SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 92 - June 2005

Einstein year

This year marks not only 50 years since the death of Albert Einstein (18 April, 1955) but, more importantly, 100 years since 1905 – the year in which he made three major separate contributions to the birth of modern physics. GEOFF JONES, below, describes his scientific impact while SENAN (page 24) reviews a recently published collection of the physicist’s political writings.

ALBERT EINSTEIN is the only physicist whose picture everyone recognises. But the image of Einstein that everyone recognises – the white-haired patriarch, brilliant but completely impractical; the Zionist who opposed the Israeli state; the pacifist who called for the building of the atomic bomb – is far from the truth.

A picture of Einstein in 1905 is very different – young, slightly dangerous looking, ready to dive headfirst into the physical and philosophical ferment of the start of the 20th century. After graduation, Einstein had refused to fit into the suffocating mould of academic life in German universities. Instead, he got a job in the Swiss patent office which gave him the space to do what he was best at – thinking. Einstein’s great strength was his ability to think through the physical basis of a problem before attempting to cast it into a theory.

At the turn of the century, physics was in a state of turmoil hard to grasp a century on. Nineteenth century classical physics had seemed all but perfect when John Rayleigh and James Jeans demonstrated that classical electromagnetic theory led to the ludicrous result that a heated body should radiate an infinite amount of energy. To get round this, in 1898 Max Planck had proposed a scandalous hypothesis that radiation might be quantised – only capable of being absorbed or emitted in discrete energy packets. This produced results that squared with experiments but was quite incomprehensible to classical physicists. At the same time, since there was no direct evidence for the existence of atoms, an influential group led by Ernst Mach questioned their physical existence, seeing them as merely useful props for calculation. (Vladimir Lenin, in one of his early works, attacked this group from a realist versus idealist standpoint.)

In 1905, Einstein dived into this melee with three very different papers. In his first, he analysed the phenomenon of ‘Brownian motion’, the random motion of pollen grains in water viewed through a microscope. He demonstrated that such motion could be explained satisfactorily by assuming that the grains were being bombarded by water molecules – a direct demonstration of the physical existence of molecules, and an answer to Mach.

Einstein’s second paper dealt with the ‘photoelectric effect’, the emission of electrons from a metal irradiated by light. This was another experiment which could not be explained by classical theory. He showed, following Planck, that the experimental results could be explained if light was thought of as travelling in small packets each with its own ‘quantum’ of energy. Ironically, although he received the Nobel prize for this paper, in fact, it led up a blind alley with regard to the nature of light, which had to be explained later in very different terms.

Einstein’s true eminence rests on his third paper, on the theory of relativity. The idea of ‘relativity’ is known to anyone who has sat in a train at a station. The train on the next track starts to move relative to you – but is it your train or the other that is moving? The problem is solved by referring to the station, a fixed frame of reference. From Isaac Newton on, physicists had assumed that the universe as a whole acted as such a reference, but Einstein demonstrated that this could not be the case. Given that light travels at a finite speed (first measured 100 years earlier), and thinking of himself as sitting on a beam of light, he showed that there could be no fixed frame, and that nothing could travel at speeds equal to or greater than that of light. These two ideas were revolutionary in their implications for our ideas of ‘space’ and ‘time’ – no longer an impartial stage on which our experiments were played out but an integral part of the experiments themselves.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Einstein was at the heart of debates and arguments about the new quantum physics. By this time, the rough and ready quantum theories proposed by Planck, Einstein, Niels Bohr and others had been superseded by the theory of quantum mechanics, developed mainly by Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger and Paul Dirac, utterly different from classical Newtonian mechanics. Quantum mechanics brilliantly explained the structure and motion of nature at a microscopic scale and below, but its relation to relativity was shaky. What was more, its philosophical underpinnings were dubious. It appeared that if an experiment could have two outcomes, quantum mechanics could only provide the probability of either occurring, not predict which actually would occur. Bohr stated categorically that causality – that one cause produces one unique effect – had to be thrown away and replaced by a statistical view of the world where only the probabilities have any meaning. Nothing exists ‘beneath’ the experimental results. Einstein refused to accept this with his famous saying: ‘The Good Lord does not play dice!’

As far as most physicists were concerned, Bohr won. Quantum mechanics provided a magic toolkit to analyse the physical world. Einstein’s worries were put aside with only a few scientists trying to cope with the contradictions he saw at the basis of quantum theory. He spent the last decades of his life fruitlessly trying to reconcile his theory of gravity with quantum theory. But 80 years on he is, in a sense, vindicated. For example, one of his arguments against Bohr was an imaginary experiment concerning the states of two ‘twin’ particles separated from each other (the Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky paradox). In the last few years, the experiment was actually carried out. The results agreed with quantum theory, but that agreement implied some underlying connection between all parts of the universe allowing instant ‘teleportation’ between particles kilometres apart. Underlying Bohr’s statistical view lies a much more complex reality.

Albert Einstein is now paraded as an example for physicists: ‘Stick to your airy-fairy theories but leave practical decisions like invading Iraq to practical politicians’. But at the turn of the last century, Einstein was a part of the intellectual ferment that produced Pablo Picasso, Arnold Schönberg – and Lenin and Leon Trotsky.


A socialist scientist

Albert Einstein

Edited by Jim Green (part of the Rebel Lives series)

Published by Ocean Press, 2004, £8.95

Reviewed by Senan

ALBERT EINSTEIN is an excellent collection of some of the physicist’s important political writings. It is a must-read book for those, like me, who are ill-informed by the corrupted education system.

Apart from the necessary introduction by the editor, Jim Green, there is a chronology of Einstein’s life before the writings are divided into sections: pacifism, nationalism and fascism; world government; human rights; the Jews and Israel; capitalism and socialism.

The collection includes Einstein’s famous ‘Why Socialism?’, which originally appeared in the first issue of the left publication, Monthly Review, in 1949. This article shows the scientist’s affiliation with socialism.

Einstein published his groundbreaking scientific papers in 1905. One hundred years have passed and still science has not been able to put his works to maximum use.

He is arguably the most-celebrated scientist of the last century, considered to be the most well-known person in the world. Yet his political life and opinions have been kept hidden. Furthermore, they have been twisted to serve the interests of capitalism. As Einstein said: "My opinion of the human race is high enough that I believe this bogey [patriotism and war] would have disappeared long ago, had the sound sense of the peoples not been systematically corrupted by commercial and political interest acting through the schools and the press". (The World As I See It, 1931)

Born in Ulm, Germany, in 1879 to a middle-class family, he was educated in Munich and then Switzerland. Einstein rejected the authoritarian education system in Germany, and was unable to get into university. His first marriage was a struggle in poverty to support his family. Then 1905 changed everything. Academic acclaim and positions came once he had published his major works.

Unlike the way bourgeois historians like to portray him, Einstein was not a genius from some faraway ‘planet maths’. Science is not something extraordinary, and scientists are not superhuman. Science is also a social expression – a kind of art. Einstein seems to have understood its social role.

The year 1905 was a breakthrough in many aspects. Not only Einstein but also many scientists came with great discoveries and inventions. Prior to 1905, Isaac Newton’s laws dominated the scientific world. (Karl Marx expressed dissatisfaction with the rigid scientific explanations of his time.) Science needed more creative theories to enable humanity to understand the wealth of data available at this historical juncture.

Also, prior to that revolutionary year, the working class was going through massive changes all over Europe and the world. Einstein was affected by this mood of change.

The strong working-class movement at that time was involved in deep political and philosophical discussion on the need and possibility for social change.

Einstein saw the inherent contradictions of the capitalist economic model: "The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil". Most importantly, he concluded that a socialist planned economy was needed: "I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilised in a planned fashion". (Why Socialism?)

Einstein was an anti-war scientist from the start, writing, "As long as sovereign nations possess great power war is inevitable". Before the first world war he was part of the Bund Neues Vaterland (New Fatherland League) which opposed the conflict. He also spoke out against the second world war.

In 1952 he refused an offer to become Israel’s president. He also refused an offer from Joseph Stalin to live in Russia. In Einstein’s reply to Stalin he asked why there was discrimination against scientists who were Jews. He consistently spoke in support of a world government and planned economy. This terrified the capitalist establishment.

Einstein changed his nationality according to his needs. Twice he denounced his German nationality and, by the time he died, had been a citizen of three countries. He was a member of Chinese, black and Asian associations. In 1933, Einstein and his second wife, Elsa, went to live in the US. While all new immigrants to the US were expected to be patriotic, he wrote: "And all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them".

Many believe that Einstein is the father of the atomic bomb. On the contrary, he fought vehemently against its development. It is true that Einstein’s letter to US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, in 1939, kick-started the Manhattan project. However, he did not help to develop that project. In 1955, Bernard Russell and Einstein, together with many leading scientists, wrote a manifesto for nuclear disarmament. Einstein wrote: "I do not consider myself the father of the release of atomic energy. My part in it was quite indirect. I did not, in fact, foresee that it would be released in my time". (Atomic War or Peace, 1945)

He spoke on behalf of and helped many socialists. During the McCarthy era he fought against the witch-hunt. Senator Joseph McCarthy considered Einstein an enemy of America. The notorious head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, initiated an investigation which collected more than 2,000 pages of information on him. Many methods were used to try and discredit him, including attempts to prove his theories were bogus. Despite all this, he continued to speak up for socialists and others condemned by the US administration’s authoritarian efforts. He argued for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 as spies. He protested against the arrest of Communist Party leaders. He was a good friend of left-wing activist and singer Paul Robeson. In the 1950s he wrote to a friend that the "US is no longer a free country". He wrote: "If a visitor should come to this country from another planet, would he not find it strange that in this country so much power is permitted to private corporations without their having commensurate responsibility? I say this to stress that the US government must keep the control of atomic energy, not because socialism is necessarily desirable, but because atomic energy was developed by the government, and it would be unthinkable to turn over this property of the people to any individuals or groups of individuals". (Atomic War or Peace)

Science and scientists are inevitably linked to the social model of their time. And Einstein was a socialist scientist. His clear understanding of the incapacity of the capitalist system, however, is always hidden from science scholars. This ensures that his great influence on up and coming scientists does not carry on into the social arena, ultimately making them aware of the class struggle. The establishment is right in concluding that a scientist of this caliber would be a great asset to the working class.

Albert Einstein is available from Socialist Books



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