On the 18th of April 1955 Albert Einstein died in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey. He was 76 years old. One of the chief architects of the modern era, there are few other individuals whose impact on human culture has been so significant. Fifty years earlier, in 1905, during what would later be referred to as his “miracle year”, Einstein published a series of papers that sparked a revolution in physics, laying the groundwork for twenty years of remarkable work. Papers that not only revolutionised the field in which he specialised, they revolutionised the world around him. In an era when established orthodoxies were under fire from all sides… from Marx and Darwin… from Nietzsche, Freud and Joyce… from technological advance and an emerging mass media, Einstein overturned the most fundamental orthodoxy of them all – Newtonian Physics.
Our well-ordered clockwork universe dissolved into a seething ocean of quantum uncertainty, and nothing was ever quite the same again.
Einstein became almost as well known for the depth and breadth of his intellect as for any specific idea that emerged from it. For the first time in history there was a mass consciousness that spanned the globe. It had started with news via wire telegraph, then came cinema, radio and by the time of Einstein’s death, network television… mass media had been born and with it mass consciousness. And although at the time few individuals understood the intricacies of Einstein’s work, there was a collective appreciation that it contained something truly significant. As he himself wondered aloud during an interview with the New York Times in 1944, “Why is it that nobody understands me and everybody likes me?”
Relativity became more than a physical theory, it became a buzzword… a concept to be drawn on by artists and fed into fields such as sociology and anthropology. Despite Einstein’s protestations at this migration and his insistence that notions of cultural or moral relativity were not somehow “proven” by his work in theoretical physics, in the minds of many his apparent undermining of such things as absolute time pulled the rug from beneath a lot of erstwhile concrete ideas. In Einstein’s universe, many felt old certainties could no longer be relied upon and everything was suddenly up for grabs.
Born into a lower middle-class family in Germany in 1879, Einstein’s youth provided precious few hints that one of the world’s most revolutionary minds was soon to emerge. The tales of his poor results at school have been exaggerated (he tended to do exceptionally well in those subjects that interested him and rather badly in those that did not) but even so, by his early 20s his prospects of a career as an academic or scientist did not appear good. Unable to find a teaching position upon graduating university, he took a job as an office clerk to pay the bills while he completed his PhD. Almost completely isolated from mainstream academia, he laboured away for several years on his thesis (A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions) which he completed and submitted in early 1905. Even as the University of Zurich examination board contemplated their decision, Einstein published four other papers he’d been working on alongside his thesis.
It was almost four years before the University of Bern offered him a position and Einstein could afford to quit his job at the Patent Office. But during that time, those four papers from 1905 had begun to shake the field of physics. His paper on the photoelectric effect – for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize some years later – demonstrated that light possessed many of the properties of a particle (rather than merely a wave). The paper paved the way not only for modern electronics, but for his 1909 paper in which he first proposed the idea of the wave-particle duality of light… quantum theory. These ideas would not be fully accepted until the 1920s. His paper on Brownian motion single-handedly invented statistical physics and proved beyond doubt the existence of molecules. Next there was the small matter of his Special Theory of Relativity which redefined all past theories of motion and provided the foundation for the General Theory of Relativity ten years later which would redefine damn near everything else.
And, in the final weeks of 1905, he would publish the fourth of the papers that would constitute his miracle year. Almost an addendum to the Special Theory of Relativity it is best known for introducing the most famous equation in all of science… E=mc2. By establishing an equivalence between matter and energy, Einstein had explained to the world exactly how the sun worked, but also opened up the possibility of creating mini-suns here on earth.
For the next twenty years, Albert Einstein was at the forefront of theoretical physics. His achievements in the field go to make a very long list indeed, and the influence those achievements have had on those who followed him is profound. Although he struggled with some of the implications of his own work, there’s no doubt that such mind-bending ideas as inhabit the further reaches of quantum and string theory can be traced backwards to the work carried out by Albert Einstein in the decades that followed 1905.
But as well as having an impact on the scientific community, Einstein found himself catapulted to wider fame soon after the First World War. In 1919 the first experimental results were recorded that confirmed his General Theory of Relativity. Around the world, newspaper headlines declared the end of the Newtonian Age and the beginning of the Einstein Era. In fact, with the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, Einstein was the most famous person on the planet for a while. He was supremely uncomfortable with “celebrity” but resolved to use his fame to further two goals. Firstly, the promotion of theoretical physics. Secondly, the promotion of peace and justice.
Because if there was anything closer to Einstein’s heart than science, it was the cause of peace. With the rise of Hitler, he reluctantly abandoned the strict pacifism which he had expounded since his youth (“We must dedicate our lives to drying up the source of war; ammunition factories”), though nonetheless maintained it should be the ultimate longterm goal of humanity (“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”). He possessed a naked contempt for nationalism and militarism, describing nationalism as like measles – “an infantile sickness” and suggesting that “killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder”. Even as the Nazis gathered strength in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he remained a vocal figure in the peace movement, taking part in – and campaigning publicly for – the League against Imperialism which opposed the remilitarisation of Europe post-WWI and demanded that overseas colonies be granted independence.
He espoused vegetarianism and denounced racism (describing “bias against the Negro” as the worst disease from which US society suffered). He attacked capitalism, materialism and the use of the mass media to manipulate the public…
“… under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.” – Albert Einstein, Why Socialism?
So it’s hardly any wonder, that a little more than a decade after being forced to flee Nazi Germany for his ideas (and his race), he found himself investigated by the FBI and coming to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy (who Einstein described as “a great danger to intellectual freedom”). In an open letter, he announced that although he had never been a member of a Communist party, if he had been… “I would not be ashamed of it.”
Einstein described himself as a Zionist, though his support for a Jewish state was equivocal at best. On the one hand he expressed concern that Judaism and the Jewish people would be damaged by becoming enslaved to narrow nationalism. On the other hand, he was a prominent Jew in Germany during the 1920s and early 30s… which is the kind of environment that shapes your political position for you. He was lecturing in the US when news reached him that Hitler had taken power. By the time he was due to return home, the book burnings were underway, with himself and Freud given pride of place on the pyres. The German government had banned Jews from holding positions at universities and one prominent magazine had published his name on their “Not Yet Hanged” list. With a bounty on his head and Goebbels mentioning him by name in hateful speeches, Einstein sought asylum in the USA and spent the rest of his life there.
He played no part in the Manhattan Project, though there can be little doubt that his work decades earlier had laid the theoretical foundations for the atomic age. However, his fear that Hitler might develop nuclear weapons before the allies did prompt him to write to US President Roosevelt and suggest that research in this area should be carried out with all haste. A few months prior to his death, he told a friend that his only regret in life was his decision to write that letter.
By the end of his life Einstein was still working in theoretical physics, though by then his best work was behind him. Troubled by the apparent randomness that lies at the heart of quantum theory – a field he had helped shape – he laboured at a Grand Unification Theory that would unite the laws of physics at the subatomic level with those that ruled over the mechanical universe. He described himself as “a deeply religious non-believer” and this religious sensibility was focussed on the beauty of the universe itself. That the laws of physics which held sway at the macro level didn’t seem to work on the micro level – and vice versa – offended him on some level. It interfered with what he saw as the great elegance of reality. And he sought to remedy that, working on his Grand Unification Theory right up until the day before he died. It was a project he was forced to leave incomplete, though work continues (not least in the field of string theory) to achieve this most elusive of goals.
With the death of Einstein the world lost one of the greatest minds it has ever possessed. During his lifetime, international trade and mass media finally succeeded in uniting humanity in what he described as “a planetary community of production and consumption”. For the first time ever we were a single tribe. And Albert Einstein was our first Tribal Elder. That we have conspicuously failed to heed his wisdom is indeed a tragedy.
[Written by Jim Bliss]