Albert Einstein

I recently read the biography of Albert Einstein by Walter Isaacson for the second time, Einstein has fascinated me ever since I went through a course on physics: his ideas captivated me then, and have stayed with me ever since. Einstein was more apt to use descriptions and visual imagery to show his ideas rather than just dumping his formulas bare and cold onto the world. He was a visual thinker and an amazing mind, someone who worked hard to solve problems but confronting them from many different angles, and worrying them to death until they gave up their secrets. He once said:

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

In the first 2/3rds of his life, he revolutionaized our concepts of time, gravity, and the very fabric of space and time. He was a simple patent examiner trying to knock Newton off his throne, and was at first ridiculed and ignored, then finally as fame and recognition came, he was lauded, and made into a reluctant public figure. He was unafraid to dabble in areas outside science where his opinions weren’t always welcomed, but over time many of his predictions and proclamations came true. Especially as WWI and WWII were brewing.

Einstein was a man of peace, he held radical pacifist views early in life, and though he was often accused of naiveté, he persisted in his desire to avoid military conflicts throughout his life. No doubt his views were heavily influenced by his experiences in Germany during the first World War, and the resignation of his professorship in the Prussian Academy as the Nazi Party took power in 1933.

When I first read the biography, I was interested most in the early part of his life, and the ideas that drove him to formulate his Special Theory Of Relativity, and the later the more broad General Theory, and his futile attempts to find a Universal Field Theory to unify the troubling randomness of Quantum Mechanics, and Relativity into one set of equations that could explain the sub-atomic level interactions of matter, all the way up to stars and whole galaxies. In the end Einstein never found his grand unifying theory, but equations found in the notebook beside his death bed show that he was still trying to figure it out right up to the end.

This time reading through the book though, I was most struck by his thoughts and ideas late in life, as the youthful fire of brilliance burned perhaps less hotly and mellowed down into great red burning coals of wisdom and pondering. Many of his more profound ideas don’t have anything specific to do with science at all, but with the condition of humanity. He was a pacifist, and yet his relationship with weaponry was complex: as he was instrumental in seeing that the US was the first to develop Atomic Weapons. This troubled him greatly in the ten years that he lived after the first atomic bomb was used against Japan in 1945. He wrote this explaining his motivations for the letter to Rosevelt, but throughout the rest of his life he was bothered by the idea that mankind now had the power to destroy itself. He said:

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

Towards the end of his life he worked with the philosopher Bertrand Russell in a futile campaign to stop the proliferation of atomic weapons, but to no avail, once that pandoras box was opened, it was impossible to put the atomic age back into the box. As he aged and retreated from the public eye his musings became more and more introspective and concerned with deeper philosophical questions.

The statistical chaos of the Quantum as postulated by Heisenberg bothered him deeply, and said in a letter to his friend and Quantum Theorist Niels Bohr: “God does not play dice with the world.” prompting Bohr to quip back: “Stop telling God what to do!” This humorous exchange illustrates how Albert always weighed what he observed or was told with his concept of how the universe ‘really worked’, how he pondered problems with his unique mix of intelligence and wit.

What is that ineffable quality of wisdom that comes out in the latter part of life? Is it just the slow simmering of time that takes all youthful vigor and brash statements, and cooks them down into something heartier and more patently honest? Life is a bellcurve of idealism, it starts out with child-like ignorance and an eager mind to learn, then as life gets faster and more full, as time picks up speed and becomes deeper and wider and more complex, we start to realize just how futile it is to know all these disjointed facts and concepts and ideas, there is no time to reflect and really understand all that you have learned. Finally the crest is reached in middle age, and the cart pauses at the crest of the hill and all around you is the countryside and vistas of life and living. You have a moment to pause and reflect, and then the cart tips down, and begins to pick up speed again, taking you deeper and farther than you ever went before.

In a letter to a friend late in life Einstein said:

“People like you and I, though mortal of course, like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is that we never cease to stand like curious children before the Great Mystery into which we were born.”

Wisdom comes slowly.