Opening frontiers in the age of imperialism

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

Einstein: A Life
By Denis Brian
Wiley, 1996. 509 pp., $49.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Albert Einstein is the name most associated with science, at its intellectual best (probing the deepest mysteries of the cosmic and subatomic worlds) and its worst (his letter to Roosevelt lobbying for the nuclear bomb and his famous formula, E=mc2, which lay at its theoretical heart).

Denis Brian's biography of Einstein captures the excitement of the world of theoretical physics, the seriousness of the politics of its social application and the captivating personality of the man who was central to both.

Born in 1879 in Germany, Einstein was regarded as a "dim-witted" schoolchild, a comment more damning of the rigid discipline and rote learning of conformist schooling than of Einstein.

His early career was hampered by his failure to respect academic authority if it was not earned by merit. He sailed out of his consequent economic straits when he scored his first job in the patents office as a (third class) technical expert. His mind was frequently elsewhere, however, and by 1905 his special theory of relativity was unveiled, followed in 1915 by his general theory of relativity. These theories severely stressed the towering edifice of Newtonian mechanical physics which had ruled for 250 years.

Not many thanked him for it. A Columbia University astronomer saw relativity theory as part of "the unrest, the strikes, the Bolshevist uprisings" which were disturbing the world; an engineer let fly with killer adjectives — "the moronic brain child of mental colic ... cross-eyed physics ... utterly mad ... the nadir of pure drivel ... voodoo nonsense".

What brought on fury or bewilderment was Einstein's contention that motion and position exist only in relation to something else, not in their own absolute terms as Newton's laws would have it. Time, said Einstein, is a dimension in its own right. Four-dimensional space-time is needed to explain physical reality. Time itself can be slowed down or speeded up by motion and mass. Light could be bent, through dents in space-time, by massive objects such as planets. Space tells matter how to move and matter tells space how to curve. Energy and mass are equivalent (e=mc2).

These revolutionary concepts upset a lot of people, but by 1919 Einstein had triumphed, although it was not until 1922 that he won the Nobel Prize for physics, albeit for his other, equally revolutionary, scientific achievement. Relativity was essential if you wanted to study long distances, large masses and very high velocities, if your concerns were cosmic. But at the opposite, atomic, end of the universe, things were much different. Einstein provided the key to understanding subatomic physics — quantum mechanics — although he didn't like what the unlocked door opened onto.

His Nobel prize-winning theory on the photoelectric effect treated electromagnetic energy (e.g. light) not as continuous wave-like energy but as "quanta" or particles of energy. At the subatomic level, particles such as electrons moved by means of discontinuous "quantum jumps" in an unpredictable and probabilistic way rather than behaving as if they were miniature billiard balls dutifully obeying Newton's laws of motion.

Physicists such as Schrodinger, Bohr and Heisenberg developed Einstein's work into full-blown quantum physics. Einstein, almost alone of modern physicists, however, never fully accepted the challenge that quantum physics made to an ordered, if relativistic, physical world ("if quantum physics is right, the whole world is crazy"). He spent the last 30 years of his life trying, but failing, to develop a unified field theory which would combine the cosmic laws of relativity and the atomic "lottery" of quantum physics, to discover "a formula in one breath to account for Newton's falling apple, the transmission of light and radio waves and the composition of matter".

Later physicists have carried on the search. Stephen Hawking has combined relativity with quantum physics in the nicely phrased "quantum relativity" which is, however, anything but conceptually nice with its requirement for not just the four dimensions of Einstein but 10 or even 26.

As just a scientist, Einstein's legacy would still be merited and marvelled over, but it was the political context of fascism, war, superweapons (and Zionism) which gave Einstein social fame as well and made his intimate life and thoughts on everything eagerly sought after. His latest biographer spares no anecdote to illustrate the complete Einstein.

Einstein early on marked himself out as a political nonconformist, a pacifist, a radical liberal democrat. He was one of the few German scientists to oppose World War I. Though never a revolutionary, he was targeted by German nationalist reactionaries and anti-Semites, who disrupted his lectures.

Hitler's accession to power, and the Gestapo's interest in Einstein, made him spend his last 22 years in the USA until his death in 1955. He befriended the socialist writer Upton Sinclair, supported a minimum wage, age pensions and a cap on individual wealth. This attracted the FBI, which kept tabs on Einstein for nine years.

Einstein believed in the liberal values of "truth, justice, liberty". He supported the civil rights of communists, believing that witch-hunts infringed liberty, though his libertarianism landed him onside with opponents of revolutionary as well as Stalinist Russia — he supported asylum for Trotsky, though he regarded both Trotsky and Stalin as "political gangsters". He opposed Cold War anti-Sovietism, which was enough to make J. Edgar Hoover fret about Einstein being an atomic spy.

Brian presents Einstein's views fairly but would like him to have been harder on Russia — he gives ample play to the criticisms of Cold War liberals such as Sidney Hook and the "plausible account" (!) of an embittered ex-communist who alleged that the CPUSA directed Einstein by "remote control", playing on his hatred of Nazism.

Einstein had one enormous blind spot — his active support for Zionism — the pessimistic "solution" to anti-Semitism through creating the state of Israel from the terroristic dispossession of Palestinian Arabs.

Just as his fear and hatred of anti-Semitism led Einstein to Zionism, his abhorrence of German fascism led him to favour the building of the atomic bomb. He later came to regard this as his "one mistake" and spent the remainder of his life working for peace, international scientific cooperation and world government.

There was tremendous good in Einstein, and nearly all who knew him were won over by his openness and egalitarianism (which he could take to extremes, tolerating cranks like Immanuel Velikovsky and the former communist Wilhelm Reich with his sexual "orgone accumulator"). Upton Sinclair described Einstein as "the kindest, sweetest, gentlest of men with a keen wit and a delightful sense of humour and his tongue could be sharp — but only for the evils of this world". The Bolshevik Anatoly Lunacharsky shared the "boundless respect" and "tender affection" which all felt for "a man of great and defenceless simplicity".

The Einstein that emerges from this biography is a scientist and a person, halo slightly askew, of endearing charm, unparalleled intellectual curiosity and great humanitarian instinct, capable of the big intellectual advance as well as the political contradiction. Einstein opened up the frontiers of science. Imperialism colonised them with the nuclear bomb. This choice was not his.