The most interesting events in Albert Einstein’s life happened inside his head, and what went on inside Einstein’s head was, for most of us, incomprehensible. Despite this daunting difficulty, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein, which I have just finished, makes a surprisingly good read.
The Einstein portrayed by Isaacson doesn’t resemble the otherworldly, woolly-headed dreamer of popular imagination. He had an eye for the ladies, and a keen interest in politics. Einstein embraced Zionism and was offered – and wisely refused – the largely ceremonial presidency of Israel. He was an ardent pacifist, but strongly supported the war against the Nazis; he was a socialist who felt no love for the Soviet Union.
In brief, he was not a saintly seeker after abstractions, but neither was he a fool.
None of this would matter, of course, if it weren’t for Einstein’s contributions to understanding our universe. He was, like Copernicus, Newton and very few others, a cosmologist – a modeler and shaper of the stuff of human reality. The drama of Einstein’s life played out in this domain.
The first half of that life was an intellectual epic, in which Einstein toppled the concepts of absolute space and time, dispensed with the “ether,” demonstrated the necessity of light particles or quanta, and established the relationship between gravity and light. With inscrutable mathematics and brilliant “thought experiments,” he demolished Newton’s mechanical billiard-ball universe, and opened the door to “spacetime,” quantum physics, and the uncertainty principle.
Yet, having opened the door, Einstein spent the rest of his life trying to slam it shut. He was a determinist and a realist, and he believed quite deeply that the world was held together by a single logic. He saw himself as the preserver, rather than destroyer, of Newtonian cause and effect – I find it telling that, initially, he called relativity “invariance theory” because it saved the invariance of spacetime and the speed of light.
The quantum mechanics pioneered by Niels Bohr, which rested on probability rather than certainty, and could not be reconciled with relativity theory, left him horrified. It meant the universe held many logics; maybe none. Hence the utterance which became a famous mantra of Einstein’s: “God does not play dice with the universe.”
“The thing about causality plagues me very much,” he wrote in 1920. Some years later he elaborated, “I find the idea quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case,” he concluded, “I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist.”
The second half of Einstein’s life, in consequence, played out as an intellectual tragedy – a series of futile attempts to uncover a “unified field” theory that would make the universe whole again. It wasn’t a personal tragedy. Einstein, in the public mind, became the prototype of the selfless scientist. He was acclaimed by the learned and the ignorant, the mighty and the ordinary. Most remarkably, despite the star treatment and the failed theorizing, he retained a sense of humor about himself until his death.
But his faith in the unity of things was powerful and abiding, and he despaired when his great genius at last faltered in the attempt to demonstrate this unity. God for Einstein meant the necessity of order and reason. The new theories created a universe plagued by uncertainty and irrationality, with “spooky action at a distance,” cats which were simultaneously alive and dead, and existence itself contingent on an observer.
Einstein never solved this riddle of the sphinx, but he battled to the end on behalf of the creed that God doesn’t play dice with his creation. In his old age, he became a beloved but marginalized icon in the world of science. Other physical forces, with still more bizarre effects than quantum, had been discovered. His obsession with order seemed quaint, a relic of times past.
Yet the titanic struggle between Einstein and the irrationality of the world was both moving on a personal plane and consequential for the Western way of life.
Every culture assumes a relationship with the natural order of things. Despite the wails of extreme greens, this is true of our own. Our political life, to cite but one example, rests on assumptions about natural rights and self-evident truths.
But what if nature is irrational, and truth dependent on an observer? Other than history and tradition, we will lack a solid foundation for our doctrines of government.
What if cause and effect are really statistical probabilities, prone to “spooky action at a distance”? Other than custom and habit, we will have no basis for predicting the future – and even then, we should do it with the proper modesty and Talebian caution.
What if God plays by rules that are incoherent to even the most brilliant of his creatures?
It would appear that Bohr, the father of quantum physics, understood that a dogmatic belief in order involved a kind of intellectual arrogance. In one of his frequent debates with Einstein, when the latter again threw out the refrain about God and dice, Bohr famously exclaimed: “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!”