14 March 2010

Marc Estrin : Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie.


(Albert Einstein was born on March 14th, 1879.)

Blanchot : "La réponse est le malheur de la question." (The answer is the misfortune of the question.)

Sometimes I ask myself how it came about that I happened to be the one to discover the theory of relativity. The reason is, I think, that the normal adult never stops to think about space and time. Whatever thinking he or she did about these things will already have been done as a small child. It, on the other hand, was so slow to develop that I only began thinking about space and time when I was already grown up. Naturally I then went more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child.

There exists a remarkable photograph of Einstein and Marie Curie standing together on a naked, blasted heath, both dressed in black -- he in a cape, she in a hooded cloak. They look like allegorical figures from an early Bergman film -- set eternally there for us to ponder their meaning, their relationship to one another, their relationship to us.

I'd been carrying that mysterious image around for a long time when I came upon a poem by Adrienne Rich which explained it to me:
Today I was reading about Marie Curie

She must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified.
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her
finger ends
till she could no longer hold a test tube or a

She died a famous woman denying her wounds
denying her wounds came from the same source
as her power.
Einstein, too, suffered from radiation sickness. Einstein, too, denied. Two kinds of radiation sickness, actually. Sickness over his unintended contribution -- in theory and in practice -- to the deaths of so many and the poisoning of the planet. And sickness about from-radiation-born physics, a disease within the whole swing of science which left him behind, an oddball, a hermit, a naysaying party pooper, a pathetic, has-been, once-important old man.

His wounds came from the same source as his power. The power to imagine an entirely other view of the world, of the universe, the view of someone who rides on a light beam. The power of the light-beam-rider to see the light also enabled him to envision a world without war, a world beyond nations, beyond power, greed and corruption. One can't see these visions without being seriously wounded. One can't be wounded without denying.

"God does not play at dice," he said. Events in the world must have a cause, in spite of what the quantum mechanics were saying. At its deepest level the universe must be orderly, not random. If he could only find this statement which would describe it. "Forget it," said the mechanics.

He wouldn't forget it. His eyes were glued on the universe and the possibility of penetrating to the ultimate core where all secrets would be resolved and understood as the emanation of a single law. This law, the unified field theory, would be for him the name of God. He could never name the Name. His wounds came from the same source as his power. He could never name the Name

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifested in the laws of the Universe -- a spirit vastly superior to that of humanity, and one in the face of which we, with our modest powers, must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is quite different from the religiosity of someone more naïve.


He could never name the name of God. It is a remarkable coincidence that just at the time Einstein was leaving the physics community, beginning his retreat into the desert of his solitary vision quest, another German seeker was articulating something very similar. Let's switch our eyes over to the power and wounds of Arnold Schoenberg, the great revolutionary who broke open a millennium of Western tradition to lead music into uncharted territory. Between 1923 in 1928 he worked on his largest, most ambitious and shattering work, his opera, Moses and Aron. This piece is a radical and comprehensive act of the imagination, an attempted human song in the face of the unspeakable immensity of God.

At the opening of the first act, Moses hears the wordless voice of God, and understands that it is einziger, ewiger, everywhere, invisible and inconceivable. Standing in relation to such a God, he cannot sing, he is almost dumb, he can express himself only in a halting, halfway manner, using a vocal technique of Schoenberg's called Sprechstimme -- half singing, half speaking, limited, frustrated, fallen. The voice from the burning Bush instructs him to prophesy the name of the eternal God. But he resists. He is too simple, he cannot speak, he cannot express the infinite.

No prob. Aron, his brother, sizes up the situation, and is ready for the job. He has a beautiful tenor voice, sight-sings well, and although describing the infinite God is a difficult task, he'll give it a shot. Granted, it may be only an approximation, but it's close enough for church work, and besides, the people need an image to hang onto, or they just won't buy the whole business.

The opera concerns the conflict between Moses and Aron over trying to enclose the boundless in a finite image. Like Einstein.

I do not believe in a personal God. If something is in me which can be called religious, it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it. My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak and transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality.


A nine-year-old asked me the other day "What did Einstein do?" I found it hard to describe. If he had invented the steam engine or discovered penicillin, or the charge on the electron, I could've explained more easily. But just try telling a child what Einstein did -- it ain't easy. And that is in large part because what he did is not in English. It's not in German either. As his futile search dragged on, it was conducted more and more in the language of mathematical symbols, unrepresented by the tongue.

This was new, but not, perhaps, inappropriate. New because until relatively recently, our Judeo-Christian culture bore witness to the belief that all truth and realness -- with the exception of a small, clear margin at the very top -- could be housed inside the walls of spoken language. Until the 17th century, the predominant bias and content of the natural sciences were descriptive. But with the invention of analytic geometry and the theory of algebraic functions, with the development of calculus, mathematics transcended being an instrument to characterize certain aspects of nature, and became its own independent language, one of progressive untranslated ability. Mathematical forms and meanings have receded from spoken language at an ever accelerating pace. For no dictionaries to relate the vocabulary and grammar of contemporary higher mathematics to ordinary speech. One cannot even paraphrase.

This was the world in which Einstein ended. No more railroad cars and flashing lights of special relativity. Gone were the elevators of general relativity. Just pages and pages of reiterative tensor equations. The small, queer margin at the top. No song; beyond speech; never expressible even in its own terms. Einstein. Moses. The Unspeakable, Unreachable Absolute Idea of God.

The religious feeling engendered by experiencing the logical comprehensibility of profound interrelations is a somewhat different sort from the feeling that one usually calls religious. It is more a feeling of awe at this scheme that is manifested in the material universe. It does not lead us to fashion a godlike being in our own image -- a personage who makes demands of us and to take some interest in us as individuals. There is in this neither will nor goal, but only sheer being.


Is it not true that your discoveries of mass and energy equivalence led directly to the production of atomic weapons?

(Shakes his head vehemently)

Is it not true that you wrote a series of letters to President Roosevelt recommending that the United States develop an atomic bomb?

(Thinks, then shakes his head decisively)

When Einstein accepted a consulting ship with the Bureau of Ordinance he said he would be unable to travel to Washington regularly, and that someone from the Division of High Explosives would have to come up to meet him at Princeton. I was selected to carry out the job. And so, on every other Friday, I took a morning train to Princeton, carrying a briefcase packed with secret Navy projects. Einstein would meet me in his study at home, and we would go through all the proposals one by one. He approved practically all of them, saying, "Oh, yes, very interesting, very, very ingenious," and the next day the admiral in charge was quite happy with Einstein's comments.

EINSTEIN (screams out)
I have never worked in the field of applied science, let alone for the military! I condemn the military mentality of our time just as you do! I have been a pacifist all my life, and I regard Gandhi as the only truly great political figure of our time!
(Pause, quietly...)
I just served as a mailbox. They brought me a letter and all I had to do was sign...


Our time is distinguished by wonderful achievements in the fields of scientific understanding and technical application. But let us not forget that knowledge and skills alone cannot lead humanity to a happy and dignified life. What humanity owes to Buddha, Moses and Jesus ranks for me higher than all the achievements of the inquiring and constructive mind. What these blessed men have given us we must guard and try to keep alive with all our strength if humanity is not to lose its dignity, the security of its existence, and the joy in living.


The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our ways of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe. A new way of thinking is essential if humanity is to survive and move toward higher levels.


The big political doings of our time are so disheartening that one feels quite alone. It is as if people had lost the passion for justice and dignity and no longer treasured what better generations have won by extraordinary sacrifice. The foundation of all human value is morality. To have recognized this clearly in primitive times is the unique greatness of our Moses. In contrast, look at the people today...


It is easier to change the nature of plutonium than people's evil spirit!
(He looks at the clappers, who do not respond)
People grow cold faster than the planet they inhabit.
(He looks for God)
Mine eyes fail with looking upward.
Three great powers rule the world: stupidity, fear and greed.


People like you and me, though mortal like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live. What I mean is that we never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we are born.

Aron puts forth a comprehensible image so that Israel may live and not fall into despair. Moses loves an idea, an absolute vision, relentless in its purity. He would make of Israel the hollow, tormented vessel of an inconceivable presence.

Here, in George Steiner's imagination (in The Portage to San Cristóbal of A.H.), is Hitler's self-defense after he was captured as an old man in the Brazilian jungle:
"There had to be a solution, a FINAL solution. For what is the Jew if he is not a long cancer of unrest? Gentlemen I beg your attention. Was there ever a crueler invention, a contrivance more calculated to harrow human existence, than that of a non-impotent, all seeing, yet invisible, impalpable, inconceivable God?... the Jew emptied the world by setting his God apart. No image. No concrete embodiment. No imagining even. A blank emptier than the desert. Yet with a terrible nearness. Spying on our every misdeed, searching out the heart of our heart for motive... the Jew mocks those who have pictures of their God. HIS God is purer than any other. And because His inconceivable, unimaginable presence and develops us, we must obey every jot and tittle of the Law. We must bottle up our rages in desires, chastise the flesh and walk bent in the rain. You call me a tyrant, and enslaver. What tyranny, what enslavement has been more oppressive, has branded the skin and soul of man more deeply than the sick fantasies of the Jew? You are not God killers, but GOD makers. And that is infinitely worse. The Jew invented conscience and left humanity guilty serfs.

"But that was only the first piece of blackmail. There was worse to come. The white-faced Nazarene. Gentleman, I find it difficult to contain myself. But the facts speak for themselves. What did that epileptic rabbi ask of us? That we renounce the world, that we leave mother and father behind, that we offer the other cheek when slapped, that we render good for evil, that we love our neighbor as ourselves, no, far better, for self-love is an evil thing to be overcome. Oh grand castration! Note the cunning of it. Demand of human beings more than they can give, demand that they give up their stained, selfish humanity in the name of a higher ideal, and you will make of them cripples, hypocrites, mendicants for salvation. The Nazarene said that his kingdom, his purities were not of this world. Lies, honeyed lies. It was here on earth that he founded his slave-church. It was men and women, creatures of flesh, he abandoned to the blackmail of hell, of eternal punishment. What were our camps compared to THAT? What can be crueler than the Jew's addiction to the ideal?

"First the invisible but all seeing, the unattainable but all demanding God of Sinai. Second the terrible sweetness of Christ. Had the Jew not done enough to sicken man? No, gentlemen, there is a third act to our story.

"'Sacrifice yourself for the good of your fellow man. Relinquish your possessions so that there may be equality for all. So that justice may be achieved on earth. So that history may be fulfilled and society be purged of all imperfection.' Do you recognize that sermon, gentlemen? Rabbi Marx. Was there ever a greater promise? 'The classless society, to each according to his needs, brotherhood for all humanity, the earth made a garden again, a rational Eden.' In the name of which promise tyranny, torture, war, extermination were a necessity, a historical necessity! It is no accident that Marx and his minions were Jews, that the congregations of Bolshevism -- Trotsky, Rosa Luxembourg, the whole fanatic, murderous pack -- were of Israel. Look at them: prophets, martyrs, smashers of images drunk with the terror of the absolute. It was only a step, gentleman, a small inevitable step, from Sinai to Nazareth, from Nazareth to the covenant of Marxism. The Jew had grown impatient. Let the kingdom of justice come here and now, next Monday morning. Let us have a secular messiah instead. But with a long beard and his bowels full of vengeance.

"You are not humanity's conscience, Jew. You are only its bad conscience. And we shall vomit you so we may live and have peace."
The Nazis set a price of 50,000 marks on Albert Einstein's head.

You believe in a God who plays dice, and I in complete law and order in a world which objectively exists, and which I, in a wildly speculative way, am trying to capture. I hope that someone will discover a more realistic way, or rather a more tangible basis than it has been my lot to find.

The physicists walked away from Einstein to follow Schrodinger's cat. The old man was left alone on his deathbed, pad and pencil in hand.


God does not play at dice.


[Marc Estrin is a writer and activist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

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