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Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Phenomenon

(image: dnwallace, flickr)

(image: dnwallace, flickr)

March 14th is the birthday of Albert Einstein.  Every time I delve into the rich life history of this remarkable human being, I glory in greater treasures to be told.  This incredible German immigrant changed science, philosophy and the lives of countless Americans, including myself, forever.

Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg in the German Empire on March 14th, 1879. In 1880, his family moved to Munich, where his father, who was an engineer, and his uncle, founded Elektrotechnische Fabrik J. Einstein & Cie, a company that manufactured electrical equipment.

As we have come to know, Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity.  Among Einstein’s scientific “heresies” that challenged classical physics were his formulations for geometric gravitation, curved time, when it comes to its relationship to space, and black holes. His mental diligence in the early 20th Century resulted in his award of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics.

In 1905, his Annus Mirabilis papers contributed substantially to the foundation of modern physics and have permanently changed our fundamental understanding of space, time, and matter.  He was eventually awarded a Ph.D. by the University of Zurich. His dissertation was entitled “A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions”.

Not bad for a German guy with a comb that seemed to be missing some teeth, who became a vegetarian for the last year of his life, never learned to drive a car and consequently rode a bicycle.   He was once quoted as saying, “It always seems to me that man was not born to be a carnivore.”

But what’s most interesting to me, in part because I’m not a scientist, is his apparent personal transformation after settling in the United States rather than his native Zurich.  That transformation took him from the nest of benign humanism to the highly perched nest of an osprey hawk standing guard over her newly prized home overlooking the entire United States, warding off Hitler’s westward march.  A reluctant osprey, nevertheless.

Einstein visited America during the rise of the Third Reich, when Adolf Hitler rose to his infamous power in 1933. It was then that Einstein heard about an apparent law in his native Germany that banned Jews from official positions, including university posts. Soon afterward, the Nazis went on a book burning frenzy which claimed Einstein’s books. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed, “Jewish intellectualism is dead”.

He discovered that because he was of Jewish heritage himself there was a $5,000 bounty on his head. He had been declared an enemy of the new German regime hell bent on the violent creation of an Aryan nation. Hitler’s genocidal rise to power and its direct threat on Einstein’s life and profession had, at least temporarily, transformed a confirmed pacifist to an émigré warning President Roosevelt of a looming atomic Armageddon born of the Rhine.

Although he had once referred to war as a disease and had called for a sustained resistance against it, his famous formula for the conversion of energy to matter, E=mc2, led to the production of the first American atomic bomb.  That project infamously became known as the Manhattan Project. This came as the result of his alerting President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Hitler was preparing to produce an atomic bomb and that America better beat them to it if we were to avoid disaster. He declared, “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking…the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker”.

This had surely become Dr. Einstein’s newly earned badge of Americanism. At least during the war he maintained his hawkish stance by default.

Rather than return to a Europe under seige where further scientific research as well as his life were certain to be threatened, he settled in at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, where he remained for the rest of his life. He became an American citizen in 1940.

So, what was initially viewed as a temporary American sojourn then led to a journey on to a greater sense of permanence grounded in Princeton and an extensive contemplation on the contiguity between the spiritual and the temporal.

Einstein admired what he called the American “meritocracy”. In a meritocracy, appointments and responsibilities are objectively assigned to individuals based upon their “merits”, namely intelligence, credentials, and education.

He referred to an American society where there existed a “right of individuals to say and think what they pleased, without social barriers, and as a result, the individual was ‘encouraged’ to be more creative,” a trait he valued from his own early education. He went on: “What makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. No one humbles himself before another person or class. . . American youth has the good fortune not to have its outlook troubled by outworn traditions”.  Would he make the same claim in the America of 2012?

He acted on his egalitarian views.

Notably, this white European immigrant of Jewish decent became a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People NAACP at Princeton. He campaigned for the civil rights of African American and he even corresponded with civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois.   Einstein did not live constrained by the tyranny of stereotyping.

In 1946 Einstein called racism America’s “worst disease”. For him, the solutions were enlightenment and education. Along with his other egalitarian views, it would be interesting to juxtapose this claim against a 2012 America where “uppity overeducated women” are castigated and the President is labeled a “snob” for wanting more Americans to go to college.

Adding even more to the narrative of an amazing life, in November 1952, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion offered Einstein the position of President of Israel.  Although a mostly ceremonial post, I find this to be another incredible fact in this remarkable man’s life. He turned it down with characteristically noble humility.

What’s most amazing is the elegant sense of the spiritual realm Einstein seemed to have and that grew during his time as an American.  He once said “I believe that we have to content ourselves with our imperfect knowledge and understanding and treat values and moral obligations as a purely human problem—the most important of all human problems.”

He also said, “The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books (of a library – my note) but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws….Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things”.   To Einstein, Darwin and St. Augustine could easily share the burden of life’s explanation. They are simply two members of one continuum.

He was also an ardent Humanist and supporter of the Ethical Culture movement. Humanism places importance on human values, affirming the importance of human nature, not necessarily exclusive to the supernatural, but in a way that accepts its part in realizing justice on the ground.   Einstein would not have supported a zero sum humanist view that comes at the cost of excluding the supernatural.

One of his many views that I find most inspiring was shared by him at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. During that event he stated rightly that it’s the idea of Ethical Culture that embodies his personal conception of what’s most important in religious idealism. And what I think was most remarkable, coming from who we might prejudge as a secular scientist, he perceived, “Without ‘ethical culture’ there is no salvation for humanity.” Again, this in no way seems to indicate that he viewed the natural and supernatural as mutually exclusive trade-offs, but instead viewed them as vitally essential corresponding aspects of one continuous paradigm.

According to him, “The foundation of morality should not be made dependent on myth nor tied to any authority lest doubt about the myth or about the legitimacy of the authority imperil the foundation of sound judgment and action…..I do not believe that a man should be restrained in his daily actions by being afraid of punishment after death or that he should do things only because in this way he will be rewarded after he dies. This does not make sense. The proper guidance during the life of a man should be the weight that he puts upon ethics and the amount of consideration that he has for others.”

For Einstein, humanity is not relieved of the responsibility to act justly.  Although there may or may not be Divine Providence, the burden of right actions rests squarely on our shoulders: “My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality. Morality is of the highest importance—but for us, not for God.”

In his 1949 book The World as I See It, he wrote: “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms—it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Einstein was always quick to admit the limits of rational science and a technical explanation for the supernatural.

He defined personal devotion as an explicit personal recognition of the immense importance of those supernatural phenomena that are not capable of rational explanation. “If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be… “. He further explained that in the “struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope” and cultivate the ‘Good, the True, and the Beautiful in humanity itself’.

The spiritual and the secular complement each other. Church and state may be separate but they can peacefully coexist.  He might even say that there exists a mutual teleology between them.

Perhaps Einstein’s real heresy was not to turn classical physics on its head.  Perhaps his real heresy was to articulate the link between formulaic evolution and an inexplicable spiritual realm that acknowledges an intelligent design. Perhaps these two heresies are actually one in the same. Contrast this with our current all-or-nothing, hate-filled public discourse.

Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein in 133 earth years as well as multidimensional curved spacetime.

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Thomas P. Davis

Thomas P. Davis

I'm a freelance writer based in New Jersey. I've been writing about public issues for 10 years.