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.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.
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.
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 EinsteinEinstein 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.
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.
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.