On the Influence of Albert Einstein
“The scientistic mentality has succeeded in leading many to think that if something is technologically possible it is therefore morally admissible.” Written by Pope John Paul II in 1998, in an encyclical titled “Fides et Ratio” (“Faith and Reason”), these words simply but effectively state an important truth: The mere fact that we have the capacity to do something, or to act a certain way, does not automatically justify that action or behavior. A person can make the choice to enter a bank and burglarize it, for example, but just because he can does not mean that his actions are ethical. The Pope’s words warned against acceptance or use of a technology solely because we know how to create it.
A similar attitude can be attributed to theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, a man who, of course, hardly needs any introduction. The German-born scientist is best-known for his two theories of relativity, special and general, the first of which describes the famous equation that would underlie the atomic research and the Manhattan Project of the 1940s.
Some people dismiss Einstein as brilliant but idiosyncratic, lost in a remote world of physics and mathematical formulas. But in reality, his contributions changed science and contemporary thought during his own lifetime, and the extent of his influence is still clearly evident today. He is best known for revolutionizing modern physics, and practical application of his knowledge is seen almost everyday. But he remains important for other reasons, as well, including his unconventional way of thinking about things; his social concerns about war and violence; and the irony that he, a lifelong pacifist, helped bring about the development of the atomic bomb.
Einstein’s contributions, to science and to humanity in general, spanned the entire course of his lifetime. His influence could be said to have really begun in 1905, an important year for him. He had a number of his scientific papers and theories published, including the theory of special relativity, which says that the motion of observers compared with each other affects their measurement of length and time. B.K. Ridley, in the book Time, Space and Things, says Einstein proved that neither absolute motion nor absolute lack of motion could exist, because the speed of light in a vacuum is constant, to all observers, and mass and energy are interchangeable—hence the formula, E=mc2 (96-97).
In 1915, Einstein expanded on that and wrote the general theory of relativity, redefining gravity as the result of the curving of time and space around (and because of) mass. That is, time and space are curved by mass.
It took some time before these theories (especially general relativity) were proven and widely accepted, but even in 1905, Einstein’s works were still considered groundbreaking, as well as a bit unsettling: “This was incredibly shocking to a world that saw Newton’s laws of physics as sacrosanct,” says PBS’s “A Science Odyssey: People and Discoveries” online article on special relativity (“Odyssey”). These ideas were troubling, says Jerry Bentley in the Traditions & Encounters textbook, because science, long held to be correct and an absolute in its current form, was meeting with ideas that called into question “the limits of what could be known with certainty” (1006).
Finally, in 1919, a solar eclipse made it possible for astronomers to prove that Einstein’s theory was correct. Another Einstein-related article on the PBS “Science Odyssey” site says, “Much of the world had just caught its breath after a long and horrifying war, and perhaps in relief, latched on to this amazing human achievement.” In the years that followed the war, almost every aspect of society and culture was being challenged and redefined, and everything seemed riddled with uncertainty. But when verifiable proof was achieved that supported Einstein’s seemingly strange new theories, it surely must have given people relief to know that, in the midst of it all, there was still a way to explain things, through science, in a way that made sense.
Immediately prior to that period, during World War I, was a time when Einstein’s attention was oftentimes rather diverted from physics; as a pacifist, he took a firm stance against the war, often speaking out on the issue. The American Institute of Physics online quotes him as saying, “My pacifism is an instinctive feeling … that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred” (“Einstein Exhibit”).
Also according to the AIP’s “Einstein Exhibit,” nearly one hundred “leading German intellectuals … signed a manifesto defending Germany’s war conduct.” Time magazine’s online article, “Person of the Century: Albert Einstein,” says that, in response to the manifesto, Einstein and just three other German scientists “risked the Kaiser’s wrath by signing an antiwar petition” (“Person”).
After the war, and in fact until the day he died, Einstein never much wavered in his position as a pacifist. And though he is most noted for his scientific writings, Einstein also wrote a great deal about his concerns, and one of the best examples of this is seen in his correspondence with psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. A class Web page at one university’s Web site provides a transcript of the exchange, referred to as “The Einstein-Freud Correspondence.”
In 1932, Einstein wrote to Freud to ask his opinion regarding the nature of war, particularly why it has perpetually continued to exist in spite of all the destruction and harm that it brings. He posed the question, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” (“Correspondence”) Then, reflecting on the capacity for technology to bring even greater destruction and death than before, Einstein added, “It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for Civilization as we know it.” Einstein says he believes that within people is an internal “lust” that drives people toward “hatred and destruction,” and he asks if there is a way to prevent this strange, destructive impulse that seems inherent in human nature.
Most interesting, probably, is Einstein’s reference to the greater potential for devastation because of the rise in technology; this reminds us of the irony that the peace-loving physicist would indirectly be involved in creating the atom bomb. Recall the equation, from special relativity, that “energy = mass (times) the speed of light (squared).” It was widely used for its lead-in to new wartime technology. Einstein proposed the formula in 1905, but the atom-bomb project didn’t come into being until 1939, says Joseph Schwartz in the book Einstein for Beginners (166). The formula says that the amount of energy obtainable from an object equals the mass of an object times the square of the speed of light. The formula also tells us that only a tiny amount of matter is necessary to produce an incredible amount of energy. Because of the great potential, this formula became the basis for the atomic research in the ‘40s.
Doug Long’s article also tells us that while Einstein was an “absolute pacifist” in 1929, he later changed his stance somewhat in 1933, because of “Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany.” According to the Time magazine online article, at one point the physicist Leo Szilard told Einstein of the risk that the Germans could build an atom bomb; around 1938, the uranium atom had been split in Germany, and “continued German aggression” made the threat seem all the more likely. Einstein, in turn, signed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, urging him to take action. Einstein actually had not been very up-to-date on “recent developments in nuclear physics,” though, and when he learned of chain reactions, he expressed amazement, stating that this hadn’t occurred to him.
Of course, as Doug Long points out, “bombs were not what Einstein had in mind when he published (his) equation.” For the most part, Einstein wasn’t even directly involved in the creation of the atomic bomb. But nonetheless, he felt responsible for the massive destruction that characterized the war. At one point, according to Schwartz, Einstein declared, “If I had known that this would happen, I’d have been a shoemaker instead!” (166) Doug Long references another quote from Einstein, in which he once wrote that he was always staunchly opposed to the bombing of Japan.
After the war was over, Einstein became an even greater proponent of peace and disarmament, and according to the Time article, he avidly campaigned for “a ban on nuclear weaponry.” Because of the knowledge he imparted to the world, many steps have been taken over time to prevent the usage of atomic weapons. In 1946, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, moving authority out of the hands of the U.S. Army and giving it to the Atomic Energy Commission—whose primary goal was “assuring the common defense and security,” says Jack Fehner in a report titled The United States Department of Energy, 1977-1994.
Clearly, Einstein has left an immeasurable impact on modern science and technology as we know it. Because of him, we have the two theories of relativity. He also made major contributions to quantum mechanics, cosmology, statistical mechanics and the photoelectric effect. He’d developed a formula that, ironically, partly sparked a world war he never wanted—the same formula that would eventually end it. Without his theories, many of the technological advances—including those related to spacecrafts, solar-system exploration, nuclear-power plants and everything in-between—might not exist today. There would probably still be inaccurate information about how Earth moves in a consistent pattern around the sun and how gravitational fields work.\
Here was a man with new ideas, new knowledge, and new theories that he believed would improve the old ideas. One of the problems with scientists and other brilliant people is the fear of being wrong. So they will not allow themselves to expand their mind; basically, they are afraid to suggest or predict a new idea, says Barry Parker in his book Einstein’s Dream (273-275). Einstein was a factor who began to change all of this, a factor that would change ways of thinking. His unique ways of study and thought, often which involved him pacing in circles or “drawing out” equations, were proof that there is no “wrong” way to learn things. He inspired new ways of thinking. It was OK to be wrong and to take chances. Scientists still look up to him not only for his technical knowledge but as a person. He was a genius, he was distinctive, he was humanitarian, and when he chose to be, he was humorous.
Just months before he died, says Long, Einstein once said that “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification - the danger that the Germans would make them.” Albert Einstein never wanted to see weapons develop from his famous formula, although he predicted it might happen.
A week before his death, he wrote to Bertrand Russell, agreeing that his name should go on a document that pleaded with all nations for the non-use of nuclear weapons. “Perhaps the real greatness of Einstein,” writes Leopold Infeld in his book Albert Einstein: His Work and Its Influence on Our World, “lies in the simple fact that, though in his life he has gazed at the stars, yet he also tried to look at his fellow men with kindness and compassion” (125). In other words, when we see Albert Einstein, we shouldn’t just see the man who helped build a bomb, or even who helped end a war. We should see the man who never wanted war and who seemed devastated not only by war and violence in general, but by what his theories led to, partly because man can use new knowledge and technologies either for good or for bad. We should see the man who thought a great deal about, and cared deeply about, much more than just a bunch of formulas on a page. We are not fully recognizing his impact if we only look at what he gave to science. He gave just as much, if not more, to the issues of different thinking, individuality, peace and morality.