Mind Over Matter

Articles from the 1920s to the 1990s reflect on the revolutionary insights of Albert Einstein

For many of us, the name "Einstein" calls to mind two things: genius, and unruly white hair. (Unruly white hair now almost evokes "genius" on its own.) But behind the iconic name and image, of course, are the man himself and his revolutionary work. This year marks an anniversary for both: fifty years ago, on April 18, 1955, Einstein died in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had spent the final two decades of his life. And one hundred years ago, in 1905, the then-twenty-six-year-old Einstein published five papers in the prestigious German science journal Annals of Physics. One of those papers, which explained how light can behave as both a particle and a wave, earned him a Nobel Prize. Two others explained the nature and motion of atoms and molecules. Yet another introduced the world's most famous equation, E=mc2.

But it was a fifth paper, describing his theory of relativity, that made him an international celebrity, a synonym for brilliance. His theory—which suggested, among other things, that it was possible for space-traveling twins to age at different rates—captured the imagination of non-scientists in a way his other work hadn't, because it upended our very concepts of space and time.

One recent Atlantic article, a review by physicist Alan Lightman of a republication of Einstein's 1905 papers, puts the nature and dramatic scope of Einstein's accomplishments that year into perspective. Lightman points out that in 1905, many scientists were convinced that the world's mysteries had already been solved. Since the seventeenth century, for example, Newton's laws of motion had successfully accounted for everything from "the bouncing of balls to the orbits of planets." And more recently, physicists had published detailed theories on the nature of light and heat.

But there were cracks in the façade. Physicists had long believed that time and space were of an absolute nature. Five seconds meant five seconds, no matter who measured it or where. And space was thought to be filled with a colorless substance called ether—a fixed reference against which all measurements could be made and through which light waves traveled. (It was assumed that light, like sound, could only propagate through a medium.) The trouble was, hard as they tried, physicists couldn't find this so-called ether. And the speed of light, which was thought to vary depending on the speed of the object emitting the light, always turned out to measure the same.

Einstein's paper on relativity, published in June of 1905, was modestly titled "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," but it was universe-shattering. He eliminated the untraceable ether (calling it "superfluous"), and said that space and time measurements are not absolute, as previously thought, but depend on who is doing the measuring. Without absolute space and time, Einstein determined there is only one fixed entity: the speed of light. If it doesn't change in experiments, he asked, why don't we assume it never changes? From these postulates Einstein derived his special theory of relativity. (A decade later he published an expanded version—the "general theory of relativity"—which took gravity into account.)

Lightman suggests that to a significant extent, it was Einstein's attitude of open-mindedness that enabled him to conceive of such revolutionary ideas. "Einstein regarded all concepts as subject to revision based on experiment," Lightman writes. "There were no sacred cows—everything was open to question. A few pages into his paper he began questioning the meaning of time with the profound innocence of a child."

At the time Einstein's groundbreaking work first became known, many laypeople vaguely understood that he had wrought some kind of momentous transformation in the way science made sense of the world, but the specifics of his theories seemed utterly confusing and counterintuitive. The first Atlantic article about Einstein and his ideas appeared in October of 1920, four years after the publication of his general theory of relativity. Called "In Defense of Science," the short, unsigned piece offered a humorous take on how Einstein's strange theories about space and time might apply in the real world.

Do Bolsheviki attempt to agitate a peaceful community? Let our velocity be —dv(An), and presto! these uncomfortable characters won't have been born for a century and a half yet; and we may confidently leave their treatment to posterity. Do some of our enthusiastic officials suppress certain of the rights of man? Let us apply the formula Xdp = Y2, and whoof! they find themselves in the seventeenth century, where they may hunt the fearsome witch and wily Quaker to their hearts' content. Does my revered wife's uncle read aloud items from the Daily Transcript? Q = Pz, and lo! it's four o'clock, and the paper hasn't yet arrived.

"This is Truth," the anonymous author wrote, referring to Einstein's new theories—but a truth understood only by a "benevolent intellectual aristocracy" who can perform the necessary mental acrobatics to bend the laws of the universe to its will. In tones of mock solemnity, the author proclaimed the significance of this development:

And now, little children and reverend theologians, gather about and let us consider the situation. Do you realize what is really meant by Einstein's Idea? Why, bless your orthodox hearts, this is no less than a scientific Doctrine of Free Will! ... mind has assumed its dominion over matter; Man has come into his kingdom.

Less than a year later, Alexander McAdie, a meteorology professor at Harvard, published "Relativity and the Absurdities of Alice" (June 1921), which touched on many of Einstein's discoveries, including both special and general relativity. McAdie described ways in which Einstein's work had helped turned fantasy into reality. "Alice in dreamland underwent remarkable transformations," he wrote, "but the physicists are changing substances and analyzing structure of atoms in a way that makes Lewis Carroll's wildest flight of fancy seem humdrum."

Today any budding physicist can tell you without cracking a smile that 'a conception of the physical world in its objective four-dimensional scheme would merely be an abridged statement of the correspondence of the subjective time-space experiences in the realm of the various senses, and nothing more.' Remember, it is not the Hatter speaking now, but the average serious-minded young man or woman at college, who has been taking notes of the lectures on Relativity given by the Professor of Mathematical Physics.

By the time McAdie wrote his article, Einstein's relativity theory had been put to practical tests by astronomers and had succeeded. For example, general relativity had been able to account for a discrepancy in Mercury's placement in its orbit when closest to the sun. Discoveries like this one were a spectacular blow to pre-existing theories of physics, and helped to make Einstein a household name.

Awed by the manner in which Einstein had shattered old scientific assumptions, McAdie compared him favorably with legendary scientists of the past. Of Euclid he wrote, "he has had his day," referring to the fact that general relativity requires a non-Euclidean geometry. As for Newton, "Sir Isaac never had a theory of gravitation," he wrote, "only a law; but Einstein has both theory and law. Moreover, "[Newton's] law of attraction "gets a jolt," McAdie wrote, because Einstein suggested that gravity wasn't an attraction between bodies at all, but, rather, a distortion of space-time in the presence of matter. "May we not say with Alice, 'Curiouser and curiouser!'" wrote McAdie.

In June of 1955, two months after Einstein died, The Atlantic published "Albert Einstein: Appraisal of an Intellect," by George Russell Harrison, then dean of the school of science at MIT. "The world has lost a shy and kindly man, sweet-natured and intensely human," wrote Harrison. He explained that Einstein was a man whose best-known work "came about from the long, long thoughts of a youth of twenty-six." By the time he arrived at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in 1933, Harrison suggested, his greatest work was done. He had spent his remaining years trying to find a "unified field theory": one in which the three basic forces—electrical, magnetic, and gravitational—are united and expressed as a single force. He did not succeed. But, Harrison emphasized, he had already done enough. "In my opinion, one must go beyond Galileo and even Archimedes to find Einstein's match, back to the days when the world of speculation was very young indeed."

Harrison, a contemporary of Einstein's, described the figure Einstein had cut on the Princeton campus, "in his wrinkled sweater, his long white hair straggling out from under his formless stocking cap." Though he was a brilliant thinker, Harrison recalled, he was "far from what would be called a good speaker."

Typical of Einstein is the story of the popular lecture he was finally prevailed upon to give, for it shows his incapability of behavior that was not genuine. He had been asked many times to speak to a certain audience, but had always begged off on the basis that he had nothing to say. Finally, however, the pressure became so great that he was forced to accede. Came the evening of the lecture, and amidst applause Dr. Einstein was led to the front of the stage and introduced. For a few moments, he looked out at the audience, tongue-tied and silent. Finally he could stand it no longer and, smiling sheepishly, said, "I find that I have nothing to say," and returned to his seat.

Harrison also described Einstein's "full-fledged gift of humor," which he drew upon whenever laypeople asked for a simple explanation of relativity theory. "When you sit with a nice girl for two hours," he would say, "you think it's only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it's two hours. That's relativity." Laypeople misunderstood Einstein in many ways, Harrison suggested. It was commonly believed, for example, that he was the world's best mathematician. But Einstein's gift was his intuition—his ability to grasp ideas others couldn't. When it came time to put math to those ideas, he often turned to others for help.

From the archives:

"Atomic War or Peace" (November 1947)
Albert Einstein, the ranking physicist of our century, now commits himself unequivocally on the crisis which involved the atomic bomb, the United Nations, Russia, and ourselves. By Albert Einstein as told to Raymond Swing

The day Einstein died, Harrison saw a newspaper headline that read, "His Theory Paved the Way for Atom Bomb." Though technically true (Einstein's equation E=mc2 had shown that small amounts of mass can be converted into a large amount of energy), Harrison thought the article "would have saddened him." Einstein, he pointed out, had been a pacifist who regretted the link between his work and instruments of war. "It would be equally true, and almost as relevant," Harrison wrote, "to say that the submarine Nautilus resulted from the discovery made by Archimedes when he sprang from his bath shouting 'Eureka!'"

But Einstein had also been aware, Harrison suggested, that putting his theory into practice was "a normal part of human evolution." He was, after all, a man who well understood the desire to probe deeply and to find oneself where no one had yet been.

Katharine Dunn