Commentary Magazine


On Albert Einstein

One day at Fenner’s (the university cricket ground at Cambridge), just before the last war, G. H. Hardy and I were talking about Einstein. Hardy was a pure mathematician of world class, thirty years older than I was, but a close friend. Hardy had met Einstein several times, and I had recently returned from visiting him. Hardy was saying that in his lifetime there had only been two men in the world, in all the fields of human achievement, science, literature, politics, anything you like, who qualified for the Bradman class. For those not familiar with cricket or with Hardy’s personal idiom, I ought to mention that “the Bradman class” denoted the highest kind of excellence: it would include Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Newton, Archimedes, and maybe a dozen others. Well, said Hardy, there had only been two additions in his lifetime. One was Lenin and the other was Einstein.

I wasn’t quarreling with that. It was clear, all the theoretical physicists told us so, that if Einstein had not existed, 20th-century physics would itself have been different: this one could say of no one else, not even Rutherford or Bohr: to make that kind of difference was, incidentally, a necessary condition for entry into the Bradman class. Further, his character was inextricably mixed up with his achievement. Neither Hardy nor I were given to exaggerated estimates of human virtue: but again we took it for granted that if the word “noble” had any meaning, this was the noblest man we had met.

Good, gentle, and wise. Hardy recalled that some bright journalist had thrown off that description of Einstein: could I think of any three adjectives more exact? Here, for the first time, I began to hedge. Yes, they were true; but they didn’t tell the whole truth, or anything like it. If one was talking in that kind of shorthand, one ought to add another adjective. But what should it be, without disturbing the impression? “Obstinate” was too weak and too carping, “counter-suggestible” was faintly grotesque, “independent” or “non-conformist” did not say anything like enough, “deliberately impersonal” was a half-truth. There was something in him that I couldn’t describe but was stuttering toward. That conversation took place nearly thirty years ago, and whenever I have thought about Einstein since, I have still found myself stuttering.

To begin with, he was much more unlike other men and women than other eminent persons whom I knew as a young man. In psychological structure, though not of course in gifts, one can find plenty of parallels to Lloyd George, Rutherford, Wells, Hardy: most of us have met people bearing them a family resemblance in the course of our workaday lives. Churchill was much stranger. In some ways, I have come to think, there were faint likenesses between Churchill and Einstein. I don’t mean that they were alike in terms of spirit or intellect: in those respects no one could bear comparison with Einstein. But in some aspects of their psychological nature, in the ways in which their characters formed themselves, I believe one can find some links. If I had thought of this while Hardy was alive (he had all the Bloomsbury contempt for Churchill), he would have repudiated me for good.

As with Churchill, there were some bizarre paradoxes in Einstein’s career. I suspect that in natures like theirs, where the ego starts abnormally strong—though Einstein, unlike Churchill, learned to subjugate his personal self or forget it—these paradoxes are more likely to occur than with less inflexible men. Anyway, Einstein was universally recognized at thirty-seven as the greatest theoretical physicist of his age, the equal of Newton. That is still his ranking: the work he did between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-seven stands there forever. But—it isn’t that, like Newton, he gave up physics. It remained the prime internal devotion of his life, he worked at it with the ultimate concentration which was one of his supreme qualities until he died at seventy-six: and almost all his colleagues thought, and still think, that he wasted the second half of his life.

There were other paradoxes. He was the voice of liberal science, the prophet of reason and peace, for a generation. At the end, he believed, without bitterness, in the depth of his gentle and tranquil spirit, that it had all been in vain. He was the most complete of internationalists: he broke away from the Jewish community, he hated all separatisms and nationalisms: yet he was compelled to take his place as the most eminent Jew alive, the committed Zionist. He wanted to lose his personality in the world of nature; but that personality became one of the most publicized of the century, and his face—at first glance the face of an inspired and saintly golliwog—as well known as a film star’s.

Just to add to the list, he was credited, or blamed, with a paradox that did not exist. It has become a legend that he was responsible for the atomic bomb—that he, the prophet of human brotherhood, had to take on his conscience the slaughter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the possibility of genocides to come. It would have been an irony, but it was not true. In practice, the discovery of nuclear fission owed nothing to his work: and his part in sending the famous letter to Roosevelt in 1939 was not significant. I will try to depersonalize this story a little later.

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It was, of course, his moral character which demonstrated itself in those paradoxes of his life. That character was already formed before he was sixteen. Here we have to rely on the facts (his career is unusually well documented, especially through Swiss sources) and to take his own comments, written when he was an old man, as rationalizations after the event:

I have never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a circle of friends, nor even to my own family.

My personal external circumstances played only a minor role in my thoughts and my emotions.

Perception of this world by thought, leaving out everything subjective, became, partly consciously, partly unconsciously, my supreme aim. [Of himself, in early adolescence.]

When I was still a rather precocious young man, I already realized most vividly the futility of the hopes and aspirations that most men pursue throughout their lives.

Well-being and happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a Pig.

These statements (which came from the bone of his character, and altogether omit the jolly, laughing flesh) were written in old age. They couldn’t have been made by many men—perhaps by Spinoza, whom Einstein so much admired and in spirit resembled. But, even from Spinoza or Einstein, they need a bit of understanding. After all, these men did live on this earth like the rest of us.

Einstein’s family were easygoing, freethinking petit-bourgeois, whose ancestors had lived in Swabia for generations. They were Jewish by origin, but agnostic and indifferent to religion. It was a tolerant and casual home: uncomfortably casual inasmuch as his father, who started a small electrical factory in Munich when Einstein was one year old (in 1880), did not have the drive to make a go of it. But they were never really poor.

The young Einstein was not a brilliant child. Intellectually, he seemed backward (this was also true of Churchill). He was late in learning to talk. All this is singular, particularly so for a future mathematician. As a rule, mathematical talent shows itself at a very early age. A high proportion of eminent mathematicians have asked questions about large or infinite numbers before they were three: the stories about Hardy and Dirac, for example, are well authenticated. The only really good juvenile mathematician I have personally watched was in good form at the age of four. Now that we are beginning to learn more about this sharp and specific talent, I believe that we shall normally know whether children do or do not possess it before they have learned to read.

Well, Einstein was not a mathematician in the sense Hardy was, but no one would suggest that he was devoid of mathematical ability. Little or none of this was detected in his early childhood. He did begin, at the age of ten, to show precocity: but it was a precocity, not of intellect, but of character.

His parents, who might have been Catholic converts if they had had any religion at all, sent him first to a Catholic primary school. That he didn’t mind. At ten he went on to one of the Munich Gymnasia. That he hated: and he hated it for just the same reasons as would have made him hate it at seventy. It was militaristic: at once, and forever, he detested German militarism. Children marched and drilled, teachers barked, it was a barracks. In later life he became as unqualified a nonconformist as a man can be. He often rationalized his actions, but they deserve some inspection. At ten he was already certain that this disciplined machine was not for him. He had a horror of constraint, in any shape or form, physical, emotional, intellectual. Zwang. Did I know the German word, he asked me, as we talked about English manners. In the Munich high school he made his first strike against Zwang.

He did, in fact, both a brave and an odd thing. He became, for a short period, about a year, a religious Jew. It was an attempt, as he saw it later, to “liberate himself from purely personal links.” It was also an attempt to mark himself out from the conformity which surrounded him. As we shall see, he repeated this pattern at the height of his fame when, without belief, he once more stamped himself as a Jew, an active Zionist. If he was going to be identified with any group—and that was difficult, so unyielding was his ego—then it must be with the poor and persecuted of the world.

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This decision, like each single decision that he took in his life, came from within himself. At ten he seems to have rested as much certainty in his own thought as he did at seventy: his own thought, and that of no one else alive. The religious phase did not last long. Once more he applied his own thought to it, and at twelve he emerged into the kind of cosmic religious non-belief which lasted him a lifetime. He used the word God so often that people were often deceived. From his boyhood he possessed deep religious feeling: but when he spoke of God, he did not mean what a religious believer means (although he might perhaps have accepted Bonhoeffer’s God). As he said himself in middle-age: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all being, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.”

That conclusion he reached in early adolescence, brooding by himself as a pupil—not at all a distinguished one—at the Munich high school. With the same total independence, he decided what to work at. He was quite good, no more, at physics and mathematics. Most of the academic drill struck him as intolerable, and he would not play. In this he was quite unlike most clever boys and nearly all future academics. People like Rutherford (who was as original in creative power, though not in temperament) took what they were given and made the best of it. Hardy disliked Winchester, his English private school, but was a born competitor who wanted the prizes and the top Cambridge scholarships. To Einstein, competition meant nothing: he had no temptation to compromise or please. Here again one can see a ghostly resemblance to the young Churchill, unable or unwilling to make any serious effort at school, except at writing English essays, which he happened to enjoy.

Einstein’s father was a peculiarly unsuccessful businessman. The Munich business was a flop, and so, more or less absentmindedly, he moved on to Milan, where he did slightly worse. That move happened when Einstein was fifteen; he was left behind in Munich to complete his schooling. Since his mind had been totally independent before, it could not become more so: but he had six months alone and reached three more solitary decisions.

He arrived in Milan and announced them to a family which seems to have been as cheerful about them as he was himself. The first was to leave the Munich school, which he hated, and to abandon the final examination, which he despised. The second was to leave the Jewish community, to which he still formally belonged. The third, and the most dramatic, was to give up his German citizenship. He decided to have no obligations which he did not make himself. His moral confidence was absolute. He was enough, just on his own.

As an anticlimax, he promptly failed his entrance examination to the Zurich Polytechnic. He wanted to study there, in order to become an electrical engineer—which sounds quaint, because of the legend of Einstein’s unpracticality; in fact he was no more unpractical than Hardy was absentminded: these cheap stereotypes are hard to destroy. Although Einstein’s father could not find a franc, better-off members of the Einstein family—scattered all over Europe in the Jewish wanderings—thought a Zurich education might not be a bad idea, and were prepared to scrape together an allowance for him until he graduated. Not entirely surprisingly, he passed the entrance examination in the subjects he had studied, and failed in those he had not.

So he, already mature to an extent most men never achieve, had to put in a year in a Swiss cantonal school, and, with a trace of cussedness, enjoyed it. From there he duly passed into Zurich, now intending to train as a physics teacher. As usual, he immediately came into opposition with Zwang. Not that he didn’t like the Swiss, who, in his view, were civilized and democratic. This time Zwang cropped up in the shape of examinations. The curriculum could have been better devised, thought Einstein. The examinations so constrained his mind that when he had graduated, he did not want to think about scientific problems for a year.

Actually, he was quite lucky. He was taught by one man of genius, Minkowski, who later recognized, after Einstein’s early publications, that his pupil was a much greater genius (but as a student “a lazy dog”). The general standard of the Zurich Polytechnic was high. He made friends who thought that he was a superior being. He was probably as well off at Zurich as he would have been at Hardy’s Cambridge.

The truth was, no university in the 90’s could have contained or satisfied him—and it is doubtful whether any university could satisfy a young Einstein today. He was beyond the normal limits of independence. He passed his final examination all right, though not spectacularly. But Zurich did not keep him on as an assistant (i.e., the lowest grade of postgraduate job). That was a gross error in talent-spotting: it was almost the only misadventure which rankled with him. And yet, at almost exactly the same time, Cambridge failed to keep the much more accommodating Rutherford, who, instead of being given a fellowship, was encouraged to remove himself to Montreal.

So Einstein was a graduate, but unemployed. For a while it looked as though he was unemployable. He took one or two temporary teaching posts. He had no money at all. The Einstein clan had financed his education, but now they expected him to earn a living. He had one old suit, which didn’t matter, and little food, which did. He was rescued by a generous and admiring friend, Marcel Grossman, who became himself a good scientist. Grossman persuaded his father, a well-to-do Swiss industrialist, to recommend Einstein for a position.

The position was, of all extraordinary things, that of patent examiner in the Swiss federal patent office. As an even more extraordinary thing, Einstein was appointed. The job was not especially arduous, and Einstein turned out to be good at it. One of his greatest intellectual gifts, in small matters as well as great, was to strip off the irrelevant frills from a problem: that happens to be the prime gift of a good patent examiner. He was also, as I have said, not at all devoid of practical sense. He liked gadgets, understood them, and even tried to invent them himself. Thus he did his patent work at great speed, efficiently, soon got extra pay, and was left, at twenty-three, with time to meditate, day after day, night after night, week after week, with the kind of concentration which was like a man grasping an object in his fist, on the nature of the physical universe.

He needed only one resource, which was his own insight. His thinking, of course, carried abstraction very far, but it is important to realize that his insight was first and foremost a physical one. At Zurich he had spent most of his time in the physics laboratory. When he did much of his major work his knowledge of mathematics was, by the standard of the top theoretical physicists, thin and patchy: he was much less well equipped than Clerk Maxwell, Born, Heisenberg, Pauli: to an extent, he had to pick up his mathematics as he went along, for the rest of his career. He said himself: “. . . my intuition in the mathematical field was not strong enough to be able to distinguish with basic conviction the fundamentally important from the rest of the more or less dispensable erudition. Moreover, my interest in acquiring a knowledge of Nature was infinitely stronger, and as a student it was not clear to me that the approach to a deeper knowledge of the principles of physics was bound up with the most intricate mathematical methods. This only dawned on me after years of independent scientific work.”

It only dawned on him, in fact, when his physical insight had already led him to solve some of the great problems: when the special theory of relativity was behind him, and he was brooding on the general one; it was then he saw that the physical insight had to be interwoven with the heavy machinery of the tensor calculus.

It was like him to begin his work—and to achieve more than most mathematical physicists in a lifetime—with the aid of nothing but his own pure, unaided thought. No one else would have started with that suspicion of mathematical techniques. At twenty-three, he was already the man whom the world later wished, and failed, to understand. He had absolute confidence. He had absolute faith in his own insight. He was set on submerging his personality, for good and all, in the marvels of the natural world.

No one has stripped away the claims of self more ruthlessly, not even Niels Bohr, another of the saints of science. But it is wrong to romanticize anyone, even Einstein. It seems to me that a man has to possess a pretty hefty ego to need to subdue it so totally. A more naturally self-forgetful man wouldn’t have required such a moral effort to forget himself. He did it: perhaps that was why, when I met him, I felt that he had been shaped by moral experience. It is here that one can pick out the black-and-white difference from Churchill, a similarly structured personality. Churchill, too, had a pretty hefty ego: but he didn’t submerge it or even try to, he simply let it rip. It was probably only in action that he felt the same impersonality into which, by a moral imperative, Einstein serenely made himself.

But the old Adam-ego was not quite drowned. I think one ought to be a little wary of his attitude to the conventions. Yes, no one has been less conventional: but his rationalizations were somewhat too masterly. Somehow a man isn’t so totally unconventional as that if he is absolutely free. It’s easier sometimes to wear socks, than to explain that socks get holes in them. It takes too much effort to question each social action. Free-and-easy people take the conventions more lightly, sometimes dropping them, sometimes drifting along. It’s more convenient, I should have thought, to get into a dinner jacket than to hack away at shirtsleeves with a razor in order to make a kind of under-vest: but Einstein would firmly have thought the opposite. About him, even in Jehovianic old age, there was still a residue—no, not really a residue but a vestigial air—of a nonconformist from a Central European café the sort of character one used to meet between the wars, who made an impact by wearing odd shoes and his coat on backward.

As a very young man, when he was producing great discoveries, Einstein’s only society was in just those cafés. He was the least gregarious of humankind—he spoke of his own “unconcealed lack of the need to frequent my fellow human beings and human communities.” Yet he enjoyed the desultory easygoing European nights, the cigars, the coffee, the talk; he was both witty and merry, he had a reverberating laugh, he didn’t give a damn. When life had sobered him, when he felt responsibility for so much, he missed those nights. He never got used to American parties, where people drank hard and didn’t want to argue about ultimates. So far as he was ever at home, at any time in his life, it was in Bern and Zurich before World War I.

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He got married in Bern, as soon as he took on his job at the patent office there. About this marriage, and his first wife, there is a conflict of evidence: much of the biographical material is good (there is an especially attractive book by Antonia Vallentin), but here there is some factual mystery. This first wife was a fellow-student at Zurich, four years older than he was: she was a Serbian called Mileva Maric. Here the certainty stops. She seems to have had a limp. Most of Einstein’s Swiss contemporaries thought she was gloomy and incompetent; she may have been a genuine depressive. None of this sounds alluring, but other reports give her a Slav nakedness to life, a defenseless charm.

Was the marriage unhappy from the beginning? This will presumably never be known, though I picked up what may have been a clue. Einstein was utterly reticent about his personal life: a “puritanical reserve” was necessary, he said, to a scientist seeking truth. Antonia Vallentin, who knew his second wife well, suggests that he was a man of powerful sensuality. When I met him, that was certainly one of the impressions that he gave: but it is entirely possible, and perhaps more probable than possible, that he, like Tolstoy and Gandhi, both of whom he revered, felt that his sensuality was one of the chains of personality that ought to be slipped off. Anyway, in his first marriage he soon had two sons—those two he certainly loved. The elder gave him no trouble, and in due course became an excellent engineering professor in California. The younger one seems to have inherited, in an acute form, his mother’s melancholia, and brought Einstein in middle-age what was perhaps his deepest private grief.

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Meanwhile, his first child born, Einstein, twenty-six years old, only three years away from crude privation, still a patent examiner, published in the Annalen der Physik in 1905 five papers on entirely different subjects. Three of them were among the greatest in the history of physics. One, very simple, gave the quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect—it was this work for which, sixteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Another dealt with the phenomenon of Brownian motion, the apparently erratic movement of tiny particles suspended in a liquid: Einstein showed that these movements satisfied a clear statistical law. This was like a conjuring trick, easy when explained: before it, decent scientists could still doubt the concrete existence of atoms and molecules: this paper was as near to a direct proof of their concreteness as a theoretician could give. The third paper was the special theory of relativity, which quietly amalgamated space, time, and matter into one fundamental unity.

This last paper contains no references and quotes no authority. All of them are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist’s. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.

It is pretty safe to say that, so long as physics lasts, no one will again hack out three major breakthroughs in one year. People have complained that Einstein was not immediately recognized. That seems mildly unrealistic. Within a few months, physicists at Cracow were saying that a new Copernicus had been born. It took about four years for the top German physicists, such as Planck, Nernst, and von Laue, to begin proclaiming that he was a genius. In 1909, before he had any academic job at all, he was given an honorary degree at Geneva. Just afterward, Zurich University (not the Polytechnic) offered him a professorship. In 1911, he went to a full chair at the German University in Prague. In 1912, he was recalled to the Zurich Polytechnic, which had had, only a dozen years before, no use for him. In 1913, he was elected to the Prussian Academy of Science, at a high salary for those days, to be left free in Berlin for no duties except his research. He was by then thirty-four. He was being treated as handsomely as any scientist alive. I don’t think the academic community, in particular the German-speaking academic community, comes out of that story badly.

There was, however, trouble in his home. No one knows how deeply it affected him. By the time he had moved to Prague, his marriage was going wrong. Altogether, the stay in Prague was an unhappy one. Einstein had to become a state official of the Hapsburg Empire, and as such was obliged to declare his religion. He had lost all connections with Judaism: but anti-Semitism was strong in Austria, and that was enough reason for Einstein to insist on registering himself—Israelite. His wife, Mileva, was sunk in melancholia: it didn’t help that she was a Slav, in the midst of racial unrest.

Yet Einstein’s laugh was still ringing out, his spirits were not yet damped. He was showing a new ability as an actor—with a touch of ham—on the lecture platform. There are pleasant stories of his playing the violin to a cultivated salon which discussed Kant, Hegel, and Fichte and enjoyed chamber music. The party often included Franz Kafka, not yet known to fame. One wonders if they ever talked to each other. They would not have had much in common.

When he went to Berlin in 1914, he left his wife and sons in Zurich. The marriage was over: he must have known it, though it seems that he did not say it. He was overcome by sadness, of a kind rare in him, when he left his children.

He arrived in Berlin some months before war broke out. He was already famous in the scientific world. He was going to attract fame in the world outside such as no scientist has known before or since. He was a pacifist soon forced to watch what he regarded as German madness among, not only the crowd, but his fellow-members of the Academy. He had preserved his Swiss nationality, which was some sort of protection, when, with his habitual courage, he became an ally of Romain Rolland. But he soon came to experience the blackest unpopularity. He could shrug it off: “Even the scientists of various countries behave as though eight months ago” (he was writing to Rolland in May 1915) “they had had their brains amputated.”

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Nevertheless, in the middle of militaristic tumult, he found both personal and creative peace. Perhaps, or probably, the two were connected. Anyway, he went to live in Berlin with one of his uncles: and with this uncle’s daughter, who had been unsatisfactorily married, divorced, and had two small daughters, he was happy. Maybe he fell in love: but, once again, this is unknown. Certainly he wanted no one else. When he was himself divorced, some years later, he married her. She protected him from nuisances until she died. She was unexacting, she was highspirited, she was fun, she was shrewd about people. Unlike his first wife, who was trained as a mathematician, she knew nothing whatever about his work. It was the kind of marriage that some of the greatest scientists have made. It set him free, and left him free. Before he met her, he had been going through a fallow period scientifically. Almost immediately after, he was thinking with a concentration, and reaching a creative ecstasy more intense, than he had known.

In November 1915, he wrote to Arnold Sommerfeld, himself a fine physicist, one of the classical scientific letters:

This last month I have lived through the most exciting and the most exacting period of my life: and it would be true to say that it has also been the most fruitful. Writing letters has been out of the question. I realize that up till now my field equations of gravitation have been entirely devoid of foundation. When all my confidence in the old theory vanished, I saw clearly that a satisfactory solution could only be reached by linking it with the Riemann variations. The wonderful thing that happened then was that not only did Newton’s theory result from it, as a first approximation, but also the perihelion motion of Mercury, as a second approximation.2 For the deviation of light by the sun I obtain twice the former amount.

Sommerfeld wrote a cautious and skeptical reply. Einstein sent him a postcard: “You will become convinced of the general theory of relativity as soon as you have studied it. Therefore I shall not utter a word in its defense.”

It did not need defense. It was published in 1916. As soon as it reached England—across the increasing harshness of the war—scientists thought that it was almost certainly right. The greatest revolution in thought since Newton, they were saying. As a consequence of his theory (see footnote), Einstein had made a prediction. It was the prediction of an experimental effect which astronomers could test. In his paper, he asked them to do so. The English astronomers decided that this should be done. In March 1917—again across the war—they announced that on March 29, 1919 a total eclipse of the sun would take place. The critical experiment would be set up and Einstein’s theory tested.

That is an old story. The test, of course, came out as predicted, and Einstein’s theory stood.

It is a strange theory. As with Rutherford, as with most scientists, if Einstein had never lived most of his work would soon have been done by someone else, and in much the same form. He said himself that that was true of the special theory of relativity. But, when he generalized the special theory so as to include the gravitational field, he did something that might not have been done for a generation: and, above all, might not have been done in that way. It might, some good theoreticians have suggested, have ultimately been done in a way easier for others to handle. It remains an extraordinary monolith, like a Henry Moore sculpture, which he alone could have constructed—and at which he himself hacked away, hoping to make something grander, for the rest of his scientific life.

I will return in a moment to the second half of his scientific life, which was at the same time extraordinary, unsuccessful, and profoundly characteristic. In the meantime his public life, as soon as the general theory was published (his fame had already mounted before the confirmation), was unlike that which any other scientist is likely to experience again. No one knows quite why, but he sprang into the public consciousness, all over the world, as the symbol of science, the master of the 20th-century intellect, to a large extent the spokesman for human hope. It seemed that, perhaps as a release from the war, people wanted a human being to revere. It is true that they did not understand what they were revering. Never mind, they believed that here was someone of supreme, if mysterious, excellence.

As a symbol of science, either Rutherford or Niels Bohr might have been chosen. Rutherford left a more direct mark on 20th-century science (Einstein said: “I consider Rutherford to be one of the greatest experimental scientists of all time, and in the same class as Faraday. The reason I had no opportunity of mentioning him in my writings is because I concentrated on speculative theories, whereas Rutherford managed to reach profound conclusions on the basis of almost primitive reflection combined with relatively simple experimental methods”). Bohr founded a great Socratic school of theoretical physicists, and influenced others as Einstein never did. Both Rutherford and Bohr were good men, but Rutherford hadn’t Einstein’s moral independence or resource; Bohr may have had, but could not project it. No, the public instinct was correct. As Hardy used to quote—it’s only the highbrows (in the unpleasant sense) who do not admire the real swells.

Throughout the 20’s he made himself the champion of good causes. He became a Zionist, though his religious thinking was quite un-Judaic:3 he was on the side of Zion, out of an ultimate loyalty and also, as I have said before, because the Jews were the insulted and injured of this world. He spent a lot of time trying to promote international pacifism. This sounds strange to us now, but the 20’s was a period of ideals, and even Einstein, the least suggestible of men, shared them. At a later period of his life, some Americans used to call him naive. That irritated me: he was not in the slightest naive: what they meant was that he didn’t think that the United States was always 100 per cent right, and the Soviet Union 100 per cent wrong.

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If they had studied his public attitudes they might—but they couldn’t, reason had gone to sleep—have realized that he had always stood above the battles. He could not have become a partisan if he had tried. In one sense, he was totally detached. In another, he felt an absolute duty to his fellow men. Antonia Vallentin says with accuracy that spiritually he was free of all chains, but morally he was bound by them. He loved his solitude—“painful when one is young, but delightful when one is more mature”: but still, the more so as he became world-famous, he knew his duty. “The concern for man and his destiny must always be the chief interest of all technical effort. Never forget it among your diagrams and equations.” Later he said: “Only a life lived for others is worthwhile.”

In the 20’s, life had still not quite sobered him. He went about the world, sockless, rather like an itinerant musician. Everyone, including himself, complained about the ordeals of publicity. Here for once, I register a dissenting vote. There was a streak in him, major prophet though he was, which enjoyed the photographers and the crowds. He had an element, as I have indicated before, of the exhibitionist and the ham, coexisting with his spiritual grandeur. If there had not been that element, there would have been no photographers and no crowds. Nothing is easier to avoid than publicity. If one genuinely doesn’t want it, one doesn’t get it. Einstein was under no compulsion to travel round the world. If he had retired—it would have been perfectly practicable—to his birthplace in Swabia, he could have reveled in obscurity.

But he didn’t. Some of his remarks about publicity in the 20’s sounded, as usual, like the Old Testament. But—much more than we think in our rationalizations—what you want is what happens to you.

That wasn’t true, though, on the world scene. He had always been more realistic than most men about German politics: he knew the violence seething underneath the Weimar state. As soon as Hitler took power, Einstein was quicker than any politician to judge what was going to happen. International pacifism, the world community, intellectual cooperation—all his hopes had to be put aside. He was much quicker than Churchill to recognize that the Nazi Reich had to be put down by force.

He was himself Hitler’s greatest public enemy. He was out of Germany when Hitler became chancellor: he was a brave man, but he knew that if he returned, he would be killed. Through most of 1933 he lived in the little Flemish seaside town of Den Haan (Coq-sur-mer). There he kept a kind of intellectual court for refugees. Den Haan was temporarily the capital of the German-speaking scientific world. Incidentally, it is the most agreeable village on the Flanders coast, and they have a pleasant custom of naming streets after great men—Shakespeare laan, Dante laan, Rembrandt laan, and so on. But they haven’t yet named a street after their most illustrious resident.

Belgium suited him. He was more comfortable in small cozy countries (Holland was his favorite), but he wasn’t safe from the Nazis. Unwillingly, he set off on his travels again, went to Princeton, and stayed there until he died.

It was a kind of exile. There is no doubt that he, who had never recognized any place as home, sometimes longed for the sounds and smells of Europe. Nevertheless, it was in America that he reached his full wisdom and his full sadness. His wife died soon after he got there. His younger son, back in Switzerland, had gone into a mental home. His merriness had finally been worn away. He was left with his duty to other men.

He was left with something else, too. He could still lose his personality, forget everything else, in speculating about the natural world. That was the deepest root of his existence: it remained strong until the night before he died. He once said in public: “Whoever finds a thought which enables us to obtain a slightly deeper glimpse into the eternal secrets of nature, has been given great grace.” He continued—that was the grace of his solitariness—to try to find such thoughts. Quite unlike Newton, who gave up physics entirely in order to become Master of the Mint and perform textual researches on the Bible, Einstein stayed working at science long after most theoreticians, even the best, have taken to something easier. But he worked—and this was the final strangeness of his life—in a direction precisely opposite to that of his major colleagues. In the public world, against militarism, against Hitler, against cruelty and unreason, nothing had ever made him budge. In the private world of theoretical physics, with the same quiet but total intransigence, he would not budge against the combined forces of the colleagues he loved, Bohr, Born, Dirac, Heisenberg, the major intellects in his own profession.

They believed that the fundamental laws were statistical—that, when it came to quantum phenomena, in Einstein’s picturesque phrase, God had to play at dice. He believed in classical determination—that, in the long run, it should be possible to frame one great field theory in which the traditional concept of causality would re-emerge. Year after year he explained and redefined his position.

To Carl Seelig: “I differ decisively in my opinions about the fundamentals of physics from nearly all my contemporaries, and therefore I cannot allow myself to act as spokesman for theoretical physicists. In particular, I do not believe in the necessity for a statistical formulation of the laws.”

To Max Born: “I can quite well understand why you take me for an obstinate old sinner, but I feel clearly that you do not understand how I came to travel my lonely way. It would certainly amuse you, although it would be impossible for you to appreciate my attitude. I should also have great pleasure in tearing to pieces your positivistic-philosophical viewpoint.”

To James Franck: “I can, if the worst comes to the worst, still realize that God may have created a world in which there are no natural laws. In short, a chaos. But that there should be statistical laws with definite solutions, i.e., laws which compel God to throw the dice in each individual case, I find highly disagreeable.”

God does not play at dice, he kept saying. But, though he worked at it for nearly forty years, he never discovered his unified field theory. And it is true that his colleagues, who passionately venerated him, sometimes thought that he was “an obstinate old sinner.” They believed that he had misspent half the mental lifetime of the most powerful intellect alive. They felt they had lost their natural leader.

The arguments on both sides are most beautiful and subtle. Unfortunately, they cannot be followed without some background of physics: otherwise, Bohr’s Discussion on Epistemological Problems and Einstein’s Reply ought to be part of everyone’s education. No more profound intellectual debate has ever been conducted—and, since they were both men of the loftiest spirit, it was conducted with noble feeling on both sides. If two men are going to disagree, on the subject of most ultimate concern to them both, then that is the way to do it. It is a pity that the debate, because of its nature, can’t be common currency.

Perhaps I can, by an analogy, suggest the effect on Einstein’s colleagues of his one-man counterrevolution. It was rather as though Picasso, about 1920, at the height of his powers, had announced that some new kind of representational painting alone could be made to contain the visual truth; and had spent the rest of his life industriously but unavailingly trying to find it.

The great debate did not reach its peak until Einstein was old, years after the war. It was never resolved. He and Bohr, with mutual admiration, drew intellectually further apart. In fact, though, when I met Einstein in 1937 he had already separated himself totally, and as it proved, finally, from the other theorists.

_____________

 

I had already shaken hands with him once or twice at large gatherings. That summer, I happened to be in America, and my friend Leopold Infeld, who was collaborating with Einstein at the time, suggested that I might like to spend a day with him.

It turned out to be an abnormally hot day, even for a New York summer. The seats were hot in the car, as Infeld, a woman friend, and I drove out to Long Island. We had a snack by way of lunch, and aimed at arriving at one o’clock. Actually, we turned up late. Einstein had taken a house for the summer, since sailing remained one of his continuing pleasures. Infeld had not been there: no one in the neighborhood knew where Einstein was living, nor apparently had the slightest idea who he was. Infeld, not the most patient of men, was getting distinctly cross. We had no telephone number. Finally we had to ring back to Princeton, track down one of the Institute’s secretaries (which wasn’t easy, because it was either a Saturday or a Sunday), and get directions. At last we made it, three-quarters of an hour later.

Not that that mattered to Einstein. He was amiable to all visitors, and I was just one of many. He came into the sitting-room a minute or two after we arrived. There was no furniture apart from some garden chairs and a small table. The window looked out on to the water, but the shutters were half closed to keep out the heat. The humidity was very high.

At close quarters, Einstein’s head was as I had imagined it: magnificent, with a humanizing touch of the comic. Great furrowed forehead; aureole of white hair; enormous bulging chocolate eyes. I can’t guess what I should have expected from such a face if I hadn’t known. A shrewd Swiss once said it had the brightness of a good artisan’s countenance, that he looked like a reliable old-fashioned watchmaker in a small town who perhaps collected butterflies on a Sunday.

What did surprise me was his physique. He had come in from sailing and was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts. It was a massive body, very heavily muscled: he was running to fat round the midriff and in the upper arms, rather like a footballer in middle-age, but he was still an unusually strong man. He was cordial, simple, utterly unshy. The large eyes looked at me, as though he was thinking: what had I come for, what did I want to talk about? Infeld, not only a man of distinguished intellect, but sharp-witted, set to work to find topics, as he went on doing through the afternoon and evening ahead. I was a friend of G. H. Hardy, Infeld began. Einstein smiled with pleasure. Yes, a fine man. Then, quite sharply, he asked me: was Hardy still a pacifist? I replied, as near as made no matter.

“I do not understand,” he said somberly, “how such a fine man can be so unrealistic.”

Then he wanted to know if I also was a pacifist. Far from it, I explained. I was by that time certain that war was inevitable. I was not so much apprehensive about war, as about the chance that we might lose it. Einstein nodded. About politics that afternoon, he and I and Infeld were united. About politics in the widest sense, I don’t think there has been a world figure in my time who has been wiser than Einstein. He wasn’t much interested in political techniques, and brushed them off too lightly: but his major insights into the world situation, and his major prophecies, have proved more truthful than those of anyone else.

The hours went on. I have a hazy memory that several people drifted in and out of the room, but I do not remember who they were. Stifling heat. There appeared to be no set time for meals. He was already, I think, eating very little, but he was still smoking his pipe. Trays of open sandwiches—various kinds of wurst, cheese, cucumber—came in every now and then. It was all casual and Central European. We drank nothing but soda water. What with the heat and the sandwiches, I got as thirsty as if I had been dehydrated, and drank more soda water in eight hours then I normally did in eight months.

Mostly we talked of politics, the moral and practical choices in front of us, and what could be saved from the storm to come, not only for Europe but for the human race. All the time he was speaking with a weight of moral experience which was different, not only in quantity but in kind, from anything I had met. By this time he had lost any intrusion from his own ego, as though it had never existed. It was something like talking to the second Isaiah.

_____________

 

It would be easy to give a false impression. In the face of someone so different from the rest of us, it was hard not to get one. In fact, he was neither sentimental nor illusioned. His view of life was not illusioned at all. It was far darker than that of his great friend, Paul Langevin. Einstein thought that we should be lucky if the human race was going to stand a chance: but nevertheless, as an absolute moral imperative, we had to do what little we could until we dropped.

Infeld, who knew him better than anyone at this period, later wrote—and it seems to me precisely true:

This “conscience of the world” [Einstein] nurses a deep repugnance for all types of boastfulness, terrorizing of one’s fellow-men, and overbearing brutality. One could, therefore, easily have been tempted to portray him as an oversensitive man, who trembles at the very mention of injustice and violence. This picture would be utterly false. I know no one who leads such a lonely and solitary life as he. His great benevolence, his absolute integrity, and his social ideas, despite all appearances to the contrary, are thoroughly impersonal and seem to come from another planet. His heart does not bleed, his eyes do not weep.

And yet, he had suffered much, in a way difficult for more ego-bound men to understand. I had heard a lot about his old merriness. That had all disappeared, and forever. Just once in eight hours I heard the great laugh of his young manhood come rumbling out. It was at a curious turn in the conversation. He had been speaking of the countries he had lived in. He preferred them, he said, in inverse proportion to their size. How did he like England? I asked. Yes, he liked England. It had some of the qualities of his beloved Holland. After all, by world standards, England was becoming a small country. We talked of the people he had met, not only of the scientists but the politicians. Churchill. Einstein admired him. I said that progressives of my kind wanted him in the government as a token of resistance: this was being opposed, not so much by the Labour party, but by Churchill’s own Tories. Einstein was brooding. To defeat Nazism, he said, we should need every kind of force, including nationalism, that we could bring together.

Then, because there wasn’t much useful to say, I asked why, when he left Germany, he hadn’t come to live in England.

“No, no!” said Einstein.

Why not?

“It is your style of life.” Suddenly he had begun to laugh. “It is a splendid style of life. But it is not for me.”

He was enjoying some gigantic joke. But I was puzzled. What was this mysterious “style of life”? It appeared that, on his first day in England, he had been taken to a great country house. A butler. Evening dress. Einstein had never worn a dinner jacket in his life. Then Lindemann had taken him in to dinner at Christ Church. More butlers. More evening dress. Einstein chortled. He seemed to have the fixed idea that the English, or certainly the English professional classes, spent much of their time getting in and out of formal clothes. Any protests I made (did he think Hardy lived like that?) were swept aside. It was then that he introduced me to the word Zwang. No Zwang for him. No butlers. No evening dress.

That was my single glimpse of what he might have been like in Switzerland thirty years before. But he did say something which may have been, though I cannot be sure, more personal. It was much later in the day, and getting dark outside. Einstein was talking about the conditions for a creative existence. He said that, in his experience, the best creative work is never done when one is unhappy. He could scarcely think of any physicist who had done fine work in such a state. Or any composer. Or any writer.

It seemed a strange and unexpected remark.

The only exception he could think of, Einstein went on, was Bohr, who had produced his great paper on the hydrogen spectrum when in deep misery.

Neither Infeld nor I knew that. Einstein was speaking of his famous contemporaries, a generation before our time. I pulled myself together, and suggested Tolstoy when writing Anna Karenina. He had been in a state of profound despair. Einstein was interested. Tolstoy was one of his favorite writers. Just as his taste in physics, and his feeling for the nature of the physical laws, were classical, so was his taste in art. He detested romantic art, in particular German romantic art. He didn’t like subjectivism. We talked about books. The novel he valued most of all was The Brothers Karamazov. Then Einstein came back to his thoughts upon the creative life. His great head was shaking to and fro:

No, to understand the world one must not be worrying about oneself.

_____________

 

Back in New York, late that night, I found those remarks of his about happiness jumbling with others. At that time I knew little about his own life: I did not know then, and still don’t know, whether what he said had any personal relevance. But if it had, it may have been drawn from memories of his own two major creative periods. The first produced the great papers of 1905: he was not long married, his first son was born. I am inclined to fancy that, despite some accounts of those early years, that marriage began by being happy. About his second major period, nearly all the evidence agrees. Despite the war, he was joyous: his cousin Elsa had lifted a burden from him: almost at once he had the transcendental scientific experience of his life.

It was, I think, in that same Long Island house, two years later, that Einstein signed the well-known letter to Roosevelt about the possibility of an atomic bomb. But this event, as I mentioned before, has been wildly melodramatized. Einstein was a mythopoeic character. Some of the myths are true and significant; this myth, though factually true, is not significant.

Let me try to clear the ground. First, Einstein’s work had nothing to do either with the discovery or the potential use of nuclear fission. From the moment of the Meitner-Frisch paper in January 1939 (as Niels Bohr said at the time, everyone ought to have seen the meaning of Hahn’s 1938 experiments much earlier—“we were all fools”), nuclear fission was a known fact to all physicists in the field. Second, the possible use of nuclear energy had been speculated about long before Einstein produced the equation E = mc2. After the fission experiments, it would have been empirically apparent if there had been no theory at all. Every nuclear physicist in the world—and a good many non-nuclear physicists—was talking about the conceivability of a nuclear bomb from early 1939 onward. Third, all responsible nuclear physicists wanted to bring this news to their governments as effectively as they could. It happened in England months before the Einstein letter was signed. Fourth, a group of refugee scientists in America (Szilard, Wigner, Teller, Fermi) had no direct channels of communication with the White House. Very sensibly, they explained the position to Einstein. It was easy for him to understand. A letter drafted by them, signed by him, handed on by Sachs (an economist with an entry to the President) would get straight to Roosevelt. “I served as a pillar box,” said Einstein. It was signed on Long Island on July 2: it did not reach Roosevelt until October 11. Fifth, if this letter had not been sent, similar messages would have been forced on Roosevelt. For some time after the letter, the Americans were much slower off the mark than the English. Peierls’s (he was then a professor at Birmingham) calculations, which showed that the bomb was a possibility, were ready by mid-1940. These had, in historical fact, a major effect upon the American scientists. Sixth, in July 1939 there was—unless one was an unqualified pacifist—no moral dilemma. Everyone was afraid that the Nazis would get the bomb first. If so, they would rule the world. It was as simple as that. It was as simple to Einstein as to the crudest of men.

It is a pity that the story of the letter has obscured the genuine moral dilemma of his later years. Which was—now that the bomb exists, what should a man do? He probably knew little or nothing of the actual development of the bomb. He was not one of the Franck group (once again, organized by Leo Szilard) who protested in advance against its military use on Japan. He was not one, simply because he did not know that the bomb was as good as made. When the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he said simply, “Oh weh!” (Oh horrible!) Nothing would convince him that Hiroshima was forgivable, either in moral or practical terms: just as nothing has convinced many of us, with all the information of the twenty subsequent years, and with our knowledge of how the world has gone.

The bomb was made. What should a man do? He couldn’t find an answer which people would listen to. He campaigned for a world state: that only made him distrusted both in the Soviet Union and in the United States. He gave an eschatological warning to a mass television audience in 1950:

And now the public has been advised that the production of the hydrogen bomb is the new goal which will probably be accomplished. An accelerated development towards this end has been solemnly proclaimed by the President. If these efforts should prove successful, radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere, and, hence, annihilation of all life on earth, will have been brought within the range of what is technically possible. A weird aspect of this development lies in its apparently inexorable character. Each step appears as the inevitable consequence of the one that went before. And at the end, looming ever clearer, lies general annihilation.

That speech made him more distrusted in America. As for practical results, no one listened. Incidentally, in the view of most contemporary military scientists, it would be more difficult totally to eliminate the human species than Einstein then believed. But the most interesting sentences were the ones I have italicized. They are utterly true. The more one has mixed in these horrors, the truer they seem.

He joined in other warnings, one of them signed in the last week of his life. He did not expect them to bite: he retained the hope of his strong spirit, but intellectually he seems to have had no hope at all.

He was physically a strong man. He was in spirit as strong as a man can be. He was used to being solitary. “It is strange,” he wrote, “to be known so universally and yet to be so lonely.” Never mind. He was isolated in his search for the unified field. And the latter was the great theme of his life. He could endure it all, impregnable, and work stoically on. He said: “One must divide one’s time between politics and equations. But our equations are much more important to me.”

_____________

 

From his late sixties until his death at seventy-six he was continuously ill—from what appears to have been a variety of causes, an intestinal growth, a disease of the liver, finally a weakening of the aorta wall. He lived on in discomfort, and often in acute pain. He stayed cheerful, serene, detached from his own illness and the approach of death. He worked on. The end of his life was neither miserable nor pathetic. “Here on earth I have done my job,” he said, without self-pity.

By his bedside, one Sunday night, lay some pages of manuscript. They included more equations leading to the unified field theory, which he had never found. He hoped to be enough out of pain the next day to work on them. Early in the morning the aortic blister broke, and he died.

Good, gentle, wise, Hardy called him that day at Fenner’s. At the time I wanted to add another word. If we were having the conversation again, I think I should have chosen a clumsy one. Of all the men I have heard of, this one was—in any sense I can imagine, intellectual, emotional, spiritual—the most unbudgeable.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 Copyright © 1967, by C. P. Snow.

2 The perihelion motion of Mercury had already been measured, but not explained. The measurement agreed exactly with that which was required by Einstein's theory. Einstein was also predicting another very small optical effect which in 1916 had not yet been measured.

3 To a Gentile, his moral thinking often seems strongly Judaic.

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