Einstein Has Left the Building
Einstein Has Left the Building
New York Times Book Review, January 1, 2006
LAST fall, an engineering school hired me to help its students learn how to write, and installed me in the department of physics, which had a room to spare. Down the hall from my office, Albert Einstein's electric-haired visage beams from a poster for the "World Year of Physics 2005." The poster celebrates the centennial of the "miraculous year" when a young patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, revolutionized physics with five papers on relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. "Help make 2005 another Miraculous Year!" the poster exclaims.
As 2005 wound down with no miracles in sight, the poster took on an increasingly poignant cast, like a Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker. Passing the office of a physics professor who made the mistake of leaving his door open, I stopped and asked the question implicitly posed by the poster and all the Einstein commemoration: will there ever be another Einstein? The physicist scrunched up his face and replied, quite sensibly, "I'm not sure what that question means."
Let me try to be more precise: Einstein is far and away the most famous and beloved scientist of all time. We revere him not only as a scientific genius but also as a moral and even spiritual sage whose enduring aphorisms touch on matters from the sublime ("Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind") to the playful ("Gravity cannot be blamed for people falling in love"). Roughly 500 books about Einstein are in print, including at least a dozen published in the last year. Authors sometimes seem to compete with each other in the lavishness of their praise. Abraham Pais, Einstein's friend and biographer, called him "the divine man of the 20th century." To Dennis Overbye, author of "Einstein in Love," he was "an icon" of "humanity in the face of the unknown." In "God in the Equation," Corey Powell hailed Einstein as the "prophet" of "sci/religion," a spiritual path of revelation based on reason.
So, to rephrase my original question: will there ever be a second coming of Einstein? I have my doubts, but not because I think no modern physicists can match Einstein's intellectual gifts. In "Genius," his 1992 biography of the physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick pondered why physics hadn't produced more giants like Einstein. The paradoxical answer, Gleick suggested, is that there are so many brilliant physicists alive today that it has become harder for any individual to stand apart from the pack. In other words, our perception of Einstein as a towering figure is, well, relative.
Gleick's explanation makes sense to me. (To cite just one example, the theoretical physicist Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study is widely considered to be the most mathematically gifted physicist since not only Einstein, but Newton.) However, I would add a corollary: Einstein seems bigger than modern physicists because - to paraphrase the silent-film diva Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" - physics got small. For the first half of the last century, physics yielded not only deep insights into nature - which resonated with the disorienting work of creative visionaries like Picasso, Joyce and Freud - but also history-jolting technologies like the atomic bomb, nuclear power, radar, lasers, transistors and all the gadgets that make up the computer and communications industries. Physics mattered.
Today, government spending on physics research has stagnated, and the number of Americans pursuing doctorates has plunged to its lowest level since the early 1960's. Especially as represented by best sellers like "A Brief History of Time," by Stephen Hawking, and "The Elegant Universe," by Brian Greene, physics has also become increasingly esoteric, if not downright escapist. Many of physics' best and brightest are obsessed with fulfilling a task that occupied Einstein's latter years: finding a "unified theory" that fuses quantum physics and general relativity, which are as incompatible, conceptually and mathematically, as plaid and polka dots. But pursuers of this "theory of everything" have wandered into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality. In his new book "Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond," the physicist Lawrence Krauss frets that his colleagues' belief in hyperspace theories in spite of the lack of evidence will encourage the insidious notion that science "is merely another kind of religion."
These days, biology has displaced physics as the scientific enterprise with the most intellectual, practical and economic clout. Biology has given us thrilling, chilling technologies like genetic engineering, stem cells and cloning. Many of our most pressing problems are also biological: AIDS and other epidemics, overpopulation, species extinction, even warfare (if you believe what evolutionary psychologists say about the genetic roots of aggression). We naturally look for answers to these problems not from physicists, but from scientists grounded in biology like Jared Diamond, author of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" and "Collapse"; Edward O. Wilson, author of "Sociobiology" and "The Future of Life"; and Steven Pinker, author of "How the Mind Works" and "The Blank Slate."
Of all modern biologists, Francis Crick (who died in 2004 and originally trained as a physicist) probably came closest to Einstein in terms of scientific achievement. Together with James Watson, Crick unraveled the twin-corkscrew structure of DNA in 1953. He went on to show how the double helix mediates the genetic code that serves as the blueprint for all of life. Just as Einstein vainly sought a unified theory of physics, so did Crick in his final decades pursue the grail of a neurobiological theory of consciousness, which may be the deepest and hardest unsolved problem in biology. ("We probably need a few Einsteins" to solve the problem, the artificial-intelligence maven Rodney Brooks wrote in his book "Flesh and Machines.")
But neither Crick nor any other modern biologist has approached Einstein's extra-scientific reputation. Einstein took advantage of his fame to speak out on nuclear weapons, nuclear power, militarism and other vital issues through lectures, essays, interviews, petitions and letters to world leaders. When he spoke, people listened. After Israel's first president, the chemist Chaim Weizmann, died in 1952, the Israeli cabinet asked Einstein if he would consider becoming the country's president. Einstein politely declined - perhaps to the relief of the Israeli officials, given his avowed commitment to pacifism and a supernational government. (While awaiting Einstein's answer, David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, reportedly asked an aide, "What are we going to do if he accepts?")
It is hard to imagine any modern scientist, physicist or biologist, being lionized in this way. One reason may be that science as a whole has lost its moral sheen. We are more aware than ever of the downside of scientific advances, whether nuclear power or genetic recombination; moreover, as science has become increasingly institutionalized, it has come to be perceived as just another guild pursuing its own selfish interests alongside truth and the common good. But the other reason is that Einstein possessed a moral quality - described by Robert Oppenheimer, the dark angel of nuclear physics, as "a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn" - that set him apart even in his own time.
John Stachel, a physicist and editor of "Einstein's Miraculous Year," a reissue of Einstein's seminal 1905 papers, rejects the notion that no scientist will ever again evoke our awe and admiration the way Einstein did. "I hope and believe that the combination of technical, philosophical and, yes, moral concerns and talents, although extremely rare, will not prove to be unique," Stachel told me recently. The budding scientists and engineers I encounter in my job give me hope that science has a bright future. But I suspect that we will never see Einstein's like again, because he was the product of a unique convergence of time and temperament. Besides, Einstein didn't think he lived up to his own reputation either. "I am no Einstein," he once said. Of course, such modesty only makes us admire and miss him more.