Thursday, March 03, 2005

Honoring Albert Einstein

Thomas Oliphant wrote a very nice column on March 1 in the Boston Globe. The topic was the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "miracle year," 1905, during which he produced six ground-breaking papers that revolutionized physics and related sciences. Speaking of that year, Einstein said, ''a storm broke loose in my mind." Oliphant wrote:

The giant forward strides taken inside his head set the stage for a revolution in human understanding of light, the atom, time, space, motion, and matter. His output that year included a certain equation about energy and matter that is known around the world by people who have no idea what it means. Taken together, these strides have had impacts far beyond physics into philosophy, politics, religion, even art and music. ...

The only burst of work on this scale in science was Isaac Newton's work in 1665 to 1666 when he produced findings on the makeup of light, the nature of gravity, and a method of mathematic calculation called calculus.

That is ironic, because Einstein's breakthroughs challenged Newtonian concepts of fixed relationships and immutable laws. They came less than a decade before World War I shattered a long, ordered European peace, just as Picasso was getting established in art and classical music was about to meet Igor Stravinsky. Time and space were not so fixed. Absolutes and rules turned out to be worth challenging. How delightful that communists and fundamentalists alike denounced the implications of relativity.

Einstein has always been a wonderful mystery to me. It's nothing short of amazing to think of an unknown worker in a patent office, only 26 years old, bursting forth with ideas and concepts that changed the entire world. Part of the mystery is the power of human intellect. I read somewhere, for which I don't have a source, that even Einstein used significantly less than the full theoretical capacity of the mind. What unleashes that power in one human being? An unknown, fortuitous chemical accident in the brain? Or is it just magic, or maybe God?

One fact I can never forget about Einstein is how close we came to losing him. He made the highly intelligent decision (he was Einstein, after all) to get out of Berlin in 1933 and come to America. That denied the Nazis one more worthless Jew to feed into their death machine. And then I always wonder--how many young Jews in the first blush of genius were exterminated like vermin by the Nazis and their innumerable helpers?

Oh, I almost forgot one other thing that had nothing to do with the topic of Oliphant's column. The column was 13 paragraphs long. Oliphant threw in one obligatory paragraph, the seventh, along with the first sentence of the next to attack President Bush. The paragraph is completely irrelevant to everything that came before and went after it. It says:

The Bush administration, however, has chosen to dishonor the triumph of America's best known immigrant. Instead, it is starving the research activities of people working on potential breakthroughs across the board, especially those attempting pure research and thought of the kind that Einstein devoted his life to. It is also erecting political roadblocks to other forms of research on the basis of religion-based absolutes. It is scorning science in its policies on the environment, needle exchange and sex education to curb the spread of HIV-AIDS, and climate change. The Bush idea of faith in science's potential is best expressed in the billions being flushed down the toilet for missile defense and work on a new generation of nuclear weapons. ... In lieu of a science-friendly government to celebrate Einstein, we nonexperts at least have a marvelous book to turn to, hot off the Harvard University Press.

Am I the only one getting tired of these childish liberal fits of pique?

But back to the subject: Here's a short biography of Einstein.


Blogger Kevin said...


Your not the only one, I guarantee you. Seems strange that a tribute to Albert Einstein would end that way after all didn't the President increase AIDs funding in Africa, and doesn't the Admistration support the Ballistic Missile Defense program that will multiply scientific, engineering, and techological breakthroughs.

After all I heard this morning on NPR that actual scientist believe that it will be easier to get fusion energy out of a bubble than to hit a ballistic missile with a missile. Seems to me that the BMD is the cutting edge of science.


10:54 PM, March 03, 2005  
Blogger RomanWanderer said...

Good bio. And finally, a semi flattering picture.

12:24 PM, March 04, 2005  
Blogger carla said...

Part of the thrust of Oliphant's piece is that minds like Einstein may not be able to reach fruition without government funding. It's a point that Oliphant makes saliently and correctly.

Incidentally...Bush didn't increase AIDS funding. He made a speech about increasing it and then never went to Congress to ask for the money. Another promise unkept.

Further, if the money going to missile defense was just to RESEARCH the thing until a real and viable option could present itself...then we'd have something. Instead we're sinking money into the Star Wars pit hand over fist without regard to the results of research.'s the only science the Bush Team appears to embrace. Certainly the science of stem cells is spurned. As is the science of global warming. And don't even get me started on Bush's notions (or more correctly, lack thereof) of forest health science.

10:16 PM, March 04, 2005  
Blogger Kevin said...

Wow Carla,

That is a laundry list of complaints that nobody except this President has even attempted to solve. The real deal is that for all the talk of science and environmental stewardship, the Democrats have done absolutely nothing.

I guess instead of making uniformed complaints maybe we should actually see what the President has done compared to what the Democrats in congress(or anywhere else) have done, the President comes out on top.

As for the science of Global Warming, I would say that Global Warming is more fearmongering than science.


1:26 AM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Another great essay!

Huh? Wake up and smell the coffee. What's needed most for "minds like Einstein" to be able "to reach fruition" is that they not be killed by minds like Hitler or Bin Laden or forced to serve their ends. For that a free society and a strong military still seems to be a prerequisite.

I have a brother who is a theoretical physicist, and right now he's spending his time trying to make sure that terrorists don't make your world go WHUMP without too many of our troops getting killed in the defensive process. Believe me, he would not feel comfortable being a physicist in a state like Saddam Hussein's.

The EU has been brooding over the fact that they spend less on research and development than we do. It takes a free, strong and healthy society to be able to afford Einsteins, and a great one to permit the Einsteins to leave if they wish.

As for government funding, it certainly helps, but Einstein didn't need any to make his astonishing leaps. Oliphant broke into chittering idiocy in that paragraph, IMO.

9:55 AM, March 05, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Carla, I read the column a number of times in writing the post, and I've read it again just now. The only place in the column your points are addressed is in the paragraph that's irrelevant to the rest of the column. This has absolutely nothing to do with Einstein and the topic of the column.

Maybe I'm missing something--if you read it backwards, can you divine some sort of hidden message?

In fact, Einstein's story is the story of many geniuses of the arts and sciences. They sought refuge in America because of freedom to think and follow their genius, and they found it, to the lasting benefit of mankind. What empowered them was freedom, not greater or lesser levels of government funding. This should make you proud of your country and what it stands for.

6:43 PM, March 05, 2005  

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