March 15, 2007

Krista's Journal: The Revelation of Einstein's Social Justice

March 15, 2007

There was nothing in Albert Einstein's early life to suggest that he might become a crusader for moral right. At a young age, he disavowed Jewish piety for the reasoned wonder of geometry and the natural order that science alone could describe. And he did not look back until reason itself came under siege in early 20th-century Germany. There, one by one, his esteemed scientific colleagues threw themselves behind warmongering nationalism and later fascism. He became compelled, it seems, to formulate an ethical way of being in a world that fell far short of the order and elegance of mathematics. Learning of Einstein's legacy of ethical thought and action was revelatory for me. This program is rich with surprising facts and details about Einstein's work for social justice. He used his unusual fame to agitate for the Jewish people and for political prisoners in fascist Europe. He championed the nonviolent resistance of his contemporary, India's Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi, like Jesus and Moses and Buddha, was one of the figures Einstein identified as a "spiritual genius" — more necessary to human dignity, security, and joy than the discoverers of objective knowledge. In this program, you'll hear Einstein himself praising Gandhi as the most important political figure of his age. "We should strive to do things in his spirit," Einstein told a United Nations interviewer, "not to use violence in fighting for our cause, but by non-participation in anything you believe is evil." Once he fled Germany for good in 1933, Einstein saw racism in America as evil, and he condemned segregation with a clarity that eluded most Americans of that time. Having escaped anti-Semitism, he was appalled by this structural injustice in the land of freedom and equality that he had chosen as home. Never one to mince words, he called it "a disease of white people." S. James Gates, Jr., an African-American and a leading physicist, describes how stunned he was to learn of this passion of Einstein — long after he launched a career as one of Einstein's scientific inheritors. Gates suggests a fascinating correlation between Einstein's capacity for ethical engagement and his scientific creativity. Einstein's most brilliant achievements emerged, as Gates sees it, from penetrating "what if" questions, which he articulated as "parables" and worked relentlessly to comprehend. For example, Einstein traced his discovery of the theory of relativity back to wondering what would happen to space and time if he could ride along on a beam of light. Gates believes that this imaginative mindset inclined Einstein always to question the parameters of reality as given. He asked "what if" about the condition of human beings as well as the forces of nature, and so acquired the animating ethical virtue of empathy. Eventually Einstein seemed able to put himself in African-American shoes, just as he rode that beam of light. The virtue of empathy, however, fell short in Einstein's personal life. It was hard to be Einstein's wife, as biographer Tom Levenson says, and hard to be his child. Levenson has wrestled with the complexity of Einstein's humanity and his dark side. As with other "great" human beings, Levenson suggests, one is tempted to idealize Einstein's genius and make him a saint. Levenson ultimately finds a kind of solace as well as a challenge in the knowledge that Einstein was fully human and flawed. He both achieved greatness and made mistakes, in science as in life. The interplay between science and religion, or objectivity and spirituality, seems fraught in our time with new rancor and suspicion. Several of the scientists we invited to appear on these two programs on Einstein expressed an initial wariness, for that reason. But in my experience, explorations of complex scientific insight — ancient or modern — need not lead to the facile and polarizing argument often assumed in our popular culture. Scientific and religious perspectives can enrich and enlarge each other and our understanding. Many of history's greatest scientists — including Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein — saw it this way. Einstein did have another concern that speaks more pointedly, perhaps, to the true conflicts and opportunities of our age. He feared that humankind might not be equal to the moral responsibility that scientific and technological advances require. Tom Levenson speaks compellingly about Einstein's conviction that science should naturally inspire a transnational community representing a kind of moral order, not just an accumulation of knowledge. This ideal was profoundly crushed in the 20th century's world wars, the Holocaust, and later the Cold War. Terrible destruction was made possible in part by innovations in chemistry and physics. Technology in his generation, Einstein once said, was like a razor blade in the hands of a three year old. This shocking image remains pertinent today. It seems a strange echo of Einstein's understanding of the "illusion" of the passage of time that so much, indeed, stays the same in human life and human society. Yet much changes also, and I find it irresistible to imagine how Einstein might embrace the expansive transnational possibilities of globalization and the Internet. Surely he would welcome the fluid pluralism of our age. And, he would take solace in that fact that, as he reassured the Queen of Belgium in the mid-20th century, the music of Mozart is indeed still beloved in the 21st century and "as beautiful and tender as it always was and always will be." So is the music Einstein loved of Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson, which we play in tribute to him in this program. All in all, these two programs leave me with an exhilarating sense of the immediacy and vastness of both reality and of mystery, of the importance of asking seemingly unanswerable questions, and of the "rationality" of insisting on a world in which ethics, theology, and "spiritual genius" claim their place alongside and in collaboration with the wondrous capacities of science.

Recommended Reading

Image of Einstein in Berlin
Author: Thomas Levenson
Publisher: Bantam (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 496 pages

Once again, there is a varied and longer list of recommended books on our Web site, encompassing the human, ethical, and spiritual aspects of Einstein's life and thought. I must recommend Tom Levenson's Einstein in Berlin, as an introduction not only to Einstein's life but to the drama of the 20th century that he shaped and was shaped by.

Image of Einstein on Race and Racism
Author: Fred Jerome, Rodger Taylor
Publisher: Rutgers University Press (2005)
Binding: Hardcover, 224 pages

Also, Einstein on Race and Racism is a small, readable work that offers an unsual view of Einstein as well as a vivid reminder of the intense racial segregation of mid-20th century America, even in the presumably enlightened township of Princeton.

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is a theoretical physicist and John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland. He's written widely on string theory, and has advanced unified field theories of the type first envisioned by Einstein.

is Associate Professor of Science Writing at MIT. He's produced "Einstein Revealed" for NOVA and has authored several books on science and technology, including Einstein in Berlin.