Einstein Revisited

By Ralph Dumain

On 24 January 2003 I made a pilgrimage to the Einstein exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Einstein was my boyhood hero, and I have been a consumer of Einstein lore ever since, when it comes my way.  More information on the private life of Einstein is available now, but I am unlikely to be surprised at this point.  Still, I can take note of changes in the presentation of Einstein to the public.

The one real advantage of going to the exhibit personally is to see certain artifacts up close: official documents, family heirlooms (teacups emblazoned with photos of child Albert and his sister), Einstein's pipes, diaries, correspondence, famous documents (letter to Roosevelt proposing atomic research, letter to Bertrand Russell on peace movement, letter declining the presidency of Israel, etc.), manuscripts or facsimiles thereof on relativity, photos, a statue, etc., and a short documentary film with some adorable Einstein film footage. There are also interactive exhibits on gravitation, black holes, etc. Otherwise, you can get the gist of the exhibit by visiting the web site: http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/einstein/.

What has changed in the presentation of Einstein the man since days of yore?  Well, there is much more publicity on Einstein's love affairs, including the extramarital ones.  I cannot remember anyone publicizing this stuff 30-40 years ago, but here you get to read a few of his love letters.  While Einstein's pacifism has been always well-known, and to a lesser extent his opposition to McCarthyism, the political Einstein gets much wider coverage now.  There is more on McCarthyism, on Einstein's advocacy of resistance, and now information on Einstein's thick FBI file and the government's distrust of him as a left-winger.  Also on display is the original manuscript in German of Einstein's essay "Why Socialism?" for the Monthly Review in 1949. 

While Einstein's support of the establishment of Israel is well-known, less well-known is his particular conception of what he hoped for, including amicable relations between Jews and Arabs.  There are some hints here of the nuances of Einstein's position, e.g. that he might have to tell Israelis things they don't want to hear.  Einstein still seems excessively idealistic in his conception of a Jewish state, ironic given his distrust of all governments.  One does get an idea of the tensions that Einstein had to negotiate within his own world view, i.e. his cosmopolitanism and aversion to all nationalism, and his support of the Jewish state as the only means of self-defense against persecution.  One thing that could have been mentioned, but was not, was the very last words Einstein wrote, hours before he died in April 1955, on the problems in the Middle East, relating his fear that Israel would get sucked into the imperialist ambitions and rivalries of the great powers.

The big thing that is new here is Einstein's support of civil rights and his opposition to American racism.  I knew something of this for some decades, i.e. Einstein's alliance with Paul Robeson in the late 1940s to oppose lynching.  But there is much more information being presented now.  I only discovered Einstein's association with W.E.B. Du Bois recently, but it was described in the exhibit, in a whole section devoted to civil rights, with photos of Du Bois, Robeson on a picket line, and Marian Anderson.  I did not know that long before Marian Anderson was refused permission to sing at Constitution Hall, she was also refused permission in Princeton, and Einstein invited her to stay with him, whereupon they became friends.  There is also a photo of Einstein with the president of Lincoln University (a black college in Pennsylvania where Einstein would visit to teach, an obscure fact not mentioned in the exhibit), giving a public talk mentioning racism as America's Achilles heel.  It would have even been better to include a photograph I have only seen once, consisting only of Einstein surrounded by a group of black students.  What a striking image this would have been to show the public.

So, as usual, there is intensive focus on Einstein the man, his personal qualities, his humanitarian values and political interests, and, importantly, on Einstein's intellectual independence and distrust of all authority.  How about the science?

There is of course a great deal of attention given to Einstein's revolutionary innovations—the four fundamental papers of 1905, a manuscript of 1912, the publication of general relativity in 1916, the Nobel Prize, the controversy over quantum mechanics, the search for a unified field theory, and the development of cosmology.  Einstein's imagination and his unique way of asking questions are addressed.  As for the scientific content, it was not bad but could have been better.  Of course here we are talking mostly about special and general relativity.  The usual mystifications of science popularization in this country are absent; still, certain conceptions are not sufficiently clarified. 

There is, to be sure, a clear exposition of the implications of the constancy of the speed of light regardless of frame of reference.  The clock paradox (time dilation) is explained reasonably.  However, I was unsatisfied with the presentation of certain fundamental concepts. While the non-existence of a universal world-instant was not hard to understand, there was no explanation I can recall of how measuring the space-time relation is affected by different frames of reference.  Philosophically, as usual, the very concept of time, the idea that "time" slows down or speeds up, demands closer scrutiny, though the particulars of what happens are explained very well.  The exhibits are designed to illustrate these things.

The exposition of general relativity includes several visual illustrations of the notion of gravitation as a warping of space rather than a force.  While they illustrate what they illustrate as best they can, the actual explanation of what this means is lacking as usual.  It is all instruction by analogy, and the possible limitations of these analogies are never discussed.  For example, if you lay down a rubber sheet with grid lines on it, and roll a heavy steel ball over the grid, you can see the sheet, i.e. "space", warping as the weight of the ball bends it out of shape.  However, the rubber sheet is a tangible object.  What is "space", though, that it can be warped?  What does this really mean as a physical concept?  Similarly, what does it mean to alter the geometry of space?  Riemannian geometry is not explained.  What we have, as usual, is an analogy between the visualizable deformation of a planar object in three-dimensional space, and the non-visualizable curvature of three-dimensional space.  But the nature of this "curvature" is never explained.  Hence all these visual aids help to popularize these theories by making them more tangible, but at the same time they leave the meanings of the fundamental concepts unclear and they cover up some of the profoundest philosophical questions about the nature of these concepts.

The extensions of Einstein's revolution are most visible now in cosmology, and the visual and interactive displays on black holes are most interesting.  Aside: after the main museum closed, I visited the very elaborate exposition in the Rose Center where the Hayden Planetarium is housed.  I was rather overwhelmed by the universe, and was completely exhausted before I could inspect every galaxy and read every text.  (Loved this stuff as a kid, but there is so much more to know now, including all the then undetected flotsam floating around this solar system.)  However, in viewing the interactive videos in which various physicists explains the frontiers of their science—what they need to solve to complete the picture of the Big Bang, the unified theory of everything, superstring theory, I could not help but being struck by a certain philosophical naïveté underlying their theoretical sophistication, which unintentionally adds to the puzzlement of the inquiring lay public.

However, I was excited just to be at the exhibit, taking in the presentation while listening to the magnificent ethereal strains of the last movement of Hans Holst's "The Planets"—"Neptune" (the mystic)—in the background.  While little of any of this information was new to me, I can only imagine how some kid exposed to this stuff for the first time might react.  Einstein still has the power to inflame the human imagination—what mattered to him more than anything, and indeed what matters most.

There has been through the decades a certain mystification of Einstein, usually tied to the mystification of his theories, which would tend to make Einstein more of a fetish object than a real man and a real scientist.  (Roland Barthes wrote about this in the 1950s, but he knew no more to say.  For one exposition of the social basis of mis-popularization, see "Barnett's 'Universe'", a review of  The Universe and Dr. Einstein published in a now-obscure Trotskyist periodical.)  However, in spite of the hype and mystification whipped up by the press, there is something much more serious underlying the non-specialist public's fascination with Einstein.  I tried to describe what this is and why it matters in my commemorative essay "A Personal Tribute to Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 - 18 April 1955)".  Einstein was The Man of the (20th) Century.  He will continue to amaze and inspire as long as the human race survives intact on this earth.

Written 25 January 2003, edited & uploaded 13 March 2003.
©2003 Ralph Dumain

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Albert Einstein @ Reason & Society

Einstein: Nov 15, 2002 - August 10, 2003, American Museum of Natural History, New York

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Uploaded 13 March 2003

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