Einstein
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also The name echoes through the language: It doesn't take an Einstein. A poor man's Einstein. He's no Einstein. In this busy century, dominated like no other by science—and exalting, among the human virtues, braininess, IQ, the ideal of pure intelligence—he stands alone as our emblem of intellectual power. We talk as though humanity could be divided into two groups: Albert Einstein and everybody else.
   He discovered, just by thinking about it, the essential structure of the cosmos. The scientific touchstones of our age—the bomb, space travel, electronics—all bear his fingerprints. We may as well join him in 1905, when he was a Patent Office clerk in Zurich—not the revered white-haloed icon of a thousand photographs but a confident 26-year-old with wavy black hair and cocky wide eyes. That year, in his spare time, he produced three different world—shattering papers for a single volume (now priceless) of the premier journal Annalen der Physik.
   They were "blazing rockets which in the dark of the night suddenly cast a brief but powerful illumination over an immense unknown region," as the physicist Louie de Broglie said. One offered the revolutionary view that light comes in particles as much as waves—setting the stage for generations of deep tension between granularity and smoothness in physicists' view of energy and matter. Another calculated the size of molecules and incidentally proved their very reality; many scientists, as the century began, still doubted that atoms existed. And the third—well, as Einstein said in a letter to a friend, it "modifies the theory of space and time." Ah, yes. Relativity.
   The time had come. The Newtonian world-view was already fraying at the edges. The 19th century had pressed its understanding of space and time to the very limit. Everyone believed in the ether, that mysterious background substance of the whole universe though which light waves supposedly traveled, but where was the experimental evidence for it? Nowhere, as Einstein realized. He found it more productive to think in terms of utterly abstract frames of reference—because these could move along with a moving observer. Meanwhile, a few imaginative people were already speaking of time in terms of a fourth dimension—H. G. Wells, for example, in his time-obsessed science fiction.

Humanity was standing on a brink, ready to see something new. It was Einstein who saw it. Space and time were not apples and oranges, but mates—joined, homologous, inseparable. "Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows," said Herman Minkowski, a teacher of Einstein's and one of relativity's first champions, "and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Well, we all know that now. "Spacetime," we knowingly call it. Likewise energy and matter: two faces of one creature. E = mc2, as Einstein memorably announced.
   All this was shocking and revolutionary and yet strangely attractive, to the public as well as scientists. The speed of light; the shifting perspective of the observer—heady fare. A solar eclipse in 1919 gave the English astronomer Arthur Eddington the opportunity to prove a key prediction of relativity, that starlight would swerve measurably as it passed through the heavy gravity of the sun, a dimple in the very fabric of the universe. Newspapers and popular magazines went wild. More than 100 books on relativity appeared within a year. Einstein claimed to be the only person in his circle not trying to win a $5,000 Scientific American prize for the best 3,000-word summary ("I don't believe I could do it").
   The very name relativity fueled the fervor, for accidental and wholly unscientific reasons. In this new age, recovering from a horrible war, looking everywhere for originality and novelty and modernity, people could see that absolutism was no good. Everything had to be looked at relative to everything else. Everything—for humanity's field of vision was expanding rapidly outward, to planets, stars, galaxies. Einstein had conjured the whole business, it seemed. He did not invent the "thought experiment," but he raised it to high art: imagine twins, wearing identical watches; one stays home, while the other rides in a spaceship near the speed of light . . . Little wonder that, from 1919 on, Einstein was the world's most famous scientist.
   In his native Germany he became a target for hatred. As a Jew, a liberal, a humanist, an internationalist, he attracted the enmity of nationalists and anti-Semites, abetted by a few jealous German physicists—an all-too-vigorous faction that Einstein called, while it was still possible to find this amusing, "the Antirelativity Theory Company Ltd." His was now a powerful voice, widely heard, always attended to, especially after he moved to the United States. He used it to promote Zionism, pacifism and, in his secret 1939 letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the construction of a uranium bomb.
   Meanwhile, like any demigod, he accreted bits of legend. That he flunked math in school (not true). That he opened a book and found an uncashed $1,500 check he had left as a bookmark (maybe—he was absent-minded about everyday affairs). That he was careless about socks, collars, slippers . . . that he couldn't work out the correct change for the bus . . . that he couldn't even remember his address, 112 Mercer Street in Princeton, where he finally settled, conferring an aura on the town, the university and his Institute for Advanced Study.


He died there in 1955. He had never accepted the strangest paradoxes of quantum mechanics, the theory of atomic and subatomic phenomena that he had done so much to create. He found "intolerable," he said, its abandonment of strict causality in describing what particles do and when they do it. ("In that case I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming-house, than a physicist.") He never achieved what he considered a complete, unified field theory. Indeed, for some years he had watched the burgeoning of physics, its establishment as the most powerful and expensive branch of the sciences, from a slight remove. He had lived, he said, "in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity."
   And after the rest of Albert Einstein had been cremated, his brain remained, soaking for decades in a jar of formaldehyde belonging to Dr. Thomas Harvey, the Princeton Hospital pathologist. No one had bothered to dissect the brains of Freud, Stravinsky or Joyce, but in the 1980's bits of Einsteinian gray matter were making the rounds of certain neuropsychologists, who thus learned . . . absolutely nothing. It was just a brain—the brain that dreamed a plastic fourth dimension, that banished the ether, that released the pins binding us to absolute space and time, that refused to believe God played dice, that finally declared itself "satisfied with the mystery of life's eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvelous structure of existence."
   In embracing Einstein our century took leave of a prior universe and an erstwhile God. The new versions were not so rigid and deterministic as the old Newtonian world. Einstein's God was no clockmaker, but he was the embodiment of reason in nature—"subtle but not malicious." This God did not control our actions or even sit in judgment on them. ("Einstein, stop telling God what to do," Niels Bohr finally retorted.) This God seemed rather kindly and absent-minded, as a matter of fact. Physics was freer, and we, too, are freer, in the Einstein universe. Which is where we live.

P.S.

This article was written for Time magazine's special issue on Scientists and Thinkers, part of the end-of-century Time 100 series. For a while it could be seen at Time's nicely designed Web site for the series, but Time lawyers felt uneasy about acknowledging my copyright to the piece, and they decided to take their version off-line. Here's mine.

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Since I wrote this, Einstein made the news once again, in a flurry of articles about still more research on the remaining shreds of tissue that once constituted the great man's brain. Silly stuff. It's time to let it go. Whatever the secret of genius may be, it's not going to be revealed by our obsessive, crazed, loving analysis of this particular gray matter.

links

Fine Web sites devoted to Einstein are plentiful. I particularly recommend S. Morgan Friedman's Albert Einstein Online, this American Institute of Physics exhibit, and the Boston University Einstein Papers Project.

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               Copyright 1999 James Gleick