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Smolin's lie about Dyson and Einstein

I need to apologize because my intuition about an episode of the history of science wasn't right. A commenter found a story about Dyson's and Einstein's interactions at Princeton on the Internet. And I found it totally plausible. Andrew of PopularTechnology.NET was skeptical and as of now, he has provided me with enough evidence that his skepticism was justified and my attempts to humiliate his skepticism were not substantiated.

What was it all about?




The story that the commenter found may be seen on this web page, The Trouble With Einstein, and it is an excerpt from the infamous book by Lee Smolin, The Trouble With Physics.




Here is it (see also Google Books):

My first job after getting my PhD was in 1979 at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. One of my main reasons for taking it was the hope of making contact with some living legacy of Einstein, who had died twenty-four years earlier. In this I was disappointed. There was no trace of his time there, apart from a bust of him in the library. No student or follower of Einstein could be found. Only a few people who had known him, like the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, were still there.

My first week there, Dyson, very much the gentleman, came by and invited me to lunch. After inquiring about my work, he asked if there was anything he could do to make me more at home in Princeton. I had but one request. “Could you tell me what Einstein was really like?” I asked. Dyson replied, “I’m very sorry, but that’s one thing I can’t help you with.” Surprised, I insisted, “But you came here in 1947 and you were a colleague of his until he died in 1955.”

Dyson explained that he too had come to the institute hoping to get to know Einstein. So he went to Einstein’s secretary, Helen Dukas, to make an appointment. The day before the appointment, he began to worry about not having anything specific to discuss with the great man, so he got from Ms. Dukas copies of Einstein’s recent scientific papers. They were all about Einstein’s efforts to construct a unified-field theory. Reading them that evening, Dyson decided they were junk. The next morning, he realized that although he couldn’t face Einstein and tell him his work was junk, he couldn’t not tell him either. So he skipped the appointment and, he told me, spent the ensuing eight years before Einstein’s death avoiding him. I could only say the obvious:

“Don’t you think Einstein could have defended himself and explained his motivation to you?”

Certainly, Dyson replied, but I was much older before that thought occurred to me.

p. 49-50
The story sounded totally plausible to me. I do think that none of the papers about the unified field theory by Einstein were successful and almost all of them were on the wrong track, too. (Einstein's not too vital contributions to the Kaluza-Klein theory were exceptions.) I did think and still do think that it's sensible to assume that a young Dyson could have reached those conclusions as well. But I also found it sensible to imagine that a shy enough young researcher would cancel a meeting with the most famous scientist in the world if he learned that the famous scientist's recent work is pretty much worthless.

But is it true? Andrew sent an e-mail to Freeman Dyson and got a reply. I have just verified the previous sentence by checking the formatting of the e-mail from Dyson – I knew what it should look like – and the servers in the header. Unless Andrew is a really professional counterfeiter of e-mails, Dyson did send this reply to him, and I hope that the body of the e-mail wasn't severely edited, either.

Dyson's answer is straight:
Subject: RE: Clarification Requested About You and Einstein

Dear Andrew,

This story is a flat lie. Nothing like it ever happened. I never asked for an appointment with Einstein, never cancelled any appointment, and never avoided him. Whoever invented the story should be ashamed of himself. Yours, Freeman Dyson.
Einstein cannot tell us his opinion anymore but he didn't know much about Dyson's schedules and motivations, anyway. Freeman Dyson says that Lee Smolin's story is a flat lie. It seems sensible to believe Dyson and not Smolin, of course.

Needless to say, I've heard many examples of Lee Smolin's dishonesty in the past, and have run into hundreds of examples myself. This man is lying all the time. But I was assuming that there was no reason to lie about things that are seemingly "orthogonal" to the bogus crackpot ideology and self-glorification that Smolin has always spread.

I was wrong. Either Smolin loves to lie about absolutely everything, or this story must have been important for him to strengthen a point. In the latter case, what would the "benefits" of his lie be?

It is imaginable that Smolin wanted to include Dyson among the "craftsmen", while Einstein and Smolin himself are the "seers". If that is the case, the "ideological value" of this fabricated story would be rather comprehensible to me. He wanted to say that the "craftsmen" are cowards who avoid confrontation (and who don't say what they think). Moreover, Smolin may have wanted some independent evidence from a "craftsman" to suggest that Einstein himself was a worse "seer" than Smolin himself because his papers were not right.

That would be amusing because Einstein wrote a dozen of revolutionary papers in physics; we're still waiting for the first paper by Lee Smolin that isn't wrong.

At any rate, the message for me is the following one: Don't ever believe an individual such as Lee Smolin, even if there seems to be no obvious reason why he would be lying. Some people – like greedy crackpots pretending for 35 years to be physicists – just can't be trusted even if they say "good morning". If you hear "good morning" from him, you're probably living through a pretty bad evening.

My apologies to Andrew for having taken a wrong side for a while.

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snail feedback (64) :


reader David Nataf said...

I've never heard of anybody picking a postdoctoral location because a famous person had been there twenty four years earlier.


Usually, people pick a location because of the other present at that location at that time.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Right, a great point. It is weird. Also, IAS was supposed to hire a good young physicist, not a journalist looking for ghosts of the history.


Smolin is the kind of a worshiper, one who would change science into a collection of crazy personality cults, and he would love to have one for himself, too. But that's not how science works. Science is really an impersonal process.


reader TM said...

I'm wondering if we will ever see, read or hear any kind of apologies by Smolin for his invented story about Dyson and Einstein. Lubos was great (and quick) in acknowledging that he was wrong in believing this story in first place. That's what a true scientist does when proved wrong about a fact. He says: "sorry, i was just wrong". These are exactly the kind of words you will never ever hear from crackpots like Smolin. I'm also wondering if any journalists, laymen and even physicists will stop listening to his garbage talks, stop reading his books or his fallacious papers after this story. I have my doubts about this and it's a pity, because people like Smolin need to be ostracized and expelled not only from scientific debates but also from debates about these debates. And it's not a form of racism or intellectual superiority: it's just the protection of scientific environment from these parasites.


reader RAF III said...

Lubos - You are a Gentleman and a Scholar!
This was one of my fathers' favorite expressions and I am doubly pleased to use it here.


reader John Archer said...

TM,

"... people like Smolin need to be ostracized and expelled not only from scientific debates but also from debates about these debates. ... it's just the protection of scientific environment from these parasites.<>"

I strongly sympathise with your feelings here, but your prescription for dealing with it is fraught with danger. Indeed, although well-intentioned, it embodies precisely the same kind of mindset of those signed up for example to the CAGW 'consensus', 'anti-racism' and 'affirmative action' etc, namely that they know what's right and anyone who questions their holy tenets is "a very bad person™, the likes of whom should be culled from decent society, i.e. 'people who think as I do'."

I'd go along with the idea in wartime because of the immediacy of the situation and the need to deal with it promptly but not otherwise. In all other cases contrary voices should be heard—after all they might be proven right, eventually. But if they are wrong or just putting out straight lies like Smolin they should be openly challenged and exposed for what they are. That's the way to deal with it in my view. In any case, there's no long-term protection except this publicity.

Also, there are some 'right thinkers' who'd have Arch Gadfly Luboš shut down if they could get there way. Then where would we be? :)


reader Poptech said...

The story stood out to me as bullshit, especially once I read the excerpt directly from Smolin's book. I have met various people in my life who bullshit about everything and the way he tells the story stands out as such. Who talks like this in a conversation?


"But you came here in 1947 and you were a colleague of his until he died in 1955"


Why would Smolin memorize the date Dyson started there and then state it in a comment? Let alone state the year Einstein died instead of just saying that "...you worked here with him until he died" like anyone else would.


I suspect Smolin has a problem getting his facts straight in stories, embellishes most of them and bullshits the rest. I have family members and co-workers who do this so I have a lot of experience with this.


The motivation is simple, people who tell bullshit stories want to feel important.


reader Dr Norman Page said...

Lubos . You might be interested in this exchange with Dyson on CO2 and Climate. See http://climatesense-norpag.blogspot.com/

Feel free to publish the whole exchange on TRF if you like.


reader Shannon said...

Yep, lies is their Number 1 business.


reader Shannon said...

A bit of truth mixed with a lot of lies make a perfectly edible dish any asshole would swallow.


reader TM said...

John Archer,


i agree with you too, and ostracization his a double blade sword. However, I think the situation here with Smolin is like playing poker. You go play card and only after you know that there was a cheat in your table. Once you know that he (or she) is cheating it's your fault if you play poker with him again and again as they are getting points just from the fact that they are playing with (well, against) you. I don't need to be polite and listen to crackpots such as creationists or young earth believers. And what Smolin has to offer to modern physics is on the same level of those people.


reader stevenjohnson2 said...

Has Dyson written about his interactions with Einstein? I'm especially interested in his reaction to Dyson's negative views about Einstein's late work. (I don't think I'm in error in thinking that Dyson wasn't favorable.)


reader John Archer said...

Polite's got nothing to do with it! Screw polite! :)

Proven card cheats get what's coming to them. Same goes for proven liars.

But that's stage two of the 'publicity'.

May the Force be with you. It can be very handy on occasion.

Let's shoot them! :)


reader Shannon said...

Maybe if you shoot them politely it'll work ? ;-)


reader TM said...

May the Force be with you too ;)

I leave to Lubos to shoot Smolin. After all, in years of practice, Lubos can kick his ass with almost absolute precision. And personally, i like when Lubos do it merciless... ;)


reader John Archer said...

That sounds like a decent compromise. Keep everyone happy! :)

Yep, I'll go along with that.

P.S. I was at a concert recently and became entranced with a lovely young French violinistette. No, not in any carnal way, Shannon — I'm old enough now to be her grandfather! :)

She had a lovely innocent smile, like a joyous child. It's little things like that make life wonderful.

Just thought you'd like to know. :)


reader Shannon said...

Lol!
French young ladies do master the innocent look like no one ;-)


reader John Archer said...

Forensic! :)


reader John Archer said...

Forensic! :)

Apparently I have already posted this comment. So where the fuck is it?


reader John Archer said...

Beguilers!

Never trust a Frenchman! :)

Seriously Shannon, if she were faking it she's a real master because she had me taken in hook, line and sinker.


reader Shannon said...

Haha... we French are bluffers.... or is it just men who are beguiled so easily ? You guys do have a predisposition, haven't you ? ;-)


reader John Archer said...

Yes.

We like to think good of everyone. :)


reader RAF III said...

Upvote!


reader John Archer said...

Gratefully accepted. Thanks RAF!

Here, let me scratch your back too. Have an upvote yourself! :)


reader RAF III said...

There is an old poker joke:
Player 1 - Where are you going?
Player 2 - Over to Johnnies' game on the south side.
Player 1 - But you know the game is fixed! The dealer's a mechanic and the cards are marked. Why play there?
Player 2 - But it's the only game in town!


reader Gene Day said...

Dyson is a gentleman and a caring human being. There is just no way that he would have avoided contact with the great man who did so much for physics and the world. Dyson would have been deeply honored to meet Einstein no matter how he felt about Einsteins more recent work.
The story struck me as bullshit from the very beginning. It is just one more proof of Smolin’s character defects.


reader Gene Day said...

Indeed, good scientists freely admit it when they are wrong and Lubos is most certainly a very, very good scientist.


reader Gene Day said...

And no one on earth can be as charming as a French gentleman. The French have mastered quite a few arts, actually. Vive La France!


reader Gene Day said...

In this situation, Shannon, men don’t stand a chance. I speak from experience.


reader John Archer said...

RAF,

That's just like our upcoming General Election. The only game in town. And it is a game.

It's what we're supposed to use to hold the bastards's feet to the fire. Laughable! It's useless. The whole thing's a stitch-up. It's a pantomime soap opera with fifth-rate actors. They pissed the fire out long ago.

Listening to them all, and the media, is even worse than listening to fuh'baw players and presenters talking about "duh game". Fucking overpaid useless morons. Actually they're far worse than useless.

A cull is long overdue. They don't represent us.


reader RAF III said...

John - I agree. But one can still cut one's losses and have some hope of keeping the worst of the lot out.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear TM, I may have already seen something relevant to "what you're wondering" but even if that is so, I am not allowed to tell you what it was. ;-)


reader John McVirgo said...

I vaguely recall the story first being told in QED and the Men Who Mad It, by S Schweber. S Smolin has just re-quoted it by the looks of it.


reader John Archer said...

For what it's worth to you, Gene, the most charming stranger I ever came across was one of your Southern Gentlemen. It was a real pleasure conversing with him, albeit very briefly.

It was about forty years ago and I was on my lunch break in one of England's historic towns, a major tourist hotspot. He hailed me politely to enquire about one of its attractions. I wish I could have helped him more and regaled him with some interesting facts about the place but I really knew diddly squat — I just happened to work there. I was able to point him the right direction though.

I've had star-spangled banners plastered all over my car ever since. Confederate ones, that is. :)

[Exeunt* with rebel yell.]

* I'm not the only one here. Hey, that reminds me — we haven't quite got around to ordering those nice conical white hats mit hakenkreuz and oak-leaf cluster. Later, nearer party time. :)


reader John Archer said...

Dear Luboš,

"... but even if that is so ..."

Keeping an open mind is one thing, but questioning one's own veracity? :)

But maybe it's just the way you tell 'em. :)


reader Rehbock said...

So Smolin doesn't just make up what Dyson said he plagiarizes Schweber. He is beneath contempt.


reader John Harley said...

An apocryphal story about Einstein!!!!!

But I'm not too happy with Dyson ever since I bought his damn vacuum cleaner for $500 that loses suction after a few months. ;)


reader QsaTheory said...

I have the book, I went over the hundred pages about Dyson, there is nothing in it about that story. Dyson had some differences at the beginning with Oppenheimer(the president). Einstein was out of QED loop by that time. It was Dyson, Feynman. Schwinger, Tomonaga and Bethe show.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Qsa, are you saying that you can't find the quote?


Have you looked on page 44-45? It's in the Unfinished revolution, The world as geometry, section.


reader QsaTheory said...

Dear Lubos, I was talking about the "QED and the men who made it" which Mcvirgo alludes to have the quote that Smolin quoted. I don't see any such quote in QED and the men who made it.


reader John Archer said...

RAFF,

I'm sorry to say that's no longer the case.

It used to be my approach but we have a real dumbarse electorate and there's no longer anything to chose between the political pariahs—indeed there hasn't been since her Right Honourable colleagues knifed Thatcher in the back—except, that is, for the minor difference in pace at which they're all hell-bent on charging the country over the cliff. The tories have long since closed the gap and are now right up there hot on the heels of labour and the rest of the scum.

I shall vote though, and probably for UKIP, since that seems to be the only way I can express my disapproval. But frankly I'd prefer to vote for a political party that was far more ... toxic, shall we say ... to the 'great and good' than the totally amateurish UKIP. Oh well ....

Maybe we'll get lucky and have a British Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik step up to the plate. Hope springs eternal!

Now with that thought you'll have to excuse me as I'm off to pray with my lucky four-leaf clover! I do have one you know! :)


reader QsaTheory said...

Your last sentence is correct.


reader QsaTheory said...

BTW, the book is highly recommended for any serious physics lover. It has history, drama and a lot of physics.


reader W.A. Zajc said...

I did a quick check in three of Dyson's books I have on my shelf, and also used Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to search through Dyson's (superb) "Disturbing the Universe". I found at least two statements by Dyson that he never met or never knew Einstein, along with some poignant remarks about Einstein's withdrawal and near-isolation from ongoing developments in physics in his last years.


reader John McVirgo said...

OK, I stand corrected thanks.

I now think I probably read it first in Hans Ohanian's book: Einstein's mistakes The Human Failings of a Genius on page 301 where he states that it was Lee Smolin who asked Dsyon for his opinion on Einstein, and then quotes the same story.

Dyson gives an interview on The Princeton Institute: faculty, friends, attitudes:

http://www.webofstories.com/play/freeman.dyson/84



But makes no mention of Einstein and says: "it was a case of young against old, and we were very arrogant all of us... we thought the old people simply were not with it, so why bother talking to them?"


reader stevenjohnson2 said...

But Dyson was just cited as saying he never avoided Einstein!


reader QsaTheory said...

Yes, this what I gathered from the book, Dyson and friends were deeply immersed in their own world, the hot topic of the day.


reader John Archer said...

Steven,

I've never avoided you but I doubt we've ever met.

However, greetings all the same! :)


reader QsaTheory said...

When a bunch of people working at some high level it is natural for them to be arrogant and opinionated and suspicious or dismissive of each other. But they do have "some" level of mutual respect for each others expertise ability. So they do try to avoid each other unless necessary. But age can be a very big factor in not cementing a relationship.


reader W.A. Zajc said...

As Mr. Archer notes, these are not inconsistent statements.


reader Gordon said...

"I suspect Smolin has a problem getting his facts straight in stories, embellishes most of them and bullshits the rest."

No kidding!!

Smolin's supervisor was the great Sidney Coleman, a truly great teacher and physicist at Harvard. He was one of Sidney's few Phds who did not attend, for whatever reason, the Sidneyfest. Since then, he seems to focus on self-promotion.
Sidney's lecture, "Quantum Mechanics in Your Face" is available online and I think still on the Harvard site, and is one of the finest of its kind. He has online lectures he gave on QFT as well, but the recording quality is not good at all.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Right, older Einstein was obviously decoupled from the whole hot research of his era - much of the advances of quantum physics to all areas of science etc.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dyson's not having avoided Einstein doesn't mean that Einstein didn't avoid Dyson, or every other young big shot, for that matter. ;-)


reader Gordon said...

,,,"would change science into a collection of crazy personality cults, and he would love to have one for himself, too"
Absolutely---consider his comments about looking for young Einsteins to support instead of string theorists, --young Turks with new and revolutionary ideas (like Garret Lisi before he threw him under the truck.)
(Those aren't his exact words, but I think i caught the intent.). With his criteria for greatness, physics would be an incoherent mess of original crackpots.


reader Luboš Motl said...

Agreed, except that I have some trouble to see originality e.g. in Garrett Lisi. It's nothing else than the usual grand unified theory and/or heterotic string theory model building with random errors and lethal oversimplifications - which make the theory dysfunctional - introduced by someone who doesn't understand it. Everyone who doesn't understand GUT or heterotic strings could "reformulate" GUT or heterotic strings in this way.


reader Gordon said...

I guess I omitted the quotes around "original" :)
I was trying to be ironic.


reader Luboš Motl said...

I see, I can't tell, like Sheldon. ;-)


reader zeGoggles zayDoNossing said...

Having nothing nice to say about this situation, I have a question about a claim made by an honest physicist working in that programme.
In December, Rovelli claimed polymer quantization sees Unruh on general kms grounds- but polymer quantization is diffeomorphism invariance, and Bisognano Wichmann requires at least one diffeomorphism have a non-trivial action, no?


reader zeGoggles zayDoNossing said...

Having nothing nice to say about this situation, I have a question about a claim made by an honest physicist working in that programme.
In December, Rovelli claimed polymer quantization sees Unruh on general kms grounds- but polymer quantization is diffeomorphism invariance, and Bisognano Wichmann requires at least one diffeomorphism have a non-trivial action, no?


reader Dilaton said...

Certainly, Freeman Dyson knows better what happend than a not even bystander such as Lee Smolin ...

BTW if it had been true, the story would have seemed touching to me in a by Smolin probably not intended way ;-)

Imaging a young, shy, very modest and already very serious Dyson who rather avoids Einstein than telling him that he considers his then current papers to be not so good, would not look coward to me at all. Rather that the bright shy young physicist would need some encouragemen ...


reader CentralCharge15 said...

It must be incredibly stupid of Smolin to spread specific lies about people who are still alive.


reader cynholt said...

True, which reminds me, whatever happened to all the great American femme fatales? I'd say that decades ago they all got swept up into a film noir vortex, never to captivate us with their charm and beauty again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CfRmDT2ooc


reader Shannon said...

Chutzpah.


reader Richard Warren said...

I thought you guys were being too harsh on Smolin so I looked up some things about hims, and found this:

"Regarding climate change, the first is a prediction of what could happen if we don’t take action to strongly reduce GHG emissions. My point is not that the climate models are completely accurate. My point instead is that the intrinsic uncertainties in their projections are the strongest reason to act to reduce emissions so we can avert disaster however the uncertainties develop. In national defense we prepare for war because the future is uncertain. Climate change is not an environmental issue, its a national security issue and should be treated as such."



To say that because something might happen that might be bad, you have to do whatever is necessary to prevent it at whatever cost, and the more it is uncertain the more this is so, is just stupid and ignores the basic economic fact of scarcity and the necessity of making rational choices (and who guests to make them); to couch it in terms of national security (if whose nation one wonders?) is either obvious pandering or extreme selfishness (should China or India remain poor so that Canada or the US should be secure?).


reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Richard, I ran into that quote, too (aside from several other "powerful" quotes) - as I was doing some "research" on the topic of "Sm*lin and the AGW hysteria".