Einstein through a Distant Mirror

Context matters. Today, Einstein is the very model of a modern genius. That’s an easy image in the era of the internet, when folks can say and do pretty much whatever they please. A century ago, when the young theoretician conducted “thought experiments,” things were different. In a world where “innovation” appears in just about every business magazine, it’s difficult to imagine just how different life might have been in those days before the First World War.

Albert Einstein in 1921, the year he won the Nobel Prize, and first visited the USA.

That’s the key learning from Einstein’s Jewish Science by Steven Gimbel, a professor at Gettysburg College. The author and his book do a wonderful job in framing the time, and the science, and the politics, and the religion, but neither musters much energy from its underlying question. (Spoiler alert: In the end, the author concludes that relativity is not an especially Jewish science.) He explains:

Einstein came to the scientific stage at a time when Western culture was in flux. Old social, political, artistic and intellectual structures were failing. Assumptions that had been protected for centuries were suddenly rejected despite all attempts to maintain them. And here, offering a new and bizarre way to see the entire universe was Einstein. The theory of relativity stands as a symbol of Gestalt shift, a complete change in perspective where you can never view the familiar in the same old way.”

(As I type, I wonder whether the shift that we’ve experienced via the Internet–which now offers instantaneous connections between billions of people all over the planet–would also be “a complete change in perspective where you can never view the familiar in the same old way,” and, if it is (I think it is), why it doesn’t quite feel that way. Maybe because we’ve been consumed by its everyday, now routine, integration into social and commercial life?)

Professor Gimbel of Gettysburg College, author of Einstein’s New Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

Mr. Gimbel goes on, and I continue to wonder about Einstein 2.0, and how he might fare today:

Einstein was vilified by those who clung to the old order. His science, his politics, and his views about religion were all made public in ways that made them difficult to ignore.”

And, my favorite quote from Gimbel:

We take Einstein to be the epitome of the open mind.

If life was so difficult for Einstein and his radical thinking, why do we absorb change in our stride today?

The best answer I’ve found begins about ten years after Einstein passed away.  It’s the subject of a terrific book about the 1960s counter culture, and the bridge that it provided to the 21st century, the digital century where we now live (and read blogs, often instead of books). The book is entitled What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, and it was written by John Markoff. Read a terrific review of this equally terrific book, written by Jaron Lanier, here. Of course, all of this countercultural change was terrifying, and not without its reactionaries. The most robust response is a U.S. Chamber of Commerce document usually called The Powell Memo. It provides a conservative response to the craziness of the revolution, or so the story goes. The Powell Memo is easier to find on liberal websites than on conservative sites. Still, it claims to be the grand plan, the response to radical thinking and the changing of old ideas.

Step-by-step, Professor Gimbel explores the most important questions about science, Judaism, German culture (Weimar, Nazi, post-War), new (20th) century thinking about science and the limits of Newtonian physics, and provides the details in a smart story that is easily read and absorbed (not so, most other books about 20th century science, or religion, for that matter). Still, the core of the book, the essence of it, encourages the reader to think not only about Einstein, but about Einstein’s reflections in a 21st century mirror. How much has changed since Einstein’s time. How thoroughly Albert would enjoy the internet, and the freedom of thought that we now enjoy as American citizens in a digital age, and how profoundly that freedom has affected thinkers around the world.

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