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Allan Powell: New find of an old book sheds light on Einstein

November 04, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

Socrates has written: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It can be said with assurance that the great physicist, Albert Einstein, has been thoroughly examined — inwardly by his introspective efforts and at a distance by his admirers and detractors. Recently, on a used book shelf, I found an older (1947) biography of this unique person that I regard as the best account I have read.

“Einstein: His Life and Times,” written by Philipp Frank, has an advantage not available to many of those who thought Einstein was worthy of a book. That advantage was being a contemporary and also a close friend as well as being a recognized physicist, qualified to explain the complicated features of relativity and quantum physics. The relationship was close enough that Einstein once slept on Frank’s sofa when Einstein came to Prague where Frank was teaching theoretical physics.  Both Einstein and Frank came to the United States to teach physics — Einstein at Princeton and Frank at Harvard.

What makes this book so interesting is the very personal stories related by Frank that make it possible to sense the inner turmoil and frustration experienced by a world-famous intellectual leader who wrestled with ideas and issues unimaginable to most of the world. Everywhere Einstein traveled there was a demand for him to explain to bewildered audiences what the relativity theory was all about. Very few, including many professional scientists and mathematicians, could honestly say with conviction that they understood “four dimensional space,” “curvature of space” or the rejection of the “universal simultaneity of time.”

Einstein was fiercely independent and admitted that, although he maintained a friendly temperament in private and public relationships, he was unable to become close to others. In 1930 he wrote, “My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women. I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork. I have never belonged wholeheartedly to any country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family.”

This self-imposed, on-guard posture was exacerbated by the fact that Einstein was a Jew who had been a witness to and victim of anti-Semitic prejudice. Although the theory of relativity had nothing to do with politics or religion, Einstein was subjected to widespread assaults about the theory. His thoughts were asserted to be “Bolshevistic physics,” “Jewish physics,” “un-German physics” and “fiction.” Einstein’s reputation has survived all of these attacks grounded on hate.

Einstein was notable for his mode of approach to discovery that he called “thought experiments.” He arrived at his conclusions by a rich mix of knowledge, intuition, philosophy, mathematics and imagination — leaving the experimental proof to others. This resulted in an unbelievably productive career, unrivaled by any other single scientist. The exception was Sir Isaac Newton. No equation in science is as readily recognized as E = mc2 (equivalence of energy and mass).

Several of his lesser-known feats also are achievements unequaled by other scientists. Many are unaware that Einstein identified the photon — the ultimate particle making up light. They also might not know about his theory that predicted that gravity would alter the path of a beam of light from a star near to the sun. This prediction was made in 1911, but could not be tested until after the end of World War I in 1919.

British scientists were able to place telescopes in Brazil and West Africa to confirm (or disconfirm) that the gravitational force of the sun would deflect a light beam by 1.75 seconds of an arc. The final decision, announced by Sir J.J. Thomson, revealed that the actual measurement was 1.64 seconds of an arc. He then declared this to be “One of the greatest achievements in the history of human thought.”

While he was at Princeton, several prominent physicists approached Einstein in 1939 and suggested that he write a letter to President Roosevelt apprising him of the advances in atomic fission and that this vast, new source of power could be adapted to military purposes that could be a threat to our national security. His advice was accepted and resulted in the Manhattan Project and our supremacy over the Axis powers.  

Of personal interest is Einstein’s mention of his admiration for the philosophical thoughts of British philosopher David Hume. Hume has been one of my most respected sources of thought for a good many years. He was a major contributor to a long line of British ideas known as British empiricism, which became known as logical positivism. For anyone inclined toward examining their own life view, there might be something of interest in Philipp Frank’s account of Einstein’s life.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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