[Paleopsych] New Statesman: The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the search for hidden universes

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The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the search for hidden universes 
Monday 28th March 2005

    Richard Panek Fourth Estate, 258pp, £15.99
    ISBN 1841152773

    Reviewed by Marek Kohn

    As a young graduate student in New York in 1894, the physicist Robert
    Millikan was chaffed by his flatmates - who had opted for social
    science or medicine - for sticking to a "dead subject". Echoing a
    belief prevalent among physicists themselves, they told him that the
    work of physics was more or less done. The constants of nature were
    known; the physicist's duty was now to measure them to ever-remoter
    decimal places.
    The following year, in Germany, Bertha Rontgen obliged her husband,
    Wilhelm, by placing her hand for 15 minutes between a glass tube and a
    photographic plate. On the latter, a spectral image materialised,
    revealing the action of X-rays to the world. In the 20th century, the
    invisible was made visible as a matter of routine. X-ray machines
    became standard equipment in hospitals and even shoe shops. Devices
    were developed to detect radio waves from astronomical distances, or
    to make images of life forms too small to be observed with glass
    lenses. In the "invisible century", nobody imagined that physics was
    winding up - though once it was discovered that atoms could be smashed
    and could smash cities in turn, many might have wished it had.
    Richard Panek's "hidden universes" are not, however, those revealed by
    artificial extensions to human senses. His interest is in worlds
    conjured by the imagination. This puts Albert Einstein and Sigmund
    Freud in the same basket, as minds without need of apparatus. Panek
    tells a story of science resigned to a self-denying positivism,
    relying only on what the senses could tell it, challenged by thinkers
    who forced it to admit that speculation is its vital spark. They
    dissolved what remained of the old universe, of earth below and
    heavens above. The heavens had once been taken for a fixed, unchanging
    firmament; after Einstein, not even time was fixed within them. After
    Freud, the outward self looked like little more than the mind's
    official spokesperson.
    Panek's attention is held by ideas in the abstract rather than in
    their wider con-text. His determined efforts to demonstrate
    similarities between Einstein's and Freud's thought are persuasive but
    not convincing. There is no getting away from it: the chapters on the
    two men are like chalk and cheese. Their universes were hidden from
    each other, as they were obliged to accept the one time that they met,
    passing a couple of hours in an agreeable non-exchange of ideas.
    The fundamental obstacle is that Einstein was a scientist and Freud
    considered himself one. Panek acknowledges the questions about the
    scientific status of psychoanalysis, but avoids wrestling with them.
    He would not necessarily have torpedoed the book if he had. It is
    possible to regard Freud's thought as magnificent without taking it to
    be scientific, or even true. That entails seeing the broader picture
    of films and cartoons and novels and 20th-century celebrity in which
    the two men became stars. It entails admitting the obvious reason they
    go together: that they are both household names.
    When Einstein attended the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights
    in 1931, the actor observed to him: "They cheer me because they all
    understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you."
    Panek comments that Freud might have said the same, "except sometimes
    for the cheering part". Yet it is possible to get a purchase on some
    of Einstein's ideas without jargon or special skills. That time varies
    with relative motion can be grasped by imagining lights on moving
    trains (or ships, in the example that Panek glides through before the
    reader realises what is afoot), even if the grasp doesn't last much
    longer than the lesson.
    The fundamental difference between Einstein's celebrity and Freud's is
    that the former's was established by scientific observation. Einstein
    became a star when the papers splashed the news that observations of
    bending in starlight matched what his theory had predicted. Nothing in
    Freud could ever be tested that way, and so there was little to
    restrain a mind that had started out studying neuroanatomy from ending
    up in portentous rumination about a "death instinct". Freud's legacy
    is not a scientific discipline but a body of lore, imagery and insight
    sufficient to equip a small civilisation. He began as a biologist of
    the mind and became, in the phrase of the science historian Frank
    Sulloway, its greatest myth-maker.
    Einstein's position remains unchallen-ged, though he was rapidly
    eclipsed as a dissolver of certainties by the quantum theorists.
    Lights on trains were plain and homely compared to the sinister
    mystery of Schrodinger's hypothetical cat, locked in a box with a vial
    of poison for reasons that, by the nature of the quantum world,
    remained obscure. In the invisible century, physicists made the
    universe incomprehensible, while the psychoanalysts made the couch a
    carriage into the underworld.
    Marek Kohn's A Reason for Everything: natural selection and the
    British imagination is published by Faber & Faber

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