow". Albert once smashed her over the head with a garden hoe. In describing the incident Maja quipped "A sound skull is needed to be the sister of a thinker."

Brian reports: "His teachers, far from rating him a thinker, revived early fears that he was mentally retarded. Perhaps his mother was partly to blame for having him tutored at home until he was seven. She had proudly accepted the tutor’s assessment of Albert as a whiz kid. By prolonging his isolation from other children she had helped to create a misfit, the odd boy out, which he was inclined to be in any case."

The family had moved from Ulm to Munich to restart the unsuccessful family business. Einstein’s father and uncle were in business and the two families lived together. His uncle and a visiting student treated him to math problems and discussions of the hot scientific topics of the day. He had an aptitude for math and Latin but was mostly bored and uninterested in the other subjects.

He was the only Jew among Catholics in his school but it apparently didn’t bother him. He found learning about Christianity reminded him of the Jewish traditions that were occasionally discussed at home. In those days, the state required that children be instructed in their faiths. Since his parents were not religious people, they found a distant relative who taught Albert, aged 12, so well that he got religion with a fervor. He abandoned his devotion to math and science for the Wisdom of Salomon and the ethics of his religious forebearers, all in the worshipful service of the Master of the Universe. Brian reports his parents were patient but refused Albert’s attempts to get them to give up pork.

After about a year, this phase passed, and faith again was replaced by reason. By the age of 13 he was studying higher math on his own and exploring the intricate suppositions of Emanuel Kant — tough going at any age. Young Albert was already thinking about space, time and how the world would appear to someone riding on a beam of light. Kant had the idea that space and time were not independent realities but only concoctions of our minds.

Einstein is often described as a poor student. But he seems to have thrived under those rare teachers who asked him to think rather than to learn by rote. One of his teachers at the gymnasium (the equivalent of our high schools) was a literature professor Herr Reuss who introduced him to Schiller, Shakespeare and Goethe, all of whom became Einstein’s enduring favorites. His father would read from these authors after dinner. Albert and his friends were devoted to discussions based on the ideas of the great philosophers.

Music was an important component of Einstein’s life. He was introduced to the violin at an early age. After Albert drove one teacher away with a tantrum that included a flying chair, his mother hired a woman made of sterner stuff and the lessons continued. While he learned at first under duress, Einstein later played often and with great joy, first playing duets with his mother and later with friends. He was a forgetful fellow who often failed to dress properly, but he never forgot his fiddle. His friends reported that he liked to search for new harmonies and transitions of his own invention. He used to think while playing because he would often finish a piece by declaring that "he had got it" and rejoice in having solved some math or science problem in his head. Maybe music really does help the development of the mind. I have always been struck by how many of my scientific colleagues are also musicians.

When Albert was 15, the family business failed again, and, sponsored by wealthy relatives, they decided to move to Milano in Italy. This was now the mid 1890s. Albert, however, had to remain behind in Germany to do his military service as a German citizen. This was a difficult time for Albert. He was a teenaged boy living alone in a boarding house. He didn’t play sports and had no friends. School bored him and teachers didn’t like the little smile on his face. I suppose such a smile today would be called a smirk. Rather than being the Buddha-like character of popular myth, he was high-strung and emotional and felt abandoned. Fortunately, his doctor recognized what was going on and gave him a to-whom-it-may-concern-letter recommending he recuperate with his family in Italy. His math teacher helped by saying that Albert was so proficient in math that there was nothing further to teach him. He was allowed to leave Germany before his 16th birthday, thus avoiding the requirement for serving in the military before joining his family.

His recuperation with his family was swift and complete, but his father didn’t need a high school dropout on his hands. He would need a degree even to teach. Meanwhile, he continued to show an amazing ability to solve technical problems and some, including his technically inclined Uncle Jakob, recognized in him extraordinary talent in math and physics. He applied to Zurich Polytechnic Institute where, to please his father who thought he needed something practical, he was to study electrical engineering. He was two years younger than the other applicants were. He flunked most of the exams but his math and physics scores were so impressive that he was admitted on condition that he get a high school diploma first.

This leads us to Albert’s love life. He was sent to live with the Winteler family in the town of Aarau, Switzerland, not far from Zurich. He was to live there while he finished his high school studies. They treated him like one of the family, and Albert thrived at the school. His wealthy relatives, who kept sustaining the shaky businesses of his father and uncle, were paying for his schooling. His first love was Marie Winteler, one of three Winteler daughters. The love letters from Albert to Marie exist and are typical of teenage infatuation. There is no existing letter in which Albert ends it, but we do know that Marie suffered a breakdown at the loss of her young man of "arresting looks and personality". Einstein did maintain good relations with the rest of the family, but there was some time during which he refused the Winteler’s invitations to visit. Einstein applied for and was granted Swiss citizenship.

Once Albert graduated and moved to Zurich to study, he met Mileva Maric, a young Serbian woman in his physics class. Albert’s friends were puzzled by his turning to "a somewhat shapeless woman of awkward gait" caused by a congenital hip defect. His parents were very opposed to Mileva and he hid much of their relationship from them. But they had in common their interest in physics and the comfort of being fellow "outsiders" in a hostile environment where bowing to authority was necessary to success. Mileva was a young woman to reckon with. She had persuaded a high school teacher in Novi Sad to let her attend an all-male physics class. She was in Zurich for studies because there was no chance for her to get an advanced degree at home in this male dominated field.

The years between ages 18 and 25 find Einstein struggling with school authority and the usual "finding oneself" of people at his age. Mileva got pregnant and went home to have the child. Their relationship was strongly opposed by both his parents and hers. It’s not known what happened to this child, a girl they named Lieserl. She died or was given up for adoption, but in either case the impact on Mileva was great. During this time Einstein struggled and was no longer supported by his wealthy relatives. He took and was fired from various teaching jobs and almost starved, but finally ended up as a clerk in the Patent Office in Bern.

Meanwhile, Einstein had passed his exams but Mileva did not. Now on his deathbed, Hermann Einstein gave Albert his permission to marry Mileva. She rejoined him in Switzerland and they were married. Their son Hans Albert came along shortly but Mileva seemed to friends to be emotionally unstable. Einstein’s life was mostly taken up by his friends, talking physics and making music. In a kind of tweaking of the academic authorities, he and his friends called their informal group the Olympia Academy. He was working intensely hard on his problems and not paying much attention to Mileva. He had amazing powers of concentration and could apparently rock the crying baby with his foot while working on a problem and smoking. His first paper was accepted for publication and a second son was born.

By now we are approaching 1905 when, at the age of 26, he published three famous seminal papers. One is on Brownian motion, another on the photoelectric effect, and then the theory of special relativity. The popular image is of Einstein contemplating the stars, puffing on his cigar or pipe and occasionally writing down an equation. Einstein’s protectors seem to have cultivated this image, but the reality is probably different as revealed by Einstein himself in an interview in which he apparently let his guard down a bit. He described himself as being in a constant state of psychic tension. "I was visited by all sorts of nervous conflicts. I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion, as one who has yet to overcome the stage of stupefaction in his or her first encounter with such questions."

The theory of special relativity was something he had been struggling with for a long time. He awoke one morning in great agitation as if, he said "a storm broke loose in my mind". He described it as having finally tapped "God’s thoughts". He and a colleague were trying to think — ‘Can we get another idea that will solve this problem?’ when Einstein said "Ideas come from God". His friend went on: "Now he didn’t believe in a personal God or anything like that. This was his metaphysical way of speaking. You cannot command the idea to come, it will come when it’s good and ready."

Some of the ideas that led to the 1905 papers were floating around at the time. Einstein’s great accomplishment was to recognize that light waves were actually bundles of energy proportional to its frequency. He was later to realize that matter and energy were equivalent (E=mc^2) and go on to predict the deformation of space and time by the matter and energy distributed therein. This all led finally to his formulating the general theory of relativity that did for bodies accelerating or falling in gravitational fields what special relativity did for bodies in motion. It put the observer in the position of determining the velocity and acceleration of his or her nearby world and acknowledged that things would appear differently to other observers.

The fact that light waves were affected by gravity was unknown and unimagined 100 years ago. Einstein’s theory of general relativity, published in 1916, predicted the bending of starlight in the gravitational filed of the sun. The equations were complex and not readily understood, even by other physicists. Einstein had to learn a whole new branch of mathematics in order to express them in a simplified form. The predicted effect was observed experimentally during a solar eclipse in 1919 and Einstein became world famous overnight. Matter and energy everywhere had been proven to affect the shape of space and the tick of time. The gravity of Newton and geometry of Euclid had been shown to be inadequate descriptions of reality.

Einstein equations suggested the existence of objects whose gravitational fields were so strong they could capture any light they might emit. We are only now beginning to plumb the subtleties of general relativity by studying the physics of phenomena in the enormous gravitational fields near black holes, some of which have been shown to have masses a billion times that of our sun.

Those of you who have done calculus will remember that when you do an operation called integration, you get an undetermined constant. Well Einstein added something to his equations called the cosmological constant. He included it to make the universe static as it appeared. His colleague de Sitter preferred the dynamic version without the constant. Einstein argued that an expanding universe implied there was a beginning, and hence a God who created it — "How can something begin without a creator?" he asked, a question that continues to puzzle us today. After the universe was shown by Edwin Hubble to really be expanding, Einstein described the cosmological constant as "the biggest blunder of my life". We might also ask who or what created the creator in an endless loop, but that’s the topic for another day!

One of the great discoveries of the past few years is that the universe is not expanding at a constant rate but is instead accelerating. It’s as though the universe is being pushed apart faster and faster by some kind of anti-gravity, some kind of repulsive force. There have been some very recent tests of the big bang theory, which indicate our universe is perfectly balanced between expansion forever and collapse back onto itself. Taking the recently discovered acceleration of the universe and our understanding today of how it all works, the universe will end as suggested by Robert Frost in the poem I read earlier — it began as fire and will gradually fade out and disappear into ice. But I don’t think that’s what Frost had in mind when he wrote the poem.

Just one week ago yesterday I was at Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of a satellite that will check the theories about how the universe we see today evolved from the big bang. We are about to take a baby picture of our 14 billion year old universe as it was at the age of 400,000 years. The picture will be seen in minute fluctuations in the temperature of the microwave radiation left over from the big bang. The satellite is known as MAP — for Microwave Anisotropy Probe. The next time I stand in this pulpit and talk, I suspect it will be to tell you about the finding of this extraordinary satellite. As I watch my colleagues at work on such projects, I sometimes recall Einstein saying: "The cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research."

But I have digressed. As his reputation grew, Einstein found his way from the patent office in Bern to his first academic position in Zurich again and then finally to Prague where Mileva was quite unhappy. They hated the city but Einstein was happy at the University and worked very hard on general relativity. He traveled a lot and became friends of the leading scientists of the day. They spend a summer at the home of Madame Curie where Albert and she talked physics and walked extensively in the Swiss Alps, climbing down to Lake Como in Italy on one excursion. Einstein finally moved to Berlin, but Mileva was extremely unhappy there and she moved back to Zurich alone. About this time Einstein was being elected to the prestigious Prussian Academy of Sciences after being nominated by the great German physicist of the time Max Planck.

World War I was fast approaching, and Einstein’s pacifist tendencies were just emerging. He was one of only 4 (out of 100 asked) German intellectuals of the time who had the courage to sign a petition protesting the invasion of neutral Belgium. Even Max Planck, who had been Einstein’s champion, finally became a Nazi apologist.

He and Mileva were divorced in 1919 and he married his cousin Elsa, a divorcee with two girls of her own. She had spent a great deal of time nurturing Einstein back to health. He had become quite ill working intensely and alone on his new theory. She came to America with Einstein and protected him as best she could. She became ill and died in 1936. Elsa and Albert had hired a young woman named Helen Dukas to help out as his secretary, and after Elsa’s death she became his companion and caretaker until his death in 1955.

He was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922 after having been nominated many times. He was then able to make good on his promise to give Mileva his prize money. The record shows he was not given it earlier because first, one of the influential committee members, a former German Nobel Laureate, didn’t think it should go to a Jew and second, none of the judges understood the theory. In the end the vaguely worded citation was for his "contributions to theoretical physics" and his discovery of the photoelectric effect, and not for general relativity or special relativity. It was these theories of relativity of which he was most proud and which made him famous with both fellow scientists and the public. I note in passing that prize-giving is a human rather than a scientific activity.

The years following WW I were characterized by rising anti-Semitism and Einstein was not immune. He was being both worshiped and vilified in Germany. He was in great demand as a lecturer on relativity and was happy to leave Berlin whenever possible. In Japan, thousands had waited in front of his hotel all night to greet him in the morning. As he bowed to acknowledge the cheers, he said to Else, who was with him "No living being deserves this sort of reception." After the cheering went on for some time he said "I’m afraid we’re swindlers. We’ll end in prison yet."

He was an ardent pacifist and began speaking out publicly in Berlin after the war. He proposed an investigation of German war crimes and advocated world government as an antidote to war. He helped Jews to escape to Palestine. All this in a country of rabid nationalists spoiling for another fight.

He first came to the United States in 1921 on a fundraising tour for creating a Jewish state in Palestine. He was greeted like a movie star. He was patient with the banal questions about what he had for breakfast, and warm and friendly to everyone. He was unpretentious, patient and kind to the curious. He was a humanist and full of fun. He had a lifelong suspicion of all authority. My favorite quote from Einstein comes from his fame. He said "To punish me for my contempt for experts, God has foreseen to make me one." I also like "Whosoever undertakes to set himself up as judge in the field of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods."

He had a remarkable confidence and sense of humor that allowed him to laugh away things such as the attack of a right wing student at one of his lectures who shouted "I’m going to cut the throat of that dirty Jew." Hitler was already becoming a force and he was very aware of how dangerous it was to be a Jew in Germany. He left Germany for the United States for good in 1932. Caltech and Princeton had vied for his services, Princeton winning. His salary was $16,000 per year, a significant amount for those depression years. He spent a great deal of the money he earned posting bonds so that Jewish intellectuals could leave Germany and come to the United States in those difficult years.

In 1933 the days of Nazi book-burning led Einstein to note "I think the Nazi’s have got the whip hand in Berlin. I am reliably informed that they are collecting war materiel and in particular airplanes in a great hurry. If they are given another year or two the world will have another fine experience at the hands of the Germans." He met with Churchill, then an influential Member of Parliament, and warned him that Hitler was secretly preparing for war. In the days leading up towards World War II, Einstein the Pacifist knew what the Germans were capable of and wrote to Roosevelt about the potential of building an atomic bomb. His remark on learning the bomb had been dropped was "Oh Wey" — Oh my God", but he thought that intelligent human beings could contain it.

After the war, Einstein was accused of being a fellow traveler or communist sympathizer and even investigated by the FBI. He had been critical of capitalism but this did not mean he was a communist. He was convinced that the way to world peace was on a supranational level as advocated by the World Federalist Movement.

Einstein is famous among physicists for remarking about quantum physics: "God doesn’t play dice". And we all know the reply from his friendly rival Niels Bohr: "Einstein, stop telling God what to do". What really was Einstein’s religious outlook? Einstein did not believe in a personal God, but as is well summarized by Brian in the following: "He never lost his admiration for the ethical and aesthetic aspects of some Christian and Jewish teachings. Attaching himself to no organized religions, he was still considered by those who knew him to have been deeply religious. They cite his almost childlike wonder at the splendors of the Universe and his belief in its ultimate harmony, his concern for the fate of others, and his active commitment to social justice. They also mention his frequent references to a cosmic intelligence."

In another passage Brian paraphrases his answers to a series of interview questions: "We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a Universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious forces that move the constellations.

Einstein was a great scientist who did his best to make the world a better place for all. I believe he would have been comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist. At least I would have been comfortable calling him one of us. I think Time magazine made a wise choice for Person of the Century.

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