[Paleopsych] Nation: (Einstein) The Other 1905 Revolution

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The Other 1905 Revolution


    Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness
    by John S. Rigden

    The Born-Einstein Letters, 1916-1955: Friendship, Politics and Physics
    in Uncertain Times
    by Irene Born, trans.; with Introduction by Werner Heisenberg and
    Foreword by Bertrand Russell

    [from the May 16, 2005 issue]

    In his 1902 book Science and Hypothesis, the French mathematician and
    physicist Henri Poincaré surveyed the landscape of modern physics and
    found three fundamental conundrums bedeviling his field: the chaotic
    zigzagging of small particles suspended in liquid, known as Brownian
    motion; the curious fact that metals emit electrons when exposed to
    ultraviolet light, known as the photoelectric effect; and science's
    failure to detect the ether, the invisible medium through which light
    waves were thought to propagate. In 1904 a 25-year-old Bern patent
    clerk named Albert Einstein read Poincaré's book. Nothing the young
    physicist had done with his life until that point foreshadowed the
    cerebral explosion he was about to unleash. A year later, he had
    solved all three of Poincaré's problems.

    "A storm broke loose in my mind," Einstein would later say of 1905,
    the annus mirabilis, which John S. Rigden calls "the most productive
    six months any scientist ever enjoyed." Between March and September,
    he published five seminal papers, each of which transformed physics.
    Three were Nobel Prize material; another, his thesis dissertation,
    remains one of the most cited scientific papers ever; and the fifth, a
    three-page afterthought, derived the only mathematical equation you're
    likely to find on a pair of boxer shorts, E = mc2.

    Rigden's short book Einstein 1905 is a tour through each of those
    landmark papers, beginning with the only one that Einstein was willing
    to call "revolutionary." That first paper, which would earn him the
    Nobel Prize sixteen years later, was titled "On a Heuristic Point of
    View About the Creation and Conversion of Light." It could just as
    easily have been called "Why Everything You Think You Know About Light
    Is Wrong."

    In 1905 most scientists were certain that light traveled in waves,
    just like sound. Though it troubled few others, Einstein was deeply
    perturbed by the notion that energy could flow in continuous waves
    whereas matter was made up of discrete particles. To paraphrase
    Bertrand Russell, why should one aspect of the universe be molasses
    when the other part is sand? When Einstein tried to imagine a universe
    in which everything, including light, was made up of particles, he
    realized the simple conceptual shift could explain a lot, including
    the mysterious photoelectric effect. This was typical of how Einstein
    thought, argues Rigden. He saw fundamental contradictions in the
    generalizations that others had made before him and then followed the
    trail of logic to unexpected conclusions. In some cases it took years
    before his ideas could be experimentally verified. His theory of light
    wasn't widely accepted for two decades.

    The second paper of the year, completed in April, is the least well
    remembered, even though its many practical applications have made it
    one of Einstein's most cited works. In that paper, Einstein suggested
    a way of calculating the size of molecules in a liquid based on
    measurements of how the liquid behaves. The paper relied on more
    mathematical brute force and was less graceful than the other four of
    the year, but it was important nonetheless. Because it showed how to
    measure the size of otherwise unobservable atoms, it helped nail the
    coffin shut on the few lingering skeptics, like Ernst Mach, who still
    did not buy into the atomic theory of matter.

    Even more damning for those atomic skeptics was Einstein's May paper
    on Brownian motion, which explained the unpredictable dance of pollen
    grains in water. The reason for the pollen's erratic behavior,
    Einstein demonstrated, is that it is being constantly bombarded by
    water molecules. Most of the time, that bombardment occurs equally
    from all angles, so the net effect on a grain of pollen is zero. But
    sometimes, statistical fluctuations conspire so that more molecules
    are pushing in one direction than another, causing a grain to zip
    through the water. Even though atoms are invisible, Einstein had
    figured out a way to see them at work. "A few scientific papers, not
    many, seem like magic," Rigden writes. "Einstein's May paper is

    Having dispatched two of Poincaré's conundrums, Einstein next turned
    his attention to the undetected ether; his June paper ended up being
    the most earth-shattering of the bunch. It demolished two pillars of
    Newtonian physics, the notions of absolute space and absolute time. In
    their place, Einstein constructed the special theory of relativity,
    which held that time appears to stretch and space appears to shrink at
    velocities approaching the speed of light. The paper had no citations,
    as if Einstein owed a debt to no one. In fact, that wasn't the case.
    "Much of his source material was 'in the air' among scientists in
    1905," notes Rigden, "and some of these ideas had been published."
    Physics was on the verge of something big at the turn of the century.
    It took an Einstein to pull it all together, to ask the big question
    in the right way.

    The final paper, published in September, might as well have been an
    addendum to the June paper. The profoundly simple equation he derived
    in three pages, E = mc2, was a logical consequence of the special
    theory of relativity. Equating energy and mass, it explained why the
    sun shines and why Hiroshima was leveled. More than anything else
    Einstein produced, it has come to symbolize his genius.

    A half century after his miracle year, in the final sentence of his
    final letter to his friend and intellectual sparring partner, the
    physicist Max Born, a dying Albert Einstein wrote, "In the present
    circumstances, the only profession I would choose would be one where
    earning a living had nothing to do with the search for knowledge." And
    so the man whose thought experiments revolutionized science concluded
    his life posing a thought experiment about himself: Where would we be
    if Einstein had become a "plumber or peddler," jobs he once
    rhetorically suggested he'd prefer, instead of a physicist?

    One place to look to start answering that question is the science
    itself, which is where Rigden's book begins. Another is the man
    himself, whose personality is abundantly on display in the letters he
    exchanged with Born between 1916 and 1955. Those letters, which first
    appeared in German in 1969 and in English two years later, have now
    been republished along with Born's commentary, Werner Heisenberg's
    original introduction and a useful new preface by Diana Buchwald and
    Kip Thorne. The Einstein that comes through in the letters is
    self-aware, philosophical, politically conscious (if sometimes naïve),
    modest, generous, an aesthete and--in his exchanges with Born's wife,
    Hedi--an occasional flirt. From these epistolary glimpses of Einstein
    the person it's possible to see how his science, which "seems to be so
    far removed from all things human," is nonetheless, as Heisenberg
    writes in his introduction, "fundamentally determined by philosophical
    and human attitudes."

    By the time Einstein began corresponding with Born in 1916, his best
    work was behind him, and he was already an international celebrity.
    Their letters document the final chapter of Einstein's career, the
    forty years during which he was an outsider to the quantum physics
    revolution and alone in his pursuit of a single unified theory capable
    of explaining all of physics. Ironically, it was at the height of his
    fame that Einstein was furthest from the scientific mainstream. The
    aging revolutionary never ceased to be a radical.

    Like Einstein, Born was an assimilated German Jew who fled the
    country's rising anti-Semitism in the early 1930s. Many of their
    letters from that period concern the deteriorating political situation
    in Europe and attempts to arrange teaching posts for exiled German
    scientists. But unlike Einstein, who perceived an inveterate savagery
    at the heart of German culture and never again set foot on German
    soil, Born was more forgiving. After sojourning in Edinburgh during
    World War II, he returned to Göttingen in 1953. They also differed on
    their shared Jewish heritage. While Einstein was a moderate Zionist,
    Born saw no difference between Jewish nationalism and all other
    embodiments of nationalism that he despised. Their political
    differences, though, were nowhere near as deep as their scientific

    Einstein considered Born and himself "Antipodean in our scientific
    expectations." Born was a leading proponent of quantum theory and was
    awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize for his work establishing the theory's
    mathematical basis. Einstein was quantum theory's foremost critic.
    Even though his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect helped create
    the field of quantum mechanics, Einstein could never reconcile himself
    to its nondeterministic implications. He was adamant that the theory
    provided only a superficial explanation of the universe, and that a
    deeper theory would someday be found. This conviction was based almost
    entirely in aesthetic instincts about what the laws of physics ought
    to look like.

    "Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing," he famously told Born. "But
    an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory
    says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of
    the 'old one.' I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at
    dice." Einstein believed that there had to be an "objective reality"
    at the heart of the universe. If quantum mechanics proved correct, he
    wrote, again teasing with one of his occupational counterfactuals, "I
    would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming-house, than
    a physicist."

    Their quarrel over quantum theory dragged out for more than three
    decades, but the content of their arguments changed little from the
    first letters they exchanged on the subject in 1919 right up until
    Einstein's death. In a 1953 letter Born declares, "I hope to be able
    to convince you at last that quantum mechanics is complete and as
    realistic as the facts permit." His attempt to persuade his friend
    after all those years seems almost comic. He goes on to call
    Einstein's stubbornness on the subject "quite unbearable."

    Einstein's letters tend to be half as long as Born's and twice as
    pithy, and are almost always prefaced with an apology for having not
    written back sooner. Though Born and Einstein only met in person once,
    they grew to address each other in the tone of lifelong friends.
    There's no shortage of tough honesty in the letters. There's even the
    occasional spat. Several correspondences are consumed by discussion
    over whether Einstein should grant a journalist permission to publish
    a book called Conversations With Einstein. Born and his wife were
    concerned that the author would depict Einstein unflatteringly. "Your
    own jokes will be smilingly thrown back at you," Hedi Born warns.
    "This book will constitute your moral death sentence for all but four
    or five of your friends." Her husband pleads with Einstein, "You do
    not understand this, in these matters you are a little child."

    Einstein replied, "The whole affair is a matter of indifference to me,
    as is all the commotion, and the opinion of each and every human
    being." Nonetheless, Einstein tried and failed to stop the publication
    of the book, which even Born later admitted wasn't nearly as bad as he
    had feared. Einstein's detachment is a persistent theme throughout the
    letters. He tells Born, "I hibernate like a bear in its cave," and in
    the same letter he off-handedly informs Born of his wife's death,
    which he describes as just one more thing accentuating his bearish
    feeling. Einstein's seeming indifference to worldly things leads Born
    to comment that "for all his kindness, sociability and love of
    humanity, he was nevertheless totally detached from his environment
    and the human beings included in it."

    Ironically, the vague constellation of traits that, according to
    Rigden, stimulated Einstein's early discoveries may also help explain
    why he spent the second half of his career as an outsider to the
    quantum revolution. The same aesthetic instincts that led him to
    recognize the inelegance of the old theories about light and space may
    have blinded him to the decidedly unbeautiful reality of quantum
    mechanics. The same "stubbornness of a mule" that kept him on the
    trail of the general theory of relativity for a decade may also have
    kept him on less fruitful paths later in his career. And the same
    self-confidence that gave the 26-year-old patent clerk the audacity to
    challenge the central precepts of classical physics may have prevented
    him from recognizing his own failure of imagination with regard to
    quantum mechanics.

    Heisenberg writes in his introduction, "In the course of scientific
    progress it can happen that a new range of empirical data can be
    completely understood only when the enormous effort is made
    to...change the very structure of the thought processes. In the case
    of quantum mechanics, Einstein was apparently no longer willing to
    take this step, or perhaps no longer able to do so."

    But another explanation is possible. Einstein always held that
    posterity would value his ideas more than his peers did. He was right.
    Again and again, work that was at first deemed loopy has been
    vindicated. The quest for a unified theory, once an emblem of
    Einstein's isolation, has become contemporary physics' Holy Grail.
    It's possible that Einstein's greatest intellectual gamble, his
    repudiation of quantum theory, may yet prove as prescient. Indeed,
    though they are a minority, many highly regarded scientists still
    harbor the deep discomfort that Einstein felt about quantum theory. In
    a 1944 letter to Born on the subject, Einstein wrote, "No doubt the
    day will come when we will see whose instinctive attitude was the
    correct one." That day may yet be some time off.

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