Think Tank

Some of the world's greatest scientific minds tell us what they love—and hate—about Einstein

Thursday, September 30, 2004

LOVE: I particularly admired Einstein’s deep devotion to, and ability to focus on, science itself and his recognition that the personalities of scientists are irrelevant to understanding science. Most important, in light of recent trends in physics, he understood the place of mathematics in science as a tool, not an end in itself. He was always motivated by physical questions and searching for experimental tests, even as he explored new mathematics. In particular, he didn’t confuse mathematical elegance with physical significance.

HATE: I find myself frustrated at Einstein’s constant and inappropriate use of the term “God,” when he really meant something else. As a result, he opened the door for generations of individuals to misrepresent his ideas.


LAWRENCE KRAUSS, chairman, department of physics,

Case Western Reserve University

Einstein—his mind and his manner—became the symbol of science to millions of people throughout the world. In an era of wrenching human struggle under the heels of military might and the horrors of World War I, the experimental proof of the correctness of Einstein’s notion of gravity and curved space showed the world that there were fundamental truths to be learned about nature and that the human mind and spirit could rise above all. Einstein’s manner, his grandfatherly warmth, gave science, and physics in particular, a human side, which we have lost over the century.

What still drives me crazy about Einstein is that he did not participate in the scientific revolution he helped launch. His successful theory of the photoelectric effect was a key step in establishing the correctness of quantum mechanics. He seemed to consider working out the details of the atom and its nucleus more as busywork than as fundamental science.

NEAL LANE, former director, the National Science Foundation;

professor of physics and astronomy, Rice University

I love this Einstein statement:

Es ist ein großer Irrtum, zu glauben daß Freude am Schauen und Suchen durch Zwang und Pflichtgefühl gefördert werden könne.

It is a grave error to suppose that the joy of seeing and seeking can be furthered by compulsion or sense of duty.

AMORY B. LOVINS, physicist, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

What’s not to like?

I picture Einstein as everyone’s favorite uncle: playful, generous, never harsh. He also changed the culture of science by showing the power of creative imagination, and by making audacity respectable—at the age of 26. I have admired and emulated him since my youth.

From studies of the known, Einstein gained a sense of the style of nature. He personified nature by God and regarded the discovery of nature’s laws as reading the mind of God. New ideas were tested by asking himself whether God would have done things that way. Famous verdicts include “God does not play dice” and “The Lord is subtle, but He is not malicious.”

Einstein was far more confident of his theories in 1905 than was justified by reason alone. They felt right to him, though with a private caveat. Writing to a friend about E = mc2, he said, “The argument is amusing and seductive, but . . . the Lord may be laughing over it. ”

Einstein had read the mind of God perfectly in 1905, however, and he remained in harmony through 1916, when he completed his general theory of relativity.

Quantum theory matured rapidly in the 1920s, enjoying success after success. It had a peculiar feature, however. It predicted changes over time with mathematical precision, but with different possibilities arising for the outcome. Upon observation, all possibilities “collapsed” into one, which could not be predicted, only its probability. Niels Bohr championed this view, but Einstein insisted on strict causality: “God does not play dice.” He remained certain to the end that Bohr’s version was incomplete. Colleagues increasingly regarded him as a stubborn old man.

I first studied quantum theory in 1961, my senior year at Cornell. I, too, found Bohr’s version implausible and became obsessed with finding a causal theory. The answer came to me in 1963: Every possibility is realized, in “different worlds” of equal reality. Einstein had been right to the end. Bohr’s version was incomplete. (Soon after, I learned that Hugh Everett had proposed this “many worlds” theory in 1957, two years after Einstein’s death.)

In 1973 it occurred to me that relativity and quantum theory might imply the spontaneous creation of universes from nothing. If so, matter and energy would not be fundamental but manifestations of underlying laws. Ultimate reality would be the laws themselves—the mind of Einstein’s God.

EDWARD P. TYRON, professor of physics and astronomy,

City University of New York 

I often wonder how physicists coped right after Newton. We are the immediate recipients of Einstein’s insights and have reaped the benefits of his groundbreaking vistas, which have pretty much defined the way we look at physical phenomena. But he left us with a mixed legacy. He pioneered the uses of the quantum of energy. Paradoxically, his greatest contribution to science, the general theory of relativity, does not mesh with quantum mechanics, and he expressed grave concerns about its fundamental validity. Today no experiment challenges quantum physics, and blind adherence to it leads us to superstring theories, supersymmetry, and extraspatial dimensions. None of those ideas have been verified experimentally, although many expect supersymmetry to be discovered at CERN in the near future.

Great thinkers such as Einstein seem to commune with nature in ways not easily understandable. They often ask the important questions way ahead of their time. If history is any guide, understanding nature at the next level will require the ditching of some cherished notions. Which will it be for us? Quantum mechanics? Space and/or time? It may take a while before experiments force us to confront these notions. Einstein’s legacy provides startling new insights into the fabric of nature yet makes such deep inroads that experiments take a long time to challenge the underpinnings. It was only with the advent of electromagnetism that Newton’s “action at a distance” was questioned.

We live in Einstein’s shadow. While we have exploited the benefits of his insight, we have not yet confronted the paradoxes created by his paradigm of nature.

PIERRE RAMOND, professor of physics, University of Florida

Einstein revolutionized our view of the physical world.

The contribution that I regard as his most impressive was the construction of general relativity, his 1916 theory of gravity. It overcame apparent contradictions between Newtonian gravity and special relativity by interpreting gravity in terms of the geometry of space-time. It provides the proper framework for describing the evolution of the universe. Other predictions, such as gravitational waves and gravitational lenses, have been confirmed recently.

In his later years Einstein dedicated himself to the construction of a unified theory. For him, this meant a unification of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism and his own theory of gravity. The program was brilliantly conceived. Today unification is a major goal of research in fundamental physics. However, Einstein did not succeed in making significant contributions to the subject. There are two main reasons for this. The first was that he had insufficient knowledge about nuclear forces, which are essential ingredients of modern unified theories. This required a couple of decades of additional experimental work. The second factor was his unwillingness to accept quantum mechanics. As one of its founding fathers, he certainly understood it very well, but he was uncomfortable with its probabilistic aspects. Yet quantum theory has held up extremely well to experimental scrutiny, and in my view, there is no reason to believe that it is not exact, although it could be understood better.

Einstein was an advocate for peace, which I consider to be very much to his credit.

JOHN H. SCHWARZ, professor of theoretical physics, Caltech

What I admire about Einstein the scientist was his ability to reason very clearly and quantitatively in pictures—in his head. He exploited this iconic thinking to maximal effect with his famous Gedankenexperiments, thought experiments involving elevators, light beams, railway cars, observers, and the like. But Einstein was quite different from philosophers, who by and large abuse that process and draw absurd conclusions from it. Einstein’s intuitions led to quantitative results that could be, and have been, empirically verified. It could be argued that he was better at this than any other person, dead or alive.

What drives me crazy about Einstein is that people feel the need to make him into something he wasn’t—a narrow-minded genius, a nerd. The claims that he was learning disabled, or not concerned about practical or financial matters, are not true. Einstein had many patents regarding home refrigeration, he was a pretty good violinist, and he spent many of his later years campaigning for peace.

CHRISTOF KOCH, professor of computation

and neural systems, Caltech

I admire...the extraordinary imagination and courage that led Einstein, as a 26-year-old without an academic position, to understand that a problem that everybody else thought was about electrodynamics actually stemmed from a misunderstanding of the nature of time. I admire Einstein’s ability to write beautifully about simple things, like why the tea leaves collect in the middle of the cup when you stir it, and why there is a place on the sand between the water and the beach where it is easiest to walk.

I even admire his persistence in believing that quantum mechanics could not be the full story. His arguments were more compelling than those of everybody else. I admire his militant pacifism and his realization that Nazism (and only Nazism) was an even greater evil than war. I’d like to think that had he accepted the presidency of Israel—which, of course, would have been totally out of character—we might have been spared the present disaster in the Middle East.

N. DAVID MERMIN, professor of physics, Cornell University

Einstein’s greatest contributions to science and to society were as a nonconformist. His great ideas, as most great ideas, came from outside the establishment, and a century later he remains our most visible reminder of this. I admire Einstein the nonconformist. And I am grateful, as a child who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, that he settled in our town, where we needed all the nonconformists we could get. Certainly, Einstein was good for the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Institute for Advanced Study was good for Einstein. However, as a historian I look back at the record and cannot help wondering: What if? What if Einstein had stayed at Caltech? Einstein gave the new institute in Princeton instant credibility. Without Einstein the institute would have been forced to establish its reputation by taking greater scientific risks. Without the institute, Einstein would have been more exposed to graduate students, experimental physics, and perhaps even some of the routine academic burdens that did not exist at the Institute for Advanced Study.

The other great nonconformist in 20th-century physics was Richard Feynman, who turned down an appointment to the Institute for Advanced Study in favor of a position at Caltech. Feynman was the reciprocal of Einstein. It is hard to imagine Feynman flourishing in Princeton as he had flourished in Pasadena. It is not so hard to imagine Einstein settling into the foothills on the outskirts of Los Angeles and leading a remarkable life. What might have sprung from the mind of Einstein had his imagination been transplanted to the West Coast?

GEORGE DYSON, science historian, author of

Darwin Among the Machines

Einstein was one of our greatest geniuses, period

With that behind us, I’d ask you to consider that the idea of Einstein is perhaps more important than Einstein himself. Don’t get me wrong. I’m as much a fan of Mr. E = mc2 as anybody, but consider this: I’d be willing to bet that, when viewed from centuries hence, Einstein’s most significant contribution to civilization will not be as arguably the greatest physicist of the modern world but rather as an inspirational role model whose life and work ignited the lives of countless other great young thinkers. The total of their contributions to society, and the contributions of the thinkers whom they will in turn inspire, will greatly exceed those of Einstein himself.

My role models include Einstein, Galileo, Da Vinci, Bach, Plato, Shakespeare, Tesla, the astonishing but forgotten architect who designed the Pantheon, and both of my parents. Beyond the power of their cleverness and creative ideas, their inevitable eccentricities, keen wit, and higher-than-normal occurrence of funny hair, my models helped me believe that someday I could grow up to be a bit like them. And I still believe that if I ever do grow up, I still could.

This is what I mean by the idea of Einstein—the potential for an exceptionally creative individual to inspire unlimited generations of children to become great contributors and role models themselves, over and over again. It is the intellectual equivalent of a nuclear chain reaction, which might very well be the most powerful force most of us will ever experience.

BRAN FERREN, cochairman and chief creative officer, Applied Minds.




As a theoretical physicist, I am awed by Albert Einstein’s extraordinary intuition. The most important decisions a theorist makes are which problems to choose and what assumptions or approximations to make as a first step. Completing the problem requires technical skill and good judgment, but we know now to train young theorists to develop these abilities. The first decisions require inspiration that is beyond training. Einstein’s uncanny ability to make the right choices is his true genius.

His groundbreaking series of papers of 1905 demonstrate the point. First, Einstein properly identified the three most important issues of the day. Is the fundamental structure of matter atomic or continuous? How can Newton’s laws of motion and Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism be reconciled? Is light quantized? In each case, he started with a key thought experiment so decisive that it could point the path to a highly unconventional conclusion.

In my field of cosmology, Einstein demonstrated the same skill in his seminal 1917 paper that first applied his general theory of relativity to understanding the origin and evolution of the universe. Here he had a disadvantage compared with his earlier work in that there was little experimental data on which to base his ideas. He opened with a bold assumption, the cosmo-logical principle, which asserts that the density and physical properties of the universe are the same everywhere. The cosmological principle opened the field of modern cosmology to practical investigation because it implies that observations made from our single vantage point in the universe are representative of the universe as a whole. What makes the assumption so remarkable is that it flew in the face of the best astronomical data of the time, which suggested a nonuniform universe in which the stars are all concentrated in a finite clump surrounded by an infinite empty space. How could any theorist be so bold?

Einstein’s intuition was not unerring, but even when he made a mistake there were surprising benefits. In the same 1917 paper, Einstein not only suggested that space is uniform but that time is too. This meant that the density and distribution of matter should be the same forever and that the universe does not evolve. His intuition ran him headlong into a puzzle. If gravity is purely attractive, then matter has a tendency to cluster together in ever larger and denser clumps. Evolution seems unavoidable. His novel solution was the intro-duction of a cosmological constant, the first example of a form of gravitationally self-repulsive energy. Einstein introduced just the right amount of self-repulsion to balance the self-attraction of matter and keep the universe unchanged. Within a decade, Edwin Hubble proved his static picture to be incorrect, and Einstein declared his static model his greatest blunder. However, in pursuing his intuition that the universe is static, Einstein uncovered the fact that general relativity, unlike Newton’s gravity, allows forms of energy that are gravitationally self-repulsive and that can accelerate the expansion of the universe. This discovery underlies inflationary theory and dark energy, two key components of the current standard model of the universe. You have to love someone who can make a great contribution even when making his greatest blunder.

PAUL STEINHARDT, Albert Einstein Professor in Science,

Princeton University

What I admire most about Einstein was his strong intuitive sense about the underlying beauty and elegance of fundamental physical theories. He understood how the simplicity of the patterns in physics is beautiful. This does not mean simple in action. The motion of the planets and of atoms can be very complex, but the basic patterns underneath are simple. He was also driven by a related principle, that the laws of the universe are self-similar, in that there are connections between two sets of phenomena previously thought to be distinct. He understood that there appeared to be a beauty in these interrelationships fed by perhaps a prejudice that at the bottom of it all was a simple unifying law.

Certainly a beautiful theory means being able to describe it very simply in terms of fundamental mathematical quantities. “Simply” means compression into a small mathematical expression with tremendous explanatory powers, which requires only a finite amount of interpretation. In other words, a huge number of relationships between data are concisely fit into a single statement. Murray Gell-Mann expressed this point well when he said, “The complexity of what you have to learn in order to be able to read the statement of the law is not really very great compared to the apparent complexity of the data that are being summarized by that law. That apparent complexity is partly removed when the law is formulated.”

This is what is common to all of our fundamental laws. Einstein’s prejudice, that nature is simple and therefore beautiful, led him to his greatest insights about the very fabric of the universe. The same inspirational intuition and prejudice that allowed him to uncover the hidden fabric of our universe, however, also created a blind spot about accepting the fundamental framework of modern physics—the revolution in quantum mechanics. His greatest strength eventually turned against him to form his greatest weakness. There are lessons here.

AL SECKEL, researcher in illusions, perception,

and cognitive science, Caltech

The thing I love most about Einstein’s scientific work is the clear demonstration of the universality of creativity. In our society, many people will describe a musician, dancer, artist, or singer as “creative.’’ This appellation is much less given to the scientist. And yet Einstein said: “After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.’’

The power of the artist, and the scientist, is to imagine. My generation has imagined new things called superpartners, new forms of matter and energy. When I was a graduate student 27 years ago, Einstein’s use of imagination inspired me to write the first Ph.D. thesis at MIT on superpartners. They may be one of the first experimental signatures of superstring theory, or M-theory, the modern version of Einstein’s long-sought unified field theory.

Einstein also saw himself as a member of the human family. He said, “A hundred times a day I remind myself that my inner and outer lives are based on the labors of other people, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving.”

He found the racial prejudice of his new homeland odious: “Race prejudice has unfortunately become an American tradition which is uncritically handed down from one generation to the next.’’ His interactions with African Americans such as Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and even the black community in Princeton have been largely forgotten. For me these remain as beacons showing that his intellect and humanity were so great as to easily permit him to transcend the boundaries of prejudice in minds and hearts less well endowed.

Finally, it drives me a little crazy that he was able to create his wonderful theories of space and time before I had the chance. Happy annus mirabilis, Uncle Albert!

S. J. GATES JR., professor of physics, University of Maryland

Next Page
1 of 3
Comment on this article

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Collapse bottom bar

Log in to your account

Email address:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it emailed to you.

Not registered yet?

Register now for FREE. It takes only a few seconds to complete. Register now »