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Einstein's Worldview and Its Effects

Daniel Kennefick

EINSTEIN FOR THE 21ST CENTURY: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture. Edited by Peter L. Galison, Gerald Holton and Silvan S. Schweber. xx + 363 pp. Princeton University Press, 2008. $35.

Large%20sculpture%20entitled%20The%20Fine%20ConstantClick to Enlarge ImageThis book makes an entertaining, engaging and informative effort to tackle a notoriously difficult topic: Albert Einstein’s influence on society and culture. Einstein is strongly associated with modernism in the public mind. But the natural impulse to portray the man himself as a modernist has always been complicated by his own conservative taste in the arts (and even, it could be argued, in the sciences), as well as by the emerging division of the arts and sciences into two cultures, which became prominent during the course of Einstein’s life and is visible in his own attitudes toward the arts.

The first part of the book looks at Einstein’s interior life, the second examines his life and role (if any) in the arts, and the third assesses his place in the world of science. Clearly the contributors to the book’s second part were faced with the most difficult assignment.

Although the interior life of anyone may be considered difficult to penetrate, Einstein, in spite of his much-advertised need for solitude, left many apparently more-or-less frank accounts of his thoughts and personal beliefs on such matters as religion, politics and philosophy. And his influence on the history of modern science is so broad that the only difficulty with the book’s third part was faced by its editors, who had to decide which topics should be picked out from the dozens (hundreds?) available.

Those writers asked to grapple with the subject of Einstein and the arts were faced with a profound conundrum. Although Einstein lived through, and made his greatest contributions to culture during, a period of great ferment and change in the arts, he expressed, as far as we know, little or no interest in the literature, music or visual arts of his own period. Yet most of us somehow instinctively feel that Einstein, as the leading figure in the revolution of modern physics that occurred in the first half of the 20th century, can be viewed as part of a historical movement that also encompasses Pablo Picasso, James Joyce and Arnold Schoenberg. How can one seriously address a subject that cries out for large statements and yet provides the most meager of foundations on which to rest them?

Happily, the authors address themselves soberly to the question of Einstein’s artistic legacy. Leon Botstein, writing on Einstein and music, is particularly thoughtful. His balanced account of Einstein’s abilities as a violinist is of interest to those of us who have read much about Einstein’s love of music without ever finding out much about his abilities as a musician. Many have speculated that Einstein’s love of music somehow contributed to his scientific genius, and Botstein correctly quotes the great man himself pouring cold water on the notion that his scientific thought was in any way influenced by his love of music. Botstein notes that Einstein’s taste was quite conservative and that he lacked any appreciation of the modernist music of his own day. In those respects, he was typical of many 20th-century scientists.

Although Einstein denied a connection between music and his modes of thinking about science, he did claim that his thought patterns were highly visual, something he had in common with a number of other famous and successful scientists. However, this quality makes it even more striking how little interest he seems to have had in the visual arts. Although this volume devotes three essays to Einstein’s influence on the visual arts, each of the essayists (Lynda Dalrymple Henderson, Caroline A. Jones and Matthew Ritchie) is ready to admit that there does not appear to be any causal connection between Einstein and artistic modernism. This finding provides a salutary antidote to the claims that cubism and other artistic movements of the 20th century owed their existence, in some part, to Einstein’s work on relativity and early quantum physics.

The truth is that, insofar as artists may have been influenced by advances in non-Euclidean geometry and talk of time as a fourth dimension of space, these vague ideas were in the air before Einstein made any contributions to their realization in science. And where science influences art, the influence is often of so decidedly nontechnical and nonspecific a nature as to make any proper citation impossible. One may say, for instance, that 20th-century artists have been, at times, focused on the notion of how to treat or portray time in a traditionally static medium. But it is impossible to decide whether they have been influenced by physicists’ evolving understanding of time, much less estimate the influence of one physicist in particular.

Einstein, by his fame, stands in for physics as a discipline in this context, and thus the three authors shrewdly address the topic of “physics and the arts.” Even so, one is left wondering whether there is less to the picture than meets the eye. Fortunately the lay reader does learn much that is of interest concerning how modern art has approached the problems of representing three-dimensional space, plus time, in a medium that is usually two-dimensional.

In Part 1 of the book, the contributors are at leisure to dwell on topics directly related to Einstein and his life, and they do so very entertainingly. Gerald Holton, the dean of Einstein scholars, kicks the volume off with an insightful discussion of Einstein’s place in the popular imagination. Several authors, including Lorraine Daston, Hanoch Gutfreund, Yehuda Elkana and Yaron Ezrahi, discuss Einstein’s philosophical outlook and attitude from a variety of standpoints. Because Einstein’s views on such matters are of great popular interest, these articles will attract many readers.

Next comes one of my favorite essays, by Susan Neiman. Interestingly enough, she is not an expert on Einstein. She perhaps writes all the more engagingly on his role as a political and social outsider, though, because she is herself a sort of outsider in this company. Her essay is important because it is one of the few in the book to really examine Einstein’s political legacy. The other principal one to do so is Gutfreund’s article, which discusses Einstein’s Zionism. Part 1 is rounded off by an excellent and much-needed account by Silvan S. Schweber of Einstein’s role in the birth of the Manhattan project, which was rather more active than has sometimes been thought.

The first two parts of the book can realistically hope to cover their assigned topics thoroughly: Einstein’s worldview and his influence on the arts are decidedly finite topics. But the same is not at all true of Part 3—his influence on science is so profound and multifarious that a short series of essays cannot hope to be in any sense comprehensive. The section nevertheless begins strongly with a wonderful story, wonderfully told by Peter Galison, about “The Assassin of Relativity,” Friedrich Adler, a socialist politician who in 1916 shot the prime minister of Austria as an expression of political conviction. He was also a physicist and an admirer of Einstein (who in turn admired Adler’s moral virtues). Adler was at the same time an opponent of Einstein’s relativity theory. Galison’s long and entertaining tale about the two men unravels the connections between them nicely.

The rest of Part 3 does not disappoint; it includes a number of well-written essays. In one, Michael L. Friedman discusses Einstein’s influence on philosophy—and on the logical empiricists in particular. The difference between this essay and those in Part 2 is obvious: Einstein’s own views feature quite prominently. He really was quite interested in philosophy and cared about it. The same cannot truly be said of the majority of today’s physicists, however.

By the time we have read Dudley Herschbach’s excellent account of Einstein’s time as a student and Jürgen Renn’s insightful study of the wellsprings of Einstein’s scientific creativity, we are halfway through this part of the book, and Einstein’s principal contributions to science have not been discussed. (The relativity considered in Galison’s article primarily concerns Adler’s misconceptions about the subject rather than the substance of Einstein’s contributions to it.) It is left to the last four authors to tackle this rather wide area.

The four essayists chosen for this task are all, appropriately enough, theoretical physicists. It is remarkable, in a way, that Einstein should have left a legacy that can be commented on by contemporary physicists, given that such people rarely if ever read the papers of earlier generations of physicists. Today’s scientists typically care little about the thoughts of yesterday’s men and women. Attitudes toward Einstein, in this respect, are exceptional.

The editors have narrowed the vast array of possible topics by choosing to ask contemporary scientists to discuss aspects of Einstein’s thought that impinge on their own work. Accordingly, the volume ends with Lisa Randall discussing Einstein on cosmology (his much-debated cosmological constant has recently made a considerable comeback) and David Gross discussing those aspects of Einstein’s quest for a unified theory that today seem prescient in the light of string theory (principally his work on the old Kaluza-Klein five-dimensional unified field theory).

In a somewhat similar vein, the other two theorists writing here, Jürg Fröhlich and A. Douglas Stone, discuss Einstein’s contributions to the old quantum theory in the light of our current understanding. Fröhlich gives a helpful overview account of Einstein’s contributions in this area (with some useful tables), whereas Stone picks up on one paper in which Einstein anticipated certain ideas that later gave birth to the field of quantum chaos.

Overall, the editors and authors of this volume have brought off well the difficult task they set themselves. The volume is unlikely to be particularly attractive to those who are primarily interested in Einstein the scientist. Nevertheless, it does manage to give a rather balanced and authoritative portrayal of the man and his cultural context, while drawing attention to several entertaining sidelights of his life and career.

Daniel Kennefick is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Arkansas. His current research focuses on supermassive black holes and their role in the evolution of galactic structure. He is also an editor of the Einstein Papers Project, which is based at Caltech.

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