Albert Einstein is generally regarded as the greatest theoretical physicist of the twentieth century, if not of all time. Modern physics bears his mark more than any other physicist. His Special Theory of Relativity changed our conceptions of space, time, motion, and matter, and his General Theory of Relativity was the first new theory of gravitation since Isaac Newton's. Yet his work went beyond the boundaries of physics as he engaged himself in the educational, cultural, and philosophical concerns of his generation. Less known is Einstein's interest and personal engagement in religious matters. In specific, he strongly opposed the proposition that science and religion are irreconcilable.
Early life and influences
Albert Einstein, whose ancestors had lived in southern Germany for many generations, was born on March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany. The fact that his parents, Hermann Einstein and Pauline Einstein, née Koch, did not call him Abraham after his deceased grandfather, as Jewish tradition required, and that his sister, his only sibling, born 1881, was called Maria, shows that his parents did not observe religious rites although they never renounced their Jewish heritage. In 1889, the Einstein family moved to Munich, where Albert at the age of six was sent to a Catholic elementary school. At home a distant relative introduced him to the principles of Judaism and evoked in him such a fervent religious sentiment, that he observed Jewish religious prescriptions and even chided his parents for eating pork. At age ten he entered the interdenominational Luitpold Gymnasium, where he excelled in mathematics and Latin.
Ironically, his religious enthusiasm ended abruptly as the result of the only religious custom his parents observed, the hosting of a poor Jewish student for a weekly meal. This beneficiary was Max Talmud, a medical student older than Albert by ten years. He gave Albert books on science and philosophy, amongst them Ludwig Büchner's (1824–1899) materialistic Force and Matter (1874). Albert was particularly impressed by Büchner's survey of theriomorphic and therianthropic religions, in which animals or their combinations with humans were apotheosized. As Einstein, in his autobiographical notes, wrote, :"through the reading of these books I reached the conclusion that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a fanatic freethinking . . . suspension against every kind of authority . . . an attitude which has never again left me, even though later on, because of a better insight into the causal connections, it lost much of its original poignancy" (Schlipp p. 5).
In 1894, Albert's parents, for commercial reasons, moved to Italy. Left alone and hating the authoritarian discipline at the Gymnasium, Albert joined his parents before finishing school. At the Swiss cantonal school in Aarau he obtained the diploma that enabled him to enroll in the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School (ETH) in Zurich, where he studied physics and mathematics and graduated in 1900. Unable to find a regular academic position, he supported himself by tutoring and part-time school teaching until June 1902, when he obtained the appointment of technical expert third class at the patent office in Berne. A year later he married Mileva Maric, a Greek Orthodox Serbian, with whom he had fallen in love when they were classmates at the ETH. Little is known about their daughter Lieserl, who was born in 1902 before their marriage during Mileva's visit to her parents. Albert seems never to have seen her. Their first son, Hans Albert, was born in 1904, and their second son, Eduard, in 1910.
Theories and career
Einstein liked the job at the patent office because it was interesting and also left him time to pursue his own work in theoretical physics. He already had a number of important publications, mostly on thermodynamics, to his credit. But the year 1905 became his annus mirabilis. In March he completed his paper on the light-quantum hypothesis, in May his paper on Brownian motion, and in June his celebrated essay on the special theory of relativity, which was followed in September by his derivation of the famous mass-energy relation E = mc2, the most famous equation in science.
In 1908 Einstein became Lecturer at the University of Berne, in 1911 full professor in Prague, and a year later he became a professor at the ETH. In April 1914, less than four months before the outbreak of the First World War, he moved to Berlin with his wife and two sons to serve as university professor without teaching obligations and as director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics.
Mileva disliked Berlin and returned with the children to Zurich. In February 1919 Albert and Mileva got divorced. Six months later Einstein married his cousin, the divorced Elsa Löwenthal, mother of two daughters, Ilse and Margot. Einstein detested the military enthusiasm that swept Germany after the declaration of war and courageously refused to sign the manisfesto, in which German intellectuals declared their solidarity with German militarism.
Einstein continued his work on the general theory of relativity, which he had begun in 1907. In November 1915, he derived the exact value of the perihelion precession of the planet Mercury, which for over sixty years had been an unresolved problem, and he predicted how much a ray of light,emitted by a star and grazing the sun, should be deflected by the gravitation of the sun. In 1917 he applied general relativity to the study of the structure of the universe as a whole, raising thereby the status of cosmology, which theretofore had been a jumble of speculations, to that of a respectable scientific discipline. His prediction of the gravitational deflection of light was confirmed in 1919 by two British eclipse expeditions to West Africa and Brazil. When their results were announced in London, Einstein's theory was hailed by the President of the Royal Society as "perhaps the greatest achievement in the history of human thought." From that day on Einstein gained unprecedented international fame. In 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. But when the Nazi terror began in Germany, he, as a Jew and pacifist, and his theory, became the target of brute attacks. At Adolf Hitler's rise to power early in 1933, Einstein was in Belgium and, instead of returning to Germany, accepted a professorship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he remained until his death on April 18, 1955.
Later life and influence
During the twenty-two years in Princeton he resumed his work on quantum theory. Although he was one of its founding fathers, he rejected its generally accepted probabilistic interpretation because, influenced by the philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), whom he had read in his youth, he was utterly convinced of the causal dependence of all phenomena. Nor did he accept the prevailing view that the concept of a physical phenomenon includes irrevocably the specifics of the experimental conditions of its observation. For him "physics is an attempt conceptually to grasp reality as it is thought independently of its being observed" (Schlipp, p. 81). His famous 1935 paper, written in collaboration with physicists Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky challenged the completeness of orthodox quantum mechanics and had far-reaching consequences debated still today. But most of his time, until the day of his death, he devoted to the last great project of his life, the search for a unified field theory, which however remained unfinished.
Apart from his scientific work Einstein, using his prestige, engaged himself in promoting the causes of social justice, civil liberty, tolerance, and equity of all citizens before the law. He believed in the ideal of international peace and in the feasibility of establishing a world government, led by the superpowers, to which all nations should commit all their military resources. Although having signed in August 1939 the famous letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposing the development of an atomic bomb, he later admitted that, had he known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, he "would not have lifted a finger."
Having been, during his later years in Berlin, a victim of anti-Semitic propaganda, and being aware of the cruel persecutions of Jews by the Nazis, Einstein most actively supported Zionism, which he regarded as a moral, not a political, movement to restore his people's dignity necessary to survive in a hostile world. When once, in this context, he declared: "I am glad to belong to the Jewish people, although I do not regard it as 'chosen'" (Schlipp, p. 81) he obviously referred to his disbelief in the Bible, which he retained from his adolescence. And when he said, as quoted above, that he later recanted his juvenile freethinking "because of a better insight into causal connections," he referred to his realization that science, by revealing a divine harmony in the universe expressed by the laws of nature, imbued him with a feeling of awe and humility that made him believe in a "God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists." He defined the relation between science and religion in a much-quoted phrase: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." But retaining his early uncompromising rejection of anthropomorphisms, he stated that, following Spinoza, he cannot conceive of a God who rewards or punishes his creatures or has a will of the kind humans experience. In his Princeton years, Einstein wrote numerous articles and addresses on what he called his "cosmic religion" and protested strongly against the identification of his belief in an impersonal God with atheism. The philosophy of religion and the quest for religious truth had occupied his mind in those years so much that it has been said "one might suspect he was disguised as a theologian," as the Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt once said.
On December 31, 1999, the well-known weekly newsmagazine Time proclaimed Albert Einstein "Person of the Century" on the grounds that he was not only the century's greatest scientist, who altered forever our views on matter, time, space, and motion, but also a humanitarian, who fought for the causes of justice and peace, and "had faith in the beauty of God's handiwork."
Einstein, Albert. The World as I See It. New York: Covici-Friede, 1934.
Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown, 1949.
Einstein, Albert. Out of My Later Years. New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.
Fölsing, Albrecht. Albert Einstein: A Biography, trans. Ewald Osers. New York: Viking, 1997.
Holton, Gerald, and Elkana, Yehuda, eds. Albert Einstein: Historical and Cultural Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.
Jammer, Max. Einstein and Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.
Pais, Abraham. Subtle is the Lord—The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Schilpp, Paul Arthur, ed. Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist. New York: Tudor, 1949.
JAMMER, MAX. "Einstein, Albert." Encyclopedia of Science and Religion. Ed. J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen. Vol. 1. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003. 251-254. 2 vols. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Madison County Public. 10 Jan. 2009