On Einstein

I recently finished reading Einstein – His Life and Universe – by Walter Isaacson. As introduced: “Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius. Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a faith in the harmony of nature’s handiwork. His fascinating story, a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom, reflects the triumphs and tumults of the modern era.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found very perceptive:

On his approach:

His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. “It is important to foster individuality,” he said, “for only the individual can produce the new ideas.”‘ This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to transform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the twentieth century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.

On using suspicion successfully:

Throughout the six decades of his scientific career, whether leading the quantum revolution or later resisting it, this attitude helped shape Einstein’s work. “His early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance,” said Banesh Hoffmann, who was a collaborator of Einstein’s in his later years. “Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that gave him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.”

On Einstein’s ability to pursue several ideas at once:

A Strength of Einstein’s mind was that it could juggle a variety of ideas simultaneously. Even as he was pondering dancing particles in a liquid, he had been wrestling with a different theory that involved moving bodies and the speed of light. A day or so after sending in his Brownian motion paper, he was talking to his friend Michele Besso when a new brainstorm struck. It would produce, as he wrote Habicht in his famous letter of that month, “a modification of the theory of space and time.”

On his background:

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way,” Einstein once said. “But,” he hastened to add, “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” Einstein’s discovery of special relativity involved an intuition based on a decade of intellectual as well as personal experiences. The most important and obvious, I think, was his deep understanding and knowledge of theoretical physics. He was also helped by his ability to visualize thought experiments, which had been encouraged by his education in Aarau. Also, there was his grounding in philosophy: from Hume and Mach he had developed a skepticism about things that could not be observed. And this skepticism was enhanced by his innate rebellious tendency to question authority.

On his dual approach to his research:

In it Einstein pursued a two-fisted approach. On the one hand, he engaged in what was called a “physical strategy,” in which he tried to build the correct equations from a set of requirements dictated by his feel for the physics. At the same time, he pursued a “mathematical Strategy,” in which he tried to deduce the correct equations from the more formal math requirements using the tensor analysis that Grossmann and others recommended…Einstein’s “physical strategy” began with his mission to generalize the principle of relativity so that it applied to observers who were accelerating or moving in an arbitrary manner. Any gravitational field equation he devised would have to meet the following physical requirements: It must revert to Newtonian theory in the special case of weak and static gravitational fields. In other words, under certain normal conditions, his theory would describe Newton’s familiar laws of gravitation and motion. It should preserve the laws of classical physics, most notably the conservation of energy and momentum. It should satisfy the principle of equivalence, which holds that observations made by an observer who is uniformly accelerating would be equivalent to those made by an observer standing in a comparable gravitational field.

His peer’s on his discoveries:

Its equivalence to acceleration, and, Einstein asserted, the general relativity of all forms of motion. In the opinion of Paul Dirac, the Nobel laureate pioneer of quantum mechanics, it was “probably the greatest scientific discovery ever made.” Another of the great giants of twentieth-century physics. Max Born, called it “the greatest feat of human thinking about nature, the most amazing combination of philosophical penetration, physical intuition and mathematical skill The entire process had exhausted Einstein but left him elated. His marriage had collapsed and war was ravaging Europe, but Einstein was as happy as he would ever be. “My boldest dreams have now come true,” he exulted to Besso. ”General covariance. Mercury’s perihelion motion wonderfully precise.” He signed himself “contented but kaput.”

On his reaction to his discovery:

Einstein’s decision reflected a major transformation in his life. Until the completion and confirmation of his general theory of relativity, he had dedicated himself almost totally to science, to the exclusion even of his personal, familial, and societal relationships. But his time in Berlin had made him increasingly aware of his identity as a Jew. His reaction to the pervasive anti-Semitism was to feel even more connected— indeed, inextricably connected—to the culture and community of his people.

On his view about education:

The Times called it “the ever-present Edison questionnaire controversy,” and of course Einstein ran into it. A reporter asked him a question from the test. “What is the speed of sound?” If anyone understood the propagation of sound waves, it was Einstein. But he admitted that he did not “carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books” Then he made a larger point designed to disparage Edison’s view of education. “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think,” he said.

On challenging authority:

This wariness of authority reflected the most fundamental of all of Einstein’s moral principles: Freedom and individualism are necessary for creativity and imagination to flourish. He had demonstrated this as an impertinent young thinker, and he proclaimed the principle clearly in 1931. “I believe that the most important mission of the state is to protect the individual and to make it possible for him to develop into a creative personality,” he said.

On morality:

The foundation of that morality, he believed, was rising above the “merely personal” to five in a way that benefited humanity. There were times when he could be callous to those closest to him, which shows that, like the rest of us humans, he had flaws. Yet more than most people, he dedicated himself honestly and sometimes courageously to actions that he felt transcended selfish desires in order to encourage human progress and the preservation of individual freedoms. He was generally kind, good-natured, gentle, and unpretentious. When he and Elsa left for Japan in 1922, he offered her daughters some advice on how to lead a moral fife. “Use for yourself little,” he said, “but give to others much.”

On realism:

Einstein’s concept of realism had three main components: 1. His belief that a reality exists independent of our ability to observe it. As he put it in his autobiographical notes: “Physics is an attempt conceptually to grasp reality as it is thought independently of its being observed. In this sense one speaks of physical reality.’ ” 2. His belief in separability and locality. In other words, objects are located at certain points in spacetime, and this separability is part of what defines them. “If one abandons the assumption that what exists in different parts of space has its own independent, real existence, then I simply cannot see what it is that physics is supposed to describe,” he declared to Max Born. 3. His belief in strict causality, which implies certainty and classical determinism. The idea that probabilities play a role in reality was as disconcerting to him as the idea that our observations might play a role in collapsing those probabilities. “Some physicists. among them myself, cannot believe,” he said, “that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance.”

On his final moments:

The aneurysm, like a big blister, had burst, and Einstein died at age 76. At his bedside lay the draft of his undelivered speech for Israel Independence Day. “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew. but as a human being,” it began. Also by his bed were twelve pages of tightly written equations, littered with cross-outs and corrections. To the very end, he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. And the final thing he wrote, before he went to sleep for the last time, was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him, and the rest of us, just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.

His eulogy:

“No Other man contributed so much to the vast expansion of 20th century knowledge,” President Eisenhower declared. “Yet no other man was more modest in the possession of the power that is knowledge, more sure that power without wisdom is deadly.” The New York Times ran nine stories plus an editorial about his death the next day: “Man stands on this diminutive earth, gazes at the myriad stars and upon billowing oceans and tossing trees—and wonders. What does it all mean? How did it come about? The most thoughtful wonderer who appeared among us in three centuries has passed on in the person of Albert Einstein.”‘

On curiosity:

A tenet of Einstein’s faith was that nature was not cluttered with extraneous attributes. Thus, there must be a purpose to curiosity. For Einstein, it existed because it created minds that question, which produced an appreciation for the universe that he equated with religious feelings. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” he once explained. “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

On freedom:

Einstein’s fundamental creed was that freedom was the lifeblood of creativity. “The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit,” he said, “requires a freedom that consists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudice.” Nurturing that should be the fundamental role of government. he felt, and the mission of education.

On religion:

Einstein considered this feeling of reverence, this cosmic religion, to be the wellspring of all true art and science. It was what guided him. “When I am judging a theory,” he said, “I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way.” It is also what graced him with his beautiful mix of confidence and awe. He was a loner with an intimate bond to humanity, a rebel who was suffused with reverence. And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos. the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.

A must read for all.


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