Originally published in The Tablet in March, 2005, during the centennial year of Einstein, and the month when Pope John Paul II died. It also ran here on The Catholic Astronomer in 2015; it’s slightly edited for 2018.
The intense but often erratic news coverage of the events in Rome following the death of Pope John Paul II could tempt one to despair at the state of journalism. With their talent for misstating the obvious, can we have any hope in entrusting to them the legacy of John Paul II, or the significance of his successor? Hope, however, can be found in an example from science, and how the popular press has served the reputation of another giant of the 20th century.
The year 2005 was the year of Einstein. In his honor, the UN declared 2005 to be the World Year of Physics. April 18, 2005, marked the 50th anniversary of his death; and it was exactly 100 years ago that year that in four famous papers he demonstrated the particulate nature of matter and light, and then revolutionized our sense of common sense by showing that time was equivalent to space, and energy equivalent to mass.
We have all grown up in a culture that has produced its own equivalence: the name “Einstein” equals genius, while genius implies shaggy white hair and a German accent. But how did that happen?
The biographies tell us when it happened. Einstein was a patent office clerk with a newly-minted PhD from Zurich when he submitted his famous four papers in 1905. Following their success, in 1908 he was a lecturer in Bern; a professor in Prague in 1911; and given a chair in Berlin in 1914. By 1915 he had worked out his General Theory of Relativity (a far more daunting, and revolutionary, result than the 1905 paper) and his scientific reputation was set.
But it was only when his theory’s prediction of the bending of starlight by the Sun was demonstrated during an eclipse in 1919 that he became a household name. “Revolution in science – New theory of the Universe – Newtonian ideas overthrown” ran the headlines in the Times on 7 November, 1919. And they were right. But how did they know?
And why did the rest of the world care? Visiting America in 1921 he lectured to an overflowing hall at Princeton and remarked, “I never realized that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis.”
We’re familiar with the cult of celebrity today, and we’re used to seeing how reputations can be created and destroyed overnight on the whim of an anonymous reporter, editor, or blogger. Our worship of fame is balanced only by our cynicism about it. In the scientific world where I live, it’s almost accepted as an axiom that any scientist who gets on television is a fake. And yet I’ve also experienced that even scientists will be more likely to attend a talk by someone they’ve seen on TV.
But unlike the three-month half-life of today’s radioactive reputations, Einstein’s fame has survived for nearly 100 years. It has endured anti-Semitic outrages in Germany, anti-Communist hysteria in America, and the thirst of glory-seeking pop historians to topple every statue in sight. And, most remarkably of all, that reputation has proved to well-deserved.
There were no shortage of giants in the 20th century science – Curie, Bohr, Eddington, Lemaître, the list seems endless – and every year brings another new dozen winners of Nobel prizes. Indeed, many elements of Einstein’s theories had already been suggested by Planck, Lorentz, and others. But where they were suggesting tweaks on classical physical models, Einstein recognized in their tweaks a basis for a whole new way of looking at all of physics. He transformed the way we understood very nature of physics itself.
Galileo and Newton had shown how the action of everything could be reduced to mathematical laws in a relentless application of common sense that threatened (as Blake and the Romantics complained) to reduce all of life to mere mechanical cause and effect. Today we appreciate that such mechanisms are but approximations of a fundamentally unpredictable universe. But between Newton and the quantum revolution, Einstein did a far more surprising thing.
He showed that even the predictable could be unexpected; that even in a mechanistic universe, you can’t take anything for granted. The warped space-time of General Relativity has resisted the best attempts of a century of popularizers to explain in a way that doesn’t boggle the imagination; but nonetheless it remains the best theory to explain what we observe both in our measures of the cosmos and the workings of the atom.
Blandly applying the lessons of relativity to everyday life almost always gets it wrong. Relativity certainly does not say that “everything is relative”; indeed, it says they opposite, postulating an unchangeable entity – the speed of light – that remains constant and true in every frame of reference. Nor did it mean the downfall of Newton’s laws, which remain our best approximation for most ordinary circumstances.
The biggest jolt of relativity in fact is that it is a startling counter-example to Occam’s Razor. It is a case where the simplest explanation – the common sense of Newton and Galileo – turned out not to be correct.
And so maybe, in its way, Einstein’s fame is also an antidote to our cynicism. Sometimes, the newspapers get it right. Sometimes, the popular fascination is deserved. Sometimes, glory is more than a marketed commodity.