Einstein vs. the Nobel Prize

Why the Nobel Committee repeatedly dissed this "world-bluffing Jewish physicist"

By Virginia Hughes|Thursday, September 28, 2006

When Albert Einstein listed the most important honors of his life, he began with the German Physical Society's Max Planck Medal, named for a physicist he revered. He went on from there to list the prizes and honorary doctorate degrees awarded him in many nations. Conspicuously absent was the plaudit with the highest profile and payout: the Nobel Prize. But in context this omission isn't so surprising. The Nobel nod—17 years after Einstein published his special theory of relativity—came long after recognition by the physics world and even the general public. Even more bizarre, the prize was awarded to Einstein not for his relativity revolution, but for the comparatively obscure discovery of the photoelectric effect. Why? After years of sifting through letters and diaries of the Scandinavian archives, science historian Robert Marc Friedman says it was an intentional snub fueled by the biases of the day—a prejudice against pacifists, Jews, and, most of all, theoretical physics.

In 1905, while working as a patent clerk in Switzerland, 26-year-old Albert Einstein published five seminal papers on the nature of space, light, and motion. One paper introduced the special theory of relativity, which dramatically broke with Newton's universally accepted description of how physics worked. Special relativity did away with the notion of absolute space and time—Einstein said they were instead "relative" to the observer's conditions—effectively flipping the Newtonian model on its apple-bruised head. In 1915, Einstein expanded the theory by incorporating gravity: it was not just a force of attraction between bodies, he said, but the result of distortions in space itself. This new, more robust version was called the theory of general relativity.

Today, general relativity is celebrated as Einstein's most impressive work. But as Friedman wrote in his 2001 book, The Politics of Excellence, in post-War Germany Einstein was despised as a pacifist Jew who renounced his German citizenship, went to meetings of radical groups, and publicly supported socialism. His theories were dismissed as "world-bluffing Jewish physics" by some prominent German physicists, who claimed to practice "true" German science based on observations of the natural world and hypotheses that could be tested in a laboratory.

Luckily for Einstein, British astronomer Arthur Stanley Eddington believed there was a way to test the general theory. If massive objects curved space itself, as Einstein proposed, then they should bend nearby rays of light, as well. During six minutes of a total solar eclipse on May 29, 1919, Eddington measured the positions of stars that appeared next to the blotted-out sun. Sure enough, they followed the predictions of Einstein's general theory.

Eddington revealed the results of his eclipse experiment on November 6, and Einstein became a household name throughout the world practically overnight—literally overnight in some places; the next day, the London Times ran the headline, "Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe." Within a month, the news traveled through the American press; a New York Times headline declared, "Given the Speed, Time Is Naught."

The nominations for Einstein that poured into the laps of the Nobel Committee members as they were reviewing candidates for the 1920 prize were not exactly well received. The committee did not want a "political and intellectual radical, who—it was said—did not conduct experiments, crowned as the pinnacle of physics," says Friedman. So the 1920 prize was given to the Swiss Charles-Edouard Guillaume for his ho-hum discovery of an inert nickel-steel alloy. When the announcement was made, Friedman says the previously unknown Guillaume "was as surprised as the rest of the world."

By the next year, "Einstein-mania" was in full bloom. During his first trip to the United States he gave many public lectures on relativity, and received the prestigious Barnard Medal from the National Academy of Sciences. After one particularly crowded lecture at Princeton, legend has it that Einstein said wryly to the chairman, "I never realized that so many Americans were interested in tensor analysis."

As his quirky personality and untamed tresses gained more popularity with the general public, his momentous theory gained more credibility in the scientific community. In 1921, swarms of both theoreticians and experimentalists again nominated Einstein for his work on relativity. Reporters kept asking him, to his great annoyance, if this would be the year that he received a Nobel Prize.

But 1921 was not the year, thanks to one stubborn senior member of the prize committee, ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand. "Einstein must never receive a Nobel Prize, even if the whole world demands it," said Gullstrand, according to a Swedish mathematician's diary dug up by Friedman. Gullstrand's arguments, however biased, convinced the rest of the committee. In 1921, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded no physics prize.

Two prizes were thus available in 1922. By this time, Einstein's popularity was so great that many members of the committee feared for their international reputations if they didn't recognize him in some way. As in the previous two years, Einstein received many nominations for his relativity theory. But this year there was one nomination—from Carl Wilhelm Oseen—not for relativity, but for the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect. In another of his 1905 papers, Einstein had proposed that light, which had been thought to act only as a wave, sometimes acted as a particle—and laboratory experiments conducted in 1916 showed he was right.

In his exhaustive research, Friedman realized that Oseen lobbied the committee to recognize the photoelectric effect not as a "theory," but as a fundamental "law" of nature–not because he cared about recognizing Einstein, but because he had another theoretical physicist in mind for that second available prize: Niels Bohr. Bohr had proposed a new quantum theory of the atom that Oseen felt was "the most beautiful of all the beautiful" ideas in recent theoretical physics. In his report to the committee, Oseen exaggerated the close bond between Einstein's proven law of nature and Bohr's new atom. "In one brilliant stroke," Friedman says, "he saw how to meet the objections against both Einstein and Bohr."

The committee was indeed won over. On November 10, 1922, they gave the 1922 prize to Bohr and the delayed 1921 prize to Einstein, "especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect." Einstein, en route to Japan (and perhaps huffy after the committee's long delay) did not attend the official ceremony. According to Friedman, Einstein didn't care much about the medal, anyway, though he did care about the money. As the German mark decreased in value after the war, Einstein needed a hard foreign currency for alimony payments to his ex-wife. Moreover, under the terms of his 1919 divorce settlement, she was already entitled to all the money "from an eventual Nobel Prize." Bruce Hunt, an Einstein historian at the University of Texas at Austin, says that calling attention to these financial arrangements "brings out the fact that Einstein was a much more worldly and savvy man than his later public image would suggest."

Of course, Einstein isn't the only player who emerges as being not quite angelic. "The decisions of the Nobel Committees are often treated by the press and public as the voice of god," Hunt says. But Friedman's research brought to light "how political the deliberations of the Nobel Committees sometimes were—and presumably still are."

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