Happy Birthday Albert E.

Happy birthday Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein’s 130th birthday shouldn’t go unnoticed. His range of achievement goes far beyond E=mc squared. If you used a GPS receiver today, a grocery store scanner, or a digital camera, he touched your life. He deciphered the mathematics of molecular motion, the photoelectric effect. Before the advent of quantum mechanics (whose foundation he helped to lay), Einstein somehow deduced the basic ideas behind the laser. We haven’t even gotten to general relativity. If you are game for a challenge, Abraham Pais’ masterpiece Subtle is the Lord provides an unrivalled account of Einstein’s achievements.

Einstein’s most fundamental contributions ended when he parted company with modern quantum mechanics. He accepted the theory’s value for calculation, but rejected the ultimate philosophical framework embodied in the uncertainty principle. He understood–but could not accept–its fundamental strangeness. He and his collaborators devised ingenious thought experiments that highlighted disturbing paradoxes inherent in the new science. “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” he famously said. He thought there must be something else, fundamentally less strange, hidden underneath the quantum world we could see.

In recent decades, some of these thought experiments were actually conducted. Einstein was right to note the bizarre predictions required by quantum mechanics. Yet wouldn’t you know it, quantum mechanics held up. The world turns out to be weirder than our greatest scientist believed. No one understands why. It’s just the way things are.

Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, makes plain that the great man was no saint. He was an indifferent spouse and parent. He dallied with women. As George Steiner put it, the bright light of genius cast dark shadows on surrounding lives. Einstein played a public role he found useful, but often rightly disdained: a stereotyped media superstar, the most famous scientist and the most famous Jew in the world.

Making due allowances for the historical accident that made him a world celebrity, his greatness went beyond his scientific work. A lifelong nonconformist who opposed militarism in all matters not involving Hitler, his activism for nuclear disarmament and social justice seems even more timely today than it did 60 years ago.

He worked hard to advance human rights. He opposed discriminatory policies followed by Princeton University, on whose outskirts he lived and worked after Hitler sent him packing. He spoke out for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He tangled with Chaim Weitzman over the treatment of Arabs in what would become the state of Israel

There are so many Einstein stories. One told by Jeremy Bernstein, conveys both his brilliance and the awful times in which he lived. German scientists who worked under Hitler faced the delicate task of explaining why they were applying “Jewish science,” which both relativity and quantum mechanics were presumed to be. Scientists duly produced papers downplaying Einstein’s contributions in an effort to reduce the religious stigma attached to modern physics under the Nazi regime. Werner Heisenberg wrote an article, suitably approved by the SS, arguing that Einstein’s contributions were not essential for the development of relativity.

Scientists, Einstein included, do tend to get exclusive credit for insights developed in dialogue with others. Still, Heisenberg’s piece seems a tad ungrateful. Only 12 years before, Einstein had nominated the young Heisenberg for a Nobel Prize. One more thing: It turns out that Heisenberg’s signature discovery–the uncertainty principle–was spurred by a conversation he had … with Albert Einstein.

Happy Birthday, Albert. There will never be another like you.

Postscript: Eric Alterman draws my attention to an Atlantic essay on the necessity of global nuclear arms control. On a day in which the New York Times reports continued Iranian progress in acquiring a bomb, the below passage seems especially prescient.

Americans may be convinced of their determination not to launch an aggressive or preventive war. So they may believe it is superfluous to announce publicly that they will not a second time be the first to use the atomic bomb. But this country has been solemnly invited to renounce the use of the bomb—that is, to outlaw it—and has declined to do so unless its terms for supranational control are accepted.

I believe this policy is a mistake. I see a certain military gain from not renouncing the use of the bomb in that this may be deemed to restrain another country from starting a war in which the United States might use it. But what is gained in one way is lost in another. For an understanding over the supranational control of atomic energy has been made more remote. That may be no military drawback so long as the United States has the exclusive use of the bomb. But the moment another country is able to make it in substantial quantities, the United States loses greatly through the absence of an international agreement….

In refusing to outlaw the bomb while having the monopoly of it, this country suffers in another respect, in that it fails to return publicly to the ethical standards of warfare formally accepted previous to the last war. It should not be forgotten that the atomic bomb was made in this country as a preventive measure; it was to head off its use by the Germans, if they discovered it. The bombing of civilian centers was initiated by the Germans and adopted by the Japanese. To it the Allies responded in kind—as it turned out, with greater effectiveness—and they were morally justified in doing so. But now, without any provocation, and without the justification of reprisal or retaliation, a refusal to outlaw the use of the bomb save in reprisal is making a political purpose of its possession; this is hardly pardonable.

Incidentally, I am to Albert’s left on the last paragraph. I see no justification for much of the strategic bombing carried out by the Allies against Germany and Japan. The absolute evil of the Nazi regime sometimes justfied, and more often invited, great ruthlessness in response. We are still suffering with that legacy.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.