The Other 1905 Revolution | The Nation


The Other 1905 Revolution

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Einstein's letters tend to be half as long as Born's and twice as pithy, and are almost always prefaced with an apology for having not written back sooner. Though Born and Einstein only met in person once, they grew to address each other in the tone of lifelong friends. There's no shortage of tough honesty in the letters. There's even the occasional spat. Several correspondences are consumed by discussion over whether Einstein should grant a journalist permission to publish a book called Conversations With Einstein. Born and his wife were concerned that the author would depict Einstein unflatteringly. "Your own jokes will be smilingly thrown back at you," Hedi Born warns. "This book will constitute your moral death sentence for all but four or five of your friends." Her husband pleads with Einstein, "You do not understand this, in these matters you are a little child."

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Joshua Foer
Joshua Foer is a science journalist living in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the...

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Einstein replied, "The whole affair is a matter of indifference to me, as is all the commotion, and the opinion of each and every human being." Nonetheless, Einstein tried and failed to stop the publication of the book, which even Born later admitted wasn't nearly as bad as he had feared. Einstein's detachment is a persistent theme throughout the letters. He tells Born, "I hibernate like a bear in its cave," and in the same letter he off-handedly informs Born of his wife's death, which he describes as just one more thing accentuating his bearish feeling. Einstein's seeming indifference to worldly things leads Born to comment that "for all his kindness, sociability and love of humanity, he was nevertheless totally detached from his environment and the human beings included in it."

Ironically, the vague constellation of traits that, according to Rigden, stimulated Einstein's early discoveries may also help explain why he spent the second half of his career as an outsider to the quantum revolution. The same aesthetic instincts that led him to recognize the inelegance of the old theories about light and space may have blinded him to the decidedly unbeautiful reality of quantum mechanics. The same "stubbornness of a mule" that kept him on the trail of the general theory of relativity for a decade may also have kept him on less fruitful paths later in his career. And the same self-confidence that gave the 26-year-old patent clerk the audacity to challenge the central precepts of classical physics may have prevented him from recognizing his own failure of imagination with regard to quantum mechanics.

Heisenberg writes in his introduction, "In the course of scientific progress it can happen that a new range of empirical data can be completely understood only when the enormous effort is made to...change the very structure of the thought processes. In the case of quantum mechanics, Einstein was apparently no longer willing to take this step, or perhaps no longer able to do so."

But another explanation is possible. Einstein always held that posterity would value his ideas more than his peers did. He was right. Again and again, work that was at first deemed loopy has been vindicated. The quest for a unified theory, once an emblem of Einstein's isolation, has become contemporary physics' Holy Grail. It's possible that Einstein's greatest intellectual gamble, his repudiation of quantum theory, may yet prove as prescient. Indeed, though they are a minority, many highly regarded scientists still harbor the deep discomfort that Einstein felt about quantum theory. In a 1944 letter to Born on the subject, Einstein wrote, "No doubt the day will come when we will see whose instinctive attitude was the correct one." That day may yet be some time off.

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