Study Guide

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein Essay - Critical Essays

Einstein, Albert

Introduction

Albert Einstein 1879-1955

German-born American physicist and philosopher.

Einstein is generally acknowledged as the preeminent scientist of the twentieth century who challenged and disproved fundamental ideas concerning the physical universe. Specifically, Einstein's theory of relativity reconfigured notions of time, space, and matter that had been formulated by Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century. Ranked with Archimedes, Galileo Galilei, and Newton, Einstein is crucial for the ideas he contributed to science as well as those he helped abolish; there is not an area of intellectual life that has not been affected by his theories.

Biographical Information

Born in Ulm, Germany, on March 14, 1879, Einstein was not an especially remarkable student; in fact, his parents, who ran a company that made and sold electrical equipment, even suspected that he was mentally retarded. In 1895 his family moved to Milan, Italy, leaving him behind to finish school. Instead, Einstein stopped attending school and independently engaged in studying mathematics and other scientific disciplines. In 1896 he was admitted to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. His subsequent job at the Swiss Patent Office in Bern left him time to continue scientific investigations of his own, which resulted in a series of papers, one of which was accepted as a doctoral dissertation at the University of Zurich in 1905. His discoveries proving the existence of molecules and light's dual nature—as a wave or a particle—were eclipsed by his Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein served as a professor of physics at universities in Zurich and Czechoslovakia. In 1914 he was appointed professor at the University of Berlin and director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. There he developed the General Theory of Relativity and adopted his lifelong pacifist position. Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, in addition to many other awards. His pacifism and Zionism led to friction with the increasingly powerful National Socialists; he left Germany in 1933, settling in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the Institute for Advanced Study until his retirement in 1945. With the advent of World War II, Einstein recognized the threat posed by Germany's hegemonic ambitions and advanced scientific knowledge, and actively encouraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to develop the atomic bomb. Though he remained politically active for the last part of his life, much of it was given over to work on what he termed the grand unified theory of physics, a formulation that would define the properties of energy and matter. He was unable to achieve this goal before his death at 76 on April 18, 1955.

Major Works

Because of the revolutionary nature of his scientific theories, Einstein became known beyond the sphere of science. Although many fellow scientists dismissed the Principle of Relativity when it was first published, by the time he published Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitdtstheorie (Relativity, the Special and the General Theory: A Popular Exposition), the validity and importance of his work was recognized. By 1919, British astronomers had confirmed Einstein's prediction that gravity could bend light: pictures of a solar eclipse showed that the positions of star images changed in response to the gravitational effects of the sun. By the early 1930s, Einstein expanded his concerns beyond science, publishing such works as About Zionism, Cosmic Religion, with Other Opinions and Aphorisms and Why War?, which he wrote with Sigmund Freud. While Einstein was not directly involved in producing the atom bomb, his work was seminal to its development and he encouraged the bomb's use, tempering his support with the qualification that it should not be used on people. A committed pacifist, his Essays in Humanism and Ideas and Opinions reflect his determination to limit the development of nuclear arms. Later he chaired the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which encouraged peaceful use of atomic energy.

Critical Reception

Jamie Sayen has written that Einstein "came to play a critical role in the public life of his epoch as the preeminent moral figure of the Western world." Even with his stature as a spokesman for peace and humanism, he is primarily regarded as a scientist and a philosopher. Einstein once remarked: "Politics is for the present, but an equation is something for eternity." Nonetheless, Einstein's theories—particularly the idea of relativity—have influenced virtually every aspect of twentieth-century intellectual life, from scientific study to literary criticism.

Principal Works

Eine neue Bestimmung der Moleküldimensionen (nonfiction) 1905

"Entwurf einer verallgemeinerten Relativitdtstheorie une eine Theorie der Gravitation "[with Marcel Grossman] (essay) 1913

"Die Grundlage der allgemeinen Relativitdtstheorie" [included in The Principle of Relativity, 1920] (essay) 1916

Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitdtstheorie, gemeinverstdndlich [Relativity: The Special and the General Theory: A Popular Exposition] (nonfiction) 1917

The Principle of Relativity: Original Papers by A. Einstein and H. Minkowski (nonfiction) 1920

Äther und Relativitdtstheorie [included in Sidelights on Relativity, 1922] (lecture) 1920

Geometrie und Erfahrung (nonfiction) 1921

The Meaning of Relativity: Four Lectures Delivered at Princeton University (lectures) 1921

Sidelights on Relativity (nonfiction) 1922

Untersuchungen uber die Theorie der Brownschen Bewegungen [Investigation on the Theory of Brownian Movement] (nonfiction) 1922

Grundgedanken und Probleme der Relativitdtstheorie (nonfiction) 1923

About Zionism: Speeches and Letters (speeches and letters) 1930

Cosmic Religion, with Other Opinions and Aphorisms (philosophy and aphorisms) 1931

The Fight Against War (nonfiction) 1933

On the Method of Theoretical Physics [reprinted in The World As I See It] (lecture) 1933

The Origins of the General Theory of Relativity [reprinted in The World As I See It] (lecture) 1933

Why War? [with Sigmund Freud] (nonfiction) 1933

Mein Weltbild [The World As I See It] (essays and lectures) 1934

The Evolution of Physics: The Growth of Ideas from Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta [with Leopold Infeld] (nonfiction) 1938

Test Case for Humanity (nonfiction) 1944

The Arabs and Palestine [with E. Kahler] (nonfiction) 1944

Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist [with others] [contains Autobiographical Notes] (nonfiction and autobiography) 1944

Out of My Later Years (essays) 1950

Ideas and Opinions (essays) 1954

Essays in Science [selected essays from Mein Weltbild] (essays) 1955

Grundzuge der Relativitdtstheorie (nonfiction) 1956

Lettres d Maurice Solovine [Letters to Solovine] (letters) 1956

Einstein on Peace (nonfiction) 1960

Letters on Wave Mechanics: Schrödinger, Planck, Einstein, Lorentz (letters) 1967

Briefwechsel, 1916-1955 [with Max and Hedwig Born; The Born-Einstein Letters: Correspondence Between Albert Einstein and Max and Hedwig Born From 1916 to 1955] (letters) 1969

Albert Einstein, the Human Side: New Glimpses From His Archives (nonfiction) 1979

Elie Cartan-Albert Einstein: Letters on Absolute Parallelism, 1929-1932 (letters) 1979

The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. 5 vols. (collected works) 1987-93

Criticism

Alfred North Whitehead (essay date 1920)

SOURCE: "Einstein's Theory," in Essays in Science and Philosophy, Philosophical Library, 1947, pp. 332-42.

[A distinguished English mathematician, philosopher, and educator, Whitehead collaborated with Bertrand Russell on the latter's Principia Mathematica (1910-13), a three-volume treatise on the relationship of logic to mathematics that would eventually inspire the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his ground-breaking studies. In the following essay, originally published in the Times Educational Supplement in 1920, Whitehead seeks to explain the major principles of Einstein's work.]

Einstein's work may be analysed into three factors—a principle, a procedure, and an explanation. This discovery of the principle and the procedure constitute an epoch in science. I venture, however, to think that the explanation is faulty, even although it formed the clue by which Einstein guided himself along the path from his principle to his procedure. It is no novelty to the history of science that factors of thought which guided genius to its goal should be subsequently discarded. The names of Kepler and Maupertuis at once occur in illustration.

What I call Einstein's principle is the connexion between time and space which emerges from his way of envisaging the general fact of relativity. This connexion is entirely new to scientific thought, and is in some respects very paradoxical. A slight sketch of the history of ideas of relative motion will be the shortest way of introducing the new principle. Newton thought that there was one definite space within which the material world adventured, and that the sequence of its adventures could be recorded in terms of one definite time. There would be, therefore, a meaning in asking whether the sun is at rest or is fixed in this space, even although the questioner might be ignorant of the existence of other bodies such as the planets and the stars. Furthermore, there was for Newton an absolute unique meaning to simultaneity, so that there can be no ambiguity in asking, without further specification of conditions, which of two events preceded the other or whether they were simultaneous. In other words, Newton held a theory of absolute space and of absolute time. He explained relative motion of one body with respect to another as being the difference of the absolute motions of the two bodies. The greatest enemy to his absolute theory of space was his own set of laws of motion. For it is a well-known result from these laws that it is impossible to detect absolute uniform motion. Accordingly, since we fail to observe variations in the velocities of the sun and stars, it follows that any one of them may with equal right be assumed to be either at rest or moving in any direction with any velocity which we like to suggest. Now, a character which never appears in the play does not require a living actor for its impersonation. Science is concerned with the relations between things perceived. If absolute motion is imperceptible, absolute position is a fairy tale, and absolute space cannot survive the surrender of absolute position.

So far our course is plain: we give up absolute space, and conceive all statements about space as being merely expositions of the internal relations of the physical universe. But we have to take account of two very remarkable difficulties which mar the simplicity of this theoretical position. In the first place there seems to be a certain absoluteness about rotation. The fact of this absoluteness is inherent in Newton's laws of motion, and the deducted consequences from these premises have received ample confirmation. For example, the effect of the rotation of the earth is manifested in phenomena which appear to have no connexion with extraneous astronomical bodies. There is the bulge of the earth at its equator, the invariable directions of rotation for cyclones and anti-cyclones, the rotation of the plane of oscillation of Foucault's pendulum, and the north-seeking property of the gyrocompass. The mass of evidence is decisive, and no theory which burkes it can stand as an adequate explanation of observed facts. It is not so obvious how to combine these facts of rotation with any principle of relativity.

Secondly, the ether contributes another perplexity just where it might have helped us. We might have regained the right quasi-absoluteness of motion by measuring velocity relatively to the ether. The facts of rotation could have thus received an explanation. But all attempts to measure velocity relatively to the ether have failed to detect it in circumstances when, granting the ordinary hypotheses, its effects should have been visible. Einstein showed that the whole series of perplexing facts concerning the ether could be explained by adopting new formulae connecting the spatial and temporal measurements made by observers in relative motion to each other. These formulae had been elaborated by Larmor and Lorentz, but it was Einstein who made them the foundation of a novel theory of time and space. He also discovered the remarkable fact that, according to these formulae, the velocity of light in vacuous space would be identical in magnitude for all these alternative assumptions as to rest or motion. This property of light became the clue by which his researches were guided. His theory of simultaneity is based on the transmission of light signals, and accordingly the whole structure of our concept of nature is essentially bound up with our perceptions of radiant energy.

In view of the magnificent results which Einstein has achieved it may seem rash to doubt the validity of a premiss so essential to his own line of thought. I do, however, disbelieve in this invariant property of the velocity of light, for reasons which have been partly furnished by Einstein's own later researches. The velocity of light appears in this connexion owing to the fact that it occurs in Maxwell's famous equations, which express the laws governing electromagnetic phenomena. But it is an outcome of Einstein's work that the electro-magnetic equations require modification to express the association of the gravitational and electro-magnetic fields. This is one of his greatest discoveries. The most natural deduction to make from these modified equations is that the velocity of light is modified by the gravitational properties of the field through which it passes, and that the absolute maximum velocity which occurs in the Maxwellian form of the equations has in fact a different origin which is independent of any special relation to light or electricity. I will return to this question later.

Before passing on to Einstein's later work a tribute should be paid to the genius of Minkowski. It was he who stated in its full generality the conception of a four-dimensional world embracing space and time, in which the ultimate elements, or points, are the infinitesimal occurrences in the life of each particle. He built on Einstein's foundations, and his work forms an essential factor in the evolution of relativistic theory.

Einstein's later work is comprised in what he calls the theory of general relativity. I will summarize what appear to me as the essential components of his thought, at the same time warning my readers of the danger of misrepresentation which lies in such summaries of novel ideas. It is safer to put it as my own way of envisaging the theory. What are time and space? They are the names for ways of conducting certain measurements. The four dimensions of nature as conceived by Minkowski express the fact that four measurements with a certain peculiar type of mutual independence are required to formulate the relations of any infinitesimal occurrence to the rest of the physical universe. These ways of measurement can be indefinitely varied by change of character, so that four independent measurements of one character will specify an occurrence just as well as four other measurements of some other character. A set of four measurements of a definite character which assigns a special type to each of the four measurements will be called a measure-system. Thus there are alternative measure-systems, and each measure-system embraces, for the specification of each infinitesimal occurrence, four assigned measurements of separate types, called the coordinates of that occurrence. The change from one measure-system to another appears in mathematics as the change from one set of variables (pl, p2, p3, p4) to another set of variables (q1, q2, q3, q4), the variables of the p-system being functions of the q-system, and vice versa. In this way all the quantitative laws of the physical universe can be expressed either in terms of the p-variables or in terms of the q-variables. If a suitable measure-system has been adopted, one of the measurements, say p4, will appear to us as a measurement of time, and the remaining measurements (p1, p2, p3) will be measurements of space, which are adequate to determine a point. But different measure-systems have this property of subdivision into spatial and temporal measurements according to the different circumstances of the observers. It follows that what one observer means by space and time is not necessarily the same as what another observer may mean. It is to be observed that not every change of measure-system involves a change in the meanings of space...

(The entire section is 3832 words.)

F. S. C. Northrop (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Einstein's Conception of Science," in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, revised edition, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, 1970, pp. 387-408.

[Northrop was an American author and educator who specialized in the fields of law, science, philosophy, and economics. In the following essay, originally published in 1949, he argues that understanding Einstein's views of the scientific method requires a well-honed "epistemological philosophy."]

Albert Einstein is as remarkable for his conception of scientific method as he is for his achievements by means of that method. It might be supposed that these two talents would always go...

(The entire section is 7325 words.)

Gaston Bachelard (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "The Philosophic Dialectic of the Concepts of Relativity," in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, revised edition, edited by Paul Arthur Schlipp, The Library of Living Philosophers, 1970, pp. 565-80.

[Bachelard was an influential French philosopher and critic. Many of his writings focus on poetic imagery and its relation to the creative process, and their approach is characterized by an emphasis on psychoanalytic theory. Unlike Sigmund Freud, who regarded dreams as manifestations of an individual's motivations, Bachelard, like Carl Jung, considered dreaming to be a revelation of the collective unconscious. Bachelard thus looked to dreaming, or reverie, for certain primitive...

(The entire section is 5205 words.)

Irving Kristol (essay date 1950)

SOURCE: "Einstein: The Passion of Pure Reason," in Commentary, Vol. 10, No. 3, September, 1950, pp. 216-24.

[Kristol is an American author and editor. In the following essay, he discusses Einstein's religious beliefsparticularly his sometimes conflicted ties to the Jewish faithand the ways in which they ran in opposition to his devotion to reason.]

In Philipp Frank's biography, Einstein: His Life and Times, we read the following anecdote:

"Einstein was once told that a physicist whose intellectual capacities were rather mediocre had been run over by a bus and killed. He remarked sympathetically: 'Too bad about his body!'"...

(The entire section is 5824 words.)

Robert B. Downs (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Harbinger of the Atomic Age," in Books That Changed the World, revised edition, American Library Association, 1978, pp. 374-82.

[Downs was an American librarian, author, and editor whose professional life was committed to championing intellectual freedom and opposing literary censorship. In the following essay, originally published in the first edition of Books That Changed the World, he discusses various concepts rooted in Einstein's special and general theories of relativity and their impact on scientific study.]

Albert Einstein is one of the rare figures in history who succeeded in becoming a legend of heroic proportions during his own lifetime. The...

(The entire section is 3529 words.)

Robert Neidorf (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Discussion: Is Einstein a Positivist?" in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 30, No. 2, April, 1963, pp. 173-88.

[In the following essay, which originally appeared as part of a doctoral dissertation presented at Yale University in 1959, Neidorf considers whether or not Einstein's theories fit a positivistic epistemology.]

There are in fact two cases to be decided, one textual and one technical. The textual question: Does Einstein, in his thinking and writing about the philosophy of science, advocate a positivistic (or empiricist) position? Most of the literature on this subject, both by Einstein and by commentators, turns on the special theory of...

(The entire section is 8996 words.)

Walter G. Creed (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Is Einstein's Work Relevant to the Study of Literature?" in After Einstein: Proceedings of the Einstein Centennial Celebration at Memphis State University, 14-16 March 1979, edited by Peter Barker and Cecil G. Shugart, Memphis State University Press, 1981, pp. 203-11.

[In the following essay, which was originally presented at the Einstein Centennial Celebration at Memphis State University in 1979, Creed contends that Einstein's theories may be successfully applied to the study of literature; however, Creed stresses that Einstein's belief in the fundamental value of experience in understanding and interpreting reality runs counter to much literary theory that emphasizes the...

(The entire section is 3543 words.)

Erwin Hiebert (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Einstein's Image of Himself as a Philosopher of Science," in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences: Essays in Honor of I Bernard Cohen, edited by Everett Mendelsohn, Cambridge University Press, 1984, pp. 175-90.

[In the following essay, Hiebert explores Einstein's position as a philosopher of scienceas opposed to merely being a scientistand his own views of himself as such.]

Since antiquity, natural philosophers and scientists have expressed the conviction that the observational and experimental study of nature brings with it a good measure of intellectual and aesthetic satisfaction. Indeed, scientists on the whole claim to derive...

(The entire section is 8169 words.)

James D. Ziegler (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Primitive, Newtonian, and Einsteinian Fantasies: Three Worldviews," in The Scope of the Fantastic-Theory, Technique, Major Authors, edited by Robert A. Collins and Howard D. Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 69-75.

[In the following essay, Ziegler argues that the Weltanschauung—or world-viewof any given time period necessarily places restraints on the creative imagination, but remains hopeful that the fantasy genre will benefit from the societal move from a Newtonian to an Einsteinian worldview.]

Fantasy, as a genre of the creative imagination, can be described as a chimerical or fantastic notion, where "fantastic" connotes...

(The entire section is 2951 words.)

Robert Hauptman and Irving Hauptman (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Circuitous Path: Albert Einstein and the Epistemology of Fiction," in Einstein and the Humanities, edited by Dennis P. Ryan, Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 125-34.

[In the following essay, Hauptman and Hauptman argue that Einstein's theories were fundamental to the development of absurdist fiction.]

When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

Albert Einstein

The zeitgeist and the general inferences drawn from Einstein's work come to bear most seminally on a...

(The entire section is 3705 words.)

Dennis Bohnenkamp (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Post-Einsteinian Physics and Literature: Toward a New Poetics," in Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, Vol. XXII, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 19-30.

[In the following essay, Bohnenkamp discusses the effects of Einstein's physics on the modern literary temperament.]

C. P. Snow's now infamous 1959 lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," popularized the notion that science and literature held two irreconcilable world views and "had almost ceased to communicate at all." It may be true that technology, applied science and literature are often at odds, but not literature and scientific theory. Snow's allegation that "It...

(The entire section is 5403 words.)

Louis Kaplan (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Albert Einstein: A Necrological Approach," in The Centennial Review, Vol. 35, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 591-606.

[In the following essay, Kaplan contends that Einstein's Autobiographical Notes must be examined as a necrology-or obituary-largely because of Einstein's professional and personal connections to both the Jewish Holocaust of World War II and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, by the United States, which Kaplan considers "the twin catastrophes at the limits of twentieth-century history and its meaning. "]

1. INTRODUCTION

This essay offers a close reading of a repeated figure in the autobiographical narrative of a...

(The entire section is 5353 words.)

Stephen Hawking (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Einstein's Dream," in Black Holes and Baby Universes, and Other Essays, Bantam Books, 1993, pp. 69-83.

[Hawking is an English physicist, author, and educator renowned for his significant contributions to contemporary scientific theory. In the following essay, which was originally presented as a lecture at the Paradigm Session of the NTT Data Communications Systems Corporation in Tokyo in 1991, he describes relativity and quantum mechanics and explains their implications for contemporary science and culture.]

In the early years of the twentieth century, two new theories completely changed the way we think about space and time, and about reality itself. More...

(The entire section is 4894 words.)

Donald A. Crosby (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Einstein on Religion," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter, 1994, pp. 186-97.

[Crosby is an American author, educator, and minister specializing in philosophy and religion. In the following essay, he explains Einstein's religious beliefs.]

Albert Einstein was a devoutly religious man, although he did not believe in a personal God or align himself with the teachings or practices of any particular religious community. In his lifetime he wrote and lectured on many topics other than mathematical physics, including the topic of religion. In what follows, I first discuss his view of the nature of religion in general and of the proper way of conceiving...

(The entire section is 3679 words.)