Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): On Einstein, part 3

Maggie:  We’re finishing Einstein’s biography today, right?

John:  Yes. We are discussing his years after the miracle year of 1905.  First we’ll start with his teaching jobs, just to give some context for the rest of the events in his life.  Does that work for you?

Maggie:  That makes sense.

Einstein’s Academic Jobs

But let me ask a preliminary question first: did Einstein’s four papers make him famous right away?

John:  Not immediately.  It took a few years for the scientific community to recognize their genius. 

Max Planck was the first physicist to see their value and praise Einstein’s revolutionary ideas.  But once he did so, others also started to notice.  Eventually, Einstein was invited to international conferences on physics to discuss his theories, and once that happened, his reputation in the academic world rapidly grew.

Maggie:  Was he able to get an academic job right away?

John:  No.  Again, the academics ignored him at first.  He got his first full-time position in 1909, four years after the papers were published.  The University of Zurich finally offered him a job.  And here is something funny.  When he was first offered the position, he turned it down.

Maggie: Why would he do that?  I thought getting a teaching position was his dream.

John:  He had to because of the low salary.  The initial offer was for less money than he was making at the patent office.  Since he had a family, he couldn’t afford to take the position.  But the university eventually agreed to raise the salary and Einstein was eventually able to begin his professional academic career.

Maggie:  It seems odd to me that it took so long for the academic world to recognize Einstein’s genius.  I wonder if it had to do with a prejudice against him since he wasn’t a professor.

John:  Yes, that seems right to me.  It’s hard for the academic world to recognize and accept people who are not part of their circle.  Which is too bad because they pass over a lot of incredible work being done by non-academicians.

Maggie:  How long did he teach at the University of Zurich?

John:  Not long.  Once his articles were discovered and recognized, his fame grew quickly. As a result, he was offered positions at other universities with more prestige, like the University of Prague and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.  And then in 1913, he went to work for the University of Berlin, where he directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics.  He held this position for twenty years, until 1933, when he fled Germany because of Nazi control.

Maggie:  That’s when he moved to the United States, right?

John:  Correct.  He took a position at Princeton University, which had just created the Institute for Advanced Study.  He stayed at the Institute until he retired in 1945.  But even after he retired, he remained active in the physics community, until his death in 1955.

Einstein’s Family Relationships

Maggie:  I bet his family was happy that his genius was finally recognized.

John:  You would think so, but no.  Once his scientific life started to take off, his family life began falling apart.  Einstein traveled frequently to attend conferences, worked constantly on relativity, and otherwise ignored his wife and children.  And you have to remember that, at first, he still wasn’t making a lot of money.  So he and Mileva argued about finances and how to spend the little money they did have. 

Maggie:  It sounds horrible for his wife and kids.

John:  Yeah, it doesn’t sound like an ideal family life. He wasn’t a very good husband or father.  His job and fame got in the way.  And then it got worse.

Maggie:  I can guess what is coming.  An affair, right?

John:  You guessed it.  In 1912, Einstein started an affair with another woman. 

Maggie:  So rather than work on his family life, he cheated on his wife.

John: Yeah.  That’s about it.  And do you want to hear something even more interesting?

Maggie:  Sure.

John:  The other woman’s name was Elsa Löwenthal, and she was his cousin.  In fact, she was his first cousin on his mother’s side and his second cousin on his father’s side.

Maggie:  That just seems… like there is something weird with it…

John:  Well, let’s be careful now.  We shouldn’t judge Einstein by our own cultural standards from our own time in history.  In some times and places it was, and still is, perfectly acceptable to marry a cousin.

Maggie:  I know.  And I am sorry.  It’s just hard to get past the fact that he cheated on his wife, and with his cousin.

John:  I know.  But to be fair, he did eventually marry Elsa.  He wasn’t able to do so until after he divorced Mileva, however, and that did not take place until 1919 when he was at the University of Berlin.

Mileva did not want to sign the divorce papers, presumably because she worried about having enough money to support their two children—Hans and Eduard.  But by 1919, Einstein was convinced he was going to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.  We will talk about that in just a minute.  The Nobel comes with a considerable monetary prize, and Einstein promised to give Mileva the entire prize if she would sign the divorce papers, to which she agreed.

A few months later he married Elsa.

Maggie:  Was he faithful to her?

John:  Of course not.  But Elsa stayed with him despite his other affairs, until she died in 1936.  And by most accounts, they were reasonably happy together.

Maggie:  Was he a good father?

John:  I guess it depends on how you measure “good,” but under most standards he was not.  He wasn’t an attentive father because he was caught up in his career and fame. And he didn’t do much to care for his second son, Eduard, who suffered from schizophrenia.  But he wasn’t mean either.

Maggie:  So he neglected his children, but he wasn’t cruel.  Is that it?

John:  Yeah, that’s about it.

Maggie:  I wouldn’t have wanted him for a father, but I suppose some people would like to be the children of a famous scientist.

John:  He missed out on the greatest joy in life, being a loving father.  But on the other hand, he changed the face of physics.

Maggie:  Can we talk more about his science now?

The General Theory of Relativity

John:  Sure.

Remember our discussion of Einstein’s third paper, which was titled On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.  This is the paper where he proposed the special theory of relativity.

Maggie:  I remember.  But I am still struggling to understand it.

John:  That’s okay.  We will try to explicate it a bit more in our next conversation when we actually discuss Einstein’s contributions to astronomy.  For now, it is enough to know that Einstein himself believed that his theory was missing a critical element.

Maggie:  What?

John:  Einstein realized that he needed to deal with the concept of gravity in order to complete his theory of relativity. That was the missing piece. 

So, from 1905 until 1915, for ten long years, Einstein wrestled with the notion of gravity.

Maggie:  You know what I love about Einstein?

John:  What?

Maggie:  He never gave up, ever.  He was tenacious, and he worked and worked and worked, until he got a result.  This was his whole approach to life.  He didn’t give up when he wanted an education; he didn’t give up when he wanted an academic job; and, he didn’t give up on developing his theories.  He overcame all the obstacles people threw before him by hard work and force of will.  I love that!

John:  Yeah, me too.  He never let go of his dreams.  We could learn from that.

Maggie:  I agree.

John:  He finally figured out how gravity fit into the theory of relativity in 1915.  But do you want to hear something funny?

Maggie:  Sure.

John:  Well, it’s not really funny.  More like shocking. 

In the summer of 1915, he gave a couple of preliminary lectures on the general theory of relativity, which included the concept of gravitation.  The lectures were preliminary because he hadn’t worked out all of the mathematical details yet.  But before he could do so and publish his results, a guy named David Hilbert, who was a mathematician, finished Einstein’s work and took credit for it.

Maggie:  Wait, what?  What happened?

John:  Hilbert took Einstein’s work, finished the few remaining math problems, put his name on it, and published the theory as his own, doing so just a few days before Einstein published his own final results.

Maggie:  That is horrible!

John:  Yeah, I agree.  And now, even though the theory of relativity is attributed to Einstein alone, Hilbert is given partial credit for the equations.

Maggie:  Was Einstein angry?

John:  Very angry.  But he and Hilbert eventually patched things up and became cordial, if not friends.

Maggie: When did Einstein finally finish the general theory of relativity?

John: He published the results in November 1915.

Maggie:  Okay.  I understand the timeline now.

What is the gist of Einstein’s theory?  Just the basic idea.

John:  The chief concept is that space and time are not distinct things, but a single element called “spacetime.”  And that gravity bends spacetime. 

If the theory is correct, Einstein believed light would bend when it travels close to the sun.  And it bends because spacetime is actually warped by gravity and the light follows the warped contours of spacetime. The light itself does not unilaterally bend, but it bends because it follows the warped spacetime.

Maggie:  Not getting it…  I’m just not.  Can you show me a picture?

John: Sure.  Look at this picture.

Maggie:  Okay… I see it.

John:  Do you see how spacetime is actually bent around the sun?

Maggie: Yes.  Is that actually space itself that is warped?

John:  Exactly.  The very fabric of space, but now called spacetime, is warped by powerful gravity like gravity from the sun.

Maggie:  That’s freaky.

John:  I know!

Now look at this next picture.

Maggie:  Okay, I have seen it.

John:  We know from previous measurements that there is a star behind the sun in Position A.  Does that make sense?

Maggie:  Yes, I get that.

John:  Light from the star travels to earth. But when it gets close to the sun, it does not travel in a straight line.  You can see from the photo that spacetime is warped close to the sun, so the light follows the warped contours of spacetime.  Do you see that?

Maggie:  Yes.

John:  So, when we see the star, it looks like it is actually in Position B.  But it’s not.  It is still in Position A.

Maggie:  Okay, this is where I get confused.  I need more.

John:  Let me see if I can explain this a bit better.

We think of light traveling in a straight line.  Does that make sense?

Maggie:  Perfect sense.

John:  So when the light from the star hits the receptors in our eyes, it looks like it is in Position B.  This is because it appears that the light is coming in a straight line from that position to our eyeballs.  Does that make sense?

Maggie: Yes.  I get that.

John:  But… (there is always a but…) the light only appears to be coming from Position B.  In fact, because spacetime is warped close to the sun due to the sun’s gravity, the path of the light curved with the contours of spacetime. You can see the bend in the picture.

Maggie:  So the star is in Position A.  But because spacetime is warped by the sun’s gravity, the light bends around the sun and then comes in a straight line to earth. Is that right?

John:  That is correct, if you mean that the light bends because it is simply following the warped contours of spacetime.

Maggie:  Yes, that’s what I meant. 

So when I see it, it looks like it is coming straight to me from Position B, but it really is not. Right?

John: Right.  You are so smart, my friend.

Maggie:  Okay, I get it now.  How did Einstein prove this theory?

John:  He didn’t.  But in 1919, four years later, Arthur Eddington proved that Einstein was correct.

Maggie:  Tell me how.

John:  I like your enthusiasm.

Do you know what a solar eclipse is?

Maggie: Sure.  It happens when the moon blocks out the sun’s rays by passing between the earth and the sun.

John:  During a solar eclipse, we can see stars around the sun that are normally lost to our sight by the sun’s rays.  So here is the idea.  We know the location of the stars near the sun.  But, because of the sun’s strong gravity, the stars will appear to be in different locations than they actually are, like we just discussed.

So Eddington waited until a total solar eclipse occurred in 1919, and he measured light coming from a star that he knew was in Position A.  But it looked like it was in fact in Position B, proving that Einstein was correct.

Maggie:  That is so freaky, and awesome.

John:  I agree!

Maggie:  But why did it take until 1919 to perform this experiment?

John:  Remember what was going on at this time?

Maggie:  Oh, that’s right, World War I.  I see now.  The war ended in 1918, which is why the experiment finally took place in 1919.  That makes perfect sense.

The Nobel Prize

John:  The results of Eddington’s experiment were announced in November 1919.  And here is something cool.  It was at a meeting of the Royal Society. 

Maggie:  The same society the Isaac Newton belonged to?

John: Exactly!  The Royal Society held a joint meeting with the Royal Astronomical Society in London to announce the results.

Maggie:  It’s so cool that the same society that Newton belonged to announced Einstein’s paradigm shift, which changed the course of physics from Newtonian science to Einsteinian physics.

John:  Right. You have to love this stuff.

Maggie:  I totally do!

John:  As you can imagine, Einstein’s fame exploded. He was asked to speak all over the world and wherever he went thousands of people would show up.

Maggie:  He was like a rock star!

John: Exactly.  Massive crowds would gather to see him and hear him speak.

And you will like this.  At one of his appearances in California, he showed up with the actor Charlie Chaplin. Thousands of people showed up to see them, the two biggest stars in the world at that time. As the crowd was clapping for them both, Chaplin turned to Einstein and said, “The people applaud me because everybody understands me, and they applaud you because no one understands you.”

Maggie:  That’s hilarious.

John:  Then in 1921, while he was traveling to Japan, Einstein found out that he had won the Nobel prize in physics. 

Maggie:  So people finally recognized the genius of relativity theory?

John:  Not exactly.  Einstein didn’t win for his theory of general relativity. He won for his ideas on the photoelectric effect.

Maggie:  But why?

John:  Because, if you remember, his idea gave rise to the field of quantum mechanics, which was a whole new field of physics. The Nobel Committee, as well as the entire scientific world, realized that this had to be recognized.

Maggie:  I get that.  But I still think he should have won for relativity.

John:  Well, so do most other people, including Einstein.

The Rise of Nazism and the Atomic Bomb

Maggie:  It sounds like things were going great for Einstein?

John:  Yes, for about twelve years or so.  Until the Nazis started to come to power.

Maggie:  What happened?

John:  Remember that Einstein was Jewish.  As a result, the Nazis labeled relativity the “Jewish physics.”  They held rallies against Einstein and his science, and even burned books discussing relativity.  It was terrible.

Then in 1931, the Nazis enlisted the help of other Nobel laureates to stand against Einstein, and they produced a document called One Hundred Authors Against Einstein.  They followed that up with a magazine that pictured Einstein with a caption reading “Not Yet Hanged.”

Einstein realized that his life would be in danger if he stayed in Germany, so he decided to leave.  In 1933, he moved to the U.S. where he took up residence at the Institute for Advanced Study. He eventually became a U.S. citizen in 1940, but he never gave up his Swiss citizenship in doing so.

Maggie:  So Einstein got out of Germany ahead of WWII.  But how did the war affect him?

John:  That, my friend, is a really good question. Do you remember when the war started?

Maggie:  Yes, in 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

John: Right.  That same year, but a few months before Germany invaded Poland, Einstein sent a letter to President Roosevelt encouraging him to develop an atomic bomb.  He did so because he feared the rise of Nazism.  And Roosevelt agreed.  So, during the war, the U.S. government sent several scientists to Los Alamos, New Mexico to develop the bomb, which they eventually did. 

Maggie:  Was Einstein one of them?

John:  No.  Einstein didn’t participate because the FBI was suspicious of his pacifism and ties to certain socialists groups.

Maggie:  But the bomb was developed even without him?

John: Right.  And in 1941, it was dropped on Japan, ending WWII.

Maggie:  Was Einstein happy about this, especially since the idea for an atomic bomb started with his famous equation?

John:  Not at all.  Some scholars believe that Einstein’s suggestion to Roosevelt to build the bomb was a mistake that Einstein greatly regretted.

Maggie:  What do you think?

John:  I am not sure.  It is possible, because we all regret things after the fact. Hindsight is often clearer than foresight.  But one thing is clear: the invention of the atomic bomb only increased Einstein’s pacifism and commitment to the civil rights of all people.  He later became an outspoken antiwar and civil rights advocate.

Science in the Later Years

Maggie:  What did Einstein work on after he got to the Institute for Advanced Studies?  I mean in science.  Did he have any other great contributions?

John:  Well… it’s pretty hard to beat relativity.  So everything else he did looks minor by comparison.  But he worked in three main areas.

First, he pushed relativity theory forward into new areas like black holes and the beginning of the universe.  You will like this. He also worked on the application of relativity to time travel.  That sounds kind of fun.

Maggie:  I love that.  Maybe someday…

John:  Second, he became engaged in some famous debates about quantum theory. 

One of Einstein’s big mistakes was that he initially opposed quantum theory, even while most other physicists were turning to it to advance the study of physics.  He particularly disliked it because he thought it was too random.  His famous saying that “God does not play dice with the universe” was in fact a slight against quantum theory.  His opposition caused him to be isolated from his peers, to some degree, who were thoroughly engaged in the theory.

But this is what we should remember: while Einstein was proven wrong on quantum theory, his initial opposition to it in fact increased and improved the theory.  It caused scientists to have to work that much harder to ensure that their theories were correct.  Einstein doesn’t get nearly enough credit, if any, for forcing the early quantum theorists to make sure they were in fact getting it right. This alone, improved the quality of the quantum theory.

Maggie:  You know what, I like that!  Opposition causes us to work harder and to be better at what we are doing.  Especially when someone as smart as Einstein opposes us.  So rather than just thinking they are wrong or stupid, we should acknowledge our opponents contributions to our work. That is so great!

John:  I agree.  Even our opponents make contributions to our work by causing us to think about issues we may have never thought about without them.

Maggie:  Did Einstein eventually accept quantum theory?

John:  Yes, after many years.

Maggie:  What did he do then? 

John:  By then he was working on his last greatest project.  Towards the end of his career, Einstein became obsessed with finding a unified field theory.

Maggie:  Wait, what is that?

John:  It refers to a theory of everything.  It is a theory that unites or unifies all the different theories in physics.  Think of it as a theory that can be applied to explain everything, to show how everything in the universe is connected and how everything works in unison. 

Maggie:  Any way you can explain that a little better?

John:  Let me try.  Think about the universe as a clock.  Relativity theory takes a big picture view.  It explains what time is and why we need time and how the clock works to help us tell time.  As to the latter point, the theory explains that a clock has hands and gears and weights, and that it uses energy to spin the hands around the face of the clock.  Does that make sense?

Maggie:  Sure.

John:  Quantum theory, on the other hand, looks inside the clock and examines the gears and other mechanisms.  It looks at how the gears are made and how long they will last.  It explains how the energy is applied to spin the gears, which in turn spin the hands.  That sort of thing.

Maggie:  Got it.

John:  Now this is just a simple explanation, but a unified field theory looks to see how relativity theory and quantum theory can be unified to explain time, the outside workings of the clock face, and the inside workings of the clock.  It is the one theory that combines all theories into a single explanation.

Maggie:  That makes sense.  And Einstein worked on this?

John:  He spent much of his later years on this. He published some preliminary ideas in Scientific American in 1950, but he never finished the theory.

Einstein’s Final Years

Maggie:  When did Einstein die?

John:  Einstein died in 1955.  But let me tell you an interesting story about him before we deal with his death.

Maggie:  I love stories.

John:  Einstein loved to smoke a pipe.  He said that pipe smoking “contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”  And because he was such a famous pipe smoker, he was accepted into the Montreal Pipe Smokers Club.

He had to give up smoking later in life because of his health.  But he would still put an unlit pipe in his mouth when he worked because, he believed, it helped him think.

Maggie:  That’s hilarious.  It makes me want to take up pipe smoking.

John:  Yeah, me too.

Maggie:  How did Einstein die?

John:  In 1955, he died of an aortic aneurysm.  On April 17, he fell ill and was taken to the hospital.  And here is something I really respect.  Instead of trying to prolong his life, Einstein refused treatment.  He said, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially.  I have done my share, it is time to go.  I will do it elegantly.”

Maggie:  That is beautiful.

John:  Yes, I agree.  And let’s end with that legacy.

Maggie:  Thanks for this discussion.

John:  Next time we will discuss Einstein’s contributions to astronomy.

Maggie: Àbientôt!

 John: Àbientôt!

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