Monday, January 11, 2010

Subtle Is the Lord -- A Reflection

Albert Einstein is such an iconic personage that Time magazine named him Person of the Century in 2000. Despite this, few people can explain what it was this singularly independent, rumpled man did to earn the world's approbation.

Countless biographies have been written about Albert Einstein. From among them I chose to read Abraham Pais's Subtle Is the Lord, touted as the "best" of the scientific biographies, meaning that after a short introduction it plunges headlong into the physics and math that are the substance and language of Einstein's lifework. Subtle Is the Lord was published in 1982, twenty-seven years after Einstein's death. Pais died in 2000.

Abraham Pais was himself a physicist and science historian, a colleague of Albert Einstein at Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study. Throughout Einstein's life, although all his scientific papers are wholly his own, he worked with numerous assistants and collaborators, because it is standard practice in the world of scientific research for scientists to bounce ideas off one another. Evidence of this practice can be seen in the number of years that Nobel Prizes have been awarded to multiple recipients in a single category for work done in tandem. Pais never collaborated himself with Einstein on any specific project, but was nonetheless a friend who had many conversations with him, usually about physics.

As a reader, it would seem pointless to expend one's life's currency learning about the lives of famous men without attempting to understand the basis of what it was that made them special. For instance, were someone to publish a biography of NFL quarterback Brett Favre that glossed over the admiration-inspiring accounts of how many games he started in succession, the championships he helped to win, his Super Bowl appearances, the records he set, the dramatic finishes he spearheaded, and why he won the Most Valuable Player award three times consecutively, favoring instead the backstory regarding Favre's childhood and family, his schooling, how much money he has made, and what he likes to do in his spare time, such a volume would be panned by critics as weak and inconsequential.

For that reason, a difficult task presents itself to writers who hope to present a comprehensive portrait of Albert Einstein the man, but who wish to skirt over the science because it makes for tough sledding. To do so is liable to result in a superficial exercise in hero worship. The problem is that Einstein's work is difficult to understand and difficult to explain.

"Albert Einstein was a great man!"

"How great was he?"

"Very great!"

"Oooh. But what made him so great?"

"He was a scientist!"

"Whoa! Ummm. That still doesn't answer my question. Why is he so highly regarded?"

"Because the whole Worldwide Community of Smartest Guys Anywhere (WC of SGA) got together and canonized him in 1919."

"Ah. Well then, that's good enough for me."

Many people admire scientists merely for being scientists, and idolize famous people just for being famous. Einstein was both.

In 1919, British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington captured photographic images and data from a solar eclipse, verifying that light bends and that space is warped. Shortly afterward, the WC of SGA announced to the world that Einstein had devised a theory about how the universe works that overturned the explanations of some of the most revered scientists they had heard about and believed for centuries—Copernicus and Newton—and that what Einstein said would change everything about physics—but not to worry, because for the time being the universe is still safe.

At that time—which happened to coincide with the end of World War I— a newspaper reported that there were only twelve men in the world who understood general relativity. Nobody ventured to identify precisely which twelve. Another anecdote reports the number as being three. Someone asked Eddington if it was true that only three people understood relativity at that time, to which he quipped that he could not think who the third person might be.

Regardless of the precise numerical truth of the claim, at the time even few experienced physicists could read Einstein's papers with full comprehension. While the concepts can be explained with illustrations both verbal and pictorial, and evidence of their truthfulness can be collected experimentally, the core of general relativity is pure math of a high order, which at first was all the WC of SGA had to evaluate it by.

The world reacted by saying, "Oooo yeah!" making Einstein, who was already quite famous, an instant world celebrity, a status he retained for the rest of his life. Later everybody bought Einstein tee shirts and pictures, because Einstein was allegedly smart and undeniably funny looking, and later still Time magazine anointed him Man of the Century, but today most people still can't explain general relativity, or any of the other work that Einstein did.

Personally, I dwell among the unwashed multitudes who lack sufficient physics and math training to absorb most of the hard stuff. (But I'm working on that.) Biographies and summaries have been written that include explanations for non-technical readers, but Subtle Is the Lord is not one of them. Fortunately, Pais provided a roadmap in the form of italicized section headers in the table of contents. A reader navigating only those sections and skipping the rest can read a purely biographical account of Einstein's life. That's the good news. The bad news is that to do so results in reading only about a quarter of the book and missing much of importance, and getting mainly the sort of material that can be obtained from a reliable encyclopedia.

I do not recommend that readers of any level of expertise eliminate the scientific material entirely. At 552 pages, well over half the book consists of equation laden writing that might appear intimidating to many. My method was to plow through this text as well, as quickly as I could, ignoring only the parts that were quite obviously out of my reach, mainly the mathematics, and dwelling on the commentary.

There is a great advantage to this tactic. The text connecting many technical points is imbued with history, consisting of Pais's explanations of how Einstein progressed from one point to the next, refining or rejecting earlier ideas, including his reasons for doing so, and commenting on exchanges Einstein had with collaborators, thereby presenting a fascinating portrait of the process and hard work that accompanies scientific research and discovery.

Contrary to notions that are likely popularly believed, most scientists, even Einstein, do not experience Archimedean Eureka! moments where great universal truths suddenly loom up fully formed as though by divine revelation. Einstein's theory of general relativity was the product of a decade of follow-up work from a paper published in 1905, a period that included much work on other topics as well. Of particular interest is the concluding work that Einstein did during November 1915, as he zigged and zagged toward the completion of his theory.

Thereafter, what remained to be done was to gather empirical evidence that the theory was true. It seemed quite certain, at least to Einstein, also to many scientists, although its ideas were contrary to intuition and previous understanding. Because of the War, politics, and bad weather, it took another four years to gather the solar eclipse data that made all the SGAs jump and shout.

It is obvious that Abraham Pais is more of a scientist than he is a writer, and not merely because of the depth of scientific coverage that he presents.

Dr. Pais frequently injects himself into the story, even in parts where he was not directly involved, for instance, in comments following the model: "Einstein said such and such, but later physicists produced evidence to the contrary, and I believe it's not true because of so and so."

Given the author's two-pronged attempt to provide both scientific and purely biographical accounts, the book's organization seems chaotic, and sometimes the seams show. Pais says things like, "Previously I explained blabbety blab, and will now skip ahead to blah blah blah and will return later to doodly doodly." A more literary minded writer would not provide as much explanation—or in this case perhaps I should say apologia—regarding his method of writing, but such is not surprising coming from a scientist whose custom is to follow the timeless IMRAD standard format for scientific paper writing: which requires presenting basic sections subtitled Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion that expose every fact possible for the analysis of peers, holding no cards under the table. The net result is a book that is undoubtedly authentic, but not literary.

The widely held myth that Einstein did not like and was not good at math in school comes from the same school as the tale that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then fessed up to his father. Einstein was not a runaway prodigy, but despite disliking rote learning and certain teaching methods he encountered as a student, he always did very, very well in both math and science. He taught himself calculus between ages twelve and fifteen, a subject rarely taught to persons that young.

Einstein's elevated vision made him a non-conformist—some say a rebel. He was a non-joiner, unable to subscribe to any prescribed philosophy or regimen in toto. As a boy, he was shocked upon seeing a military parade, with its row after row of seemingly lobotomized robot soldiers, purged of individuality, goose-stepping by in demonstration of their ardent loyalty to they knew not what. Revulsed, his immediate reaction, at age fifteen, was to leave his family behind and move to Switzerland, eventually renouncing his German citizenship and becoming a permanent citizen of Switzerland so he would never be forced to join the military. Einstein became an outspoken pacifist.

With regard to religion, Einstein retained his identity as a Jew his whole life, and was even offered the presidency of the newly formed nation of Israel when its first president Chaim Weizmann died, an offer he turned down with some embarrassment. Einstein had been a zealous observer of Judaism very briefly as a young boy, then backed off and became non-observing. While Einstein's final views are a matter of dispute, Einstein himself maintained that he was not an atheist, but in later life declared that he did not believe in a personal God. It appears that he was just confused, or likely undecided, as he was also about many questions scientific questions to which he pursued answers; and being, as Pais described him, "The freest man I ever knew," he was unable to swallow and digest any precooked package of fast-food doctrinal religious pap, including that of atheism, rejecting all such as mindless solutions for persons who prefer not to think things through.
A conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking.—The source I collected this quote from called it Matz's Law, which happens to be ironic to me for personal reasons, but I do not know the ultimate origin.
It must be difficult to write about the life of a man who earned his reputation from spending the most productive hours of his life sitting and staring into space, blinking and breathing and writing an occasional note. He didn't live in big houses, didn't drive fancy cars (in fact, I believe he didn't drive at all), didn't wear expensive suits, and didn't party. He was not a warrior, not an adventurer, and not a sportsman. He loved music, played the violin and a bit of piano, and advocated living a simple life.

The most physical activity Einstein ever engaged in was going for long walks, when he came up with some of his best ideas. Much that I have learned has been on long walks, too. Regrettably, much that I have since forgotten has also been that which I learned on long walks. Sometimes I take a notebook, but using it requires that I interrupt my run, or at least walk more slowly. I wonder if Einstein carried a notebook on his walks?

In most other respects Einstein led an ordinary life. His celebrity status made him in demand, so he graciously spent some time traveling, making appearances, and lecturing, and he got involved in various causes outside of science, but he did not seek the publicity.

When he died Einstein was still working on a unified field theory, a "theory of everything," as he called it, and wasn't making much progress. Today, fifty-five years later, they still aren't making much progress on that one. As I understand it, there may be no reason to presume that a correct explanation of how the universe works needs to be boiled down to a single theory, but work on a unified theory has nonetheless resulted in other valuable research in physics.

One thing is certain, one that scientists themselves know best of anyone, is that theories are not facts, nor are they intended to be regarded as such. A theory is not necessarily all right or all wrong. A theory merely proposes a framework of explanation regarding observations of events that have been seen to happen. Some phenomena are known and understood better than others, and the explanations for them have moved from the realm of theory to that of principle or law. In the field of science, particularly in atomic and cosmological physics, much has been observed that has been explained by various theories that are difficult or impossible to test for correctness. For instance, the Big Bang theory is one utterly untestable explanation that has been proposed regarding the origins of the physical universe, a description that relies on Einstein's theory of general relativity, and one that is compatible with the belief that a Designer and Creator started it all rolling. Exactly how He may have done it is beside the point; exploring questions regarding such matters will no doubt keep mankind occupied for as long as he continues to occupy this planet.
Even time indefinite he has put in their heart, that mankind may never find out the work that the true God has made from the start to the finish.—Ecclesiastes 3:11
If anyone thinks he has acquired knowledge of something, he does not yet know [it] just as he ought to know it.—1 Corinthians 8:2
Which reminds me—I think I need to learn more about this guy.
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