Einstein's Age Of Extremism

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Mathematical physicist Albert Einstein delivers one of his recorded lectures in 1955.

To see the effect that xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and populist rage can have on a nation's culture, we need look no further than the life of Albert Einstein.

Germany in Einstein's lifetime had never been particularly hospitable to Jews, but by the early 1920s, German Jews like him were being treated like aliens in their own land. In 1922, when the Jewish foreign minister of Germany, Walter Rathenau, was assassinated — to the glee of conservatives across the country — Einstein realized that serious danger was beginning for prominent Jews like himself.

Already, a Working Party of German Scientists for the Preservation of a Pure Science had been formed to fight Einstein's ideas. Their inaugural meeting had been held at the Philharmonic Hall in Berlin, with swastikas displayed in the hallway and anti-Semitic brochures on sale in the lobby. A few of the Einstein haters had some academic affiliation, but most were poorly educated. "Science, once our greatest pride, is today being taught by Hebrews!" the house painter and failed art student Adolf Hitler complained.

To give the situation time to cool, Einstein took up a long-standing invitation to undertake a lengthy tour by steamship — a diversion that took him away from one of the most profound intellectual challenges of his life.

The previous decade, Einstein had come up with an exquisitely simple equation that explained how gravity worked and challenged dominant ideas about the fabric of the universe. The preponderance of experimental evidence at the time suggested that the universe was actually static, fixed, unchanging: filled with a collection of stars, stretching away to a very great distance, some of which might slightly move from place to place but which, overall, never changed at all. But Einstein's gravitation equation predicted something quite different. If the "things" floating in space — stars and planets and such — were already separated enough from one another, his equation allowed their random motion to start sending them even farther away from one another. But worse, his equation also appeared to allow another possible scenario. If a certain number of the "things" floating around in space were close enough so that they did start clustering together, the curvature in space that created might make even more objects start sliding toward them, thereby producing a runaway collapse.

These were extraordinary predictions. But when the young physicist took stock of the experimental evidence arrayed against his elegant mathematics, he decided he must have been wrong. To avoid those seemingly wild predictions, he inserted a new feature into his equation: what's known today as the "cosmological constant." It modified his theory so that it corresponded to the available scientific evidence, but it destroyed its simple beauty.

This was the first great mistake of Einstein's scientific career. Years later, new scientific research would find that, in fact, the universe was roiled by constant changes, exactly as Einstein's original gravitational equation had predicted. Vindicated but chastened, he changed his equation back — and resolved never to bend in the face of scientific "evidence" again.

In the final decades of Einstein's life, this obstinacy would cause him to make an even greater mistake: refusing to accept the findings of quantum physicists. Their research was yielding overwhelming proof that the universe behaved in different ways at the subatomic level than it did on the scale of the astral bodies that Einstein had spent his life studying. Einstein, convinced that their findings were wrong and that his understanding of the universe would eventually be proved correct, began to stand apart from this new work — eventually depriving the field of his assistance and diminishing his own reputation in the process.

In the early 1920s, as Einstein was concerned with the cosmological constant, this imbroglio was still far in the future. But there were signs of trouble brewing. A bright young Russian mathematician named Alexander Friedmann, studying Einstein's original, unmodified gravitational equation, came up with a startling array of possibilities for how space and the "things" in it might change over time. In some of the scenarios he unveiled, a universe would steadily grow, like a sphere that inflated forever. Yet there were also scenarios — all contained in the mathematics of the original equation — in which the universe only pumped up in volume to a finite size before it then started collapsing, as if its substance was hissing out through some escape valve. Everything that mankind or other intelligent beings in such a universe had created would be annihilated.

Friedmann tried to engage with Einstein, but his letter did not reach him. By the time he sent it, Einstein had fled Berlin, and indeed all of Europe, on his world tour. His flight allowed him to safely escape both German politics and scientific opposition.

Einstein would not return to Berlin until the following year and would not correct his theory until the end of the 1920s, when he was confronted with irrefutable proof from the world's most renowned astronomer, the director of the famed observatory on top of California's Mount Wilson: Edwin Powell Hubble.

Before long, Einstein joined Hubble on American soil. During the rise of the Nazi state, it became clear that intellectuals and other prominent Jews were under particular threat. In 1933, Hitler gained effective control of the Reichstag, and the great number of students who were Nazi supporters could beat up Jews with impunity. On May 10 of that year — in a scene unimagined since the Middle Ages — throughout the country, including the old university towns, great pyres were made of books.

The largest book-burning crowds assembled in Berlin at the Opernplatz, just near the Opera House. Students had been eagerly collecting cartloads of volumes seized from libraries or private homes. Propaganda Minister Goebbels arrived at midnight to begin a nationally broadcast speech: "German men and women! ... You do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past!" Goebbels' photographers were standing by, ready to capture the images that would be shown across the country: the joy before flames, the exultation in the crowds. Student crowds in Göttingen had engaged in their own burnings the same night.

Einstein's books had been hurled into the flames with especial glee, for he was the most famous of all Jewish intellectuals and represented a spirit of liberalism and rational inquiry that was the opposite of what the new state insisted was right. "The age of Jewish intellectualism has come to an end!" Goebbels announced to the nation from Berlin's Opernplatz. It was easy to tell what was coming.

Late in 1932, the year before the Opernplatz rally in which his books would be burned, Einstein had gone to his country home outside Berlin with his second wife, Elsa. They were there to collect his papers, as well as her most important belongings. Caltech, in Pasadena, Calif., had offered him a position, while Princeton's new Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey looked set to propose a better one.

Elsa was good at reading people, but her intuition failed her about what was happening to her country. She and Einstein had gone to America before, for visits or even longer stays when he was a months-long lecturer. Surely this would be just the same? Einstein shook his head. She understood very little. "Look around you," he reportedly said. "It's the last time you'll see this."

After Einstein and Elsa had left their home, and after the book burnings the following year, mobs broke in, ransacking what possessions the hated professor had left. Elsa found out about that only later. She was in Belgium at the time, having been under armed protection with her husband before they sailed to America. Einstein would spend the rest of his life, from 1933 to 1955, in Princeton — an ocean away from the country that had once nurtured his brilliance, only to reject it.

David Bodanis taught at Oxford University for many years. He is the author of several books including his latest, titled Einstein's Greatest Mistake, which was published in October 2016.

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