Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Myths about Einstein

The New York Reviews of Books have published a text by Lee Smolin who uses several recent books about Albert Einstein to define his opinions about the famous physicist. There are many points in Smolin's text that I consider correct and many more things that I consider silly. Let me start with some of the correct ones:
  • It is indeed true that people tend to incorrectly think that the revolutionary Einstein was a detached immaterial, spiritual, peaceful sage - an idealized image constructed according to Einstein when he was old. Instead, the real revolutionary Einstein was a young chap with a rather contrived personal life who assertively tried to transform the world according to his visions. I am sure that much like many other similar people, young Einstein was deeply offended by stupid folks who wanted to act as authorities.
  • The ideas that Einstein's personal life resembled the life of the (idealized) Jesus Christ are myths.
  • Einstein's disbelief in quantum mechanics was the main technical reason why the last 3 decades of his life didn't lead to important scientific results.
  • He may have become "officially" irrelevant at the IAS when the younger generation, realizing that Einstein's opinions about cutting edge physics have become silly, decided to transform Einstein into nothing an idealized but impotent symbol.
  • Albert Einstein's political abilities were non-trivial and he had the technical skills to be a top-tier politician, including the president of Israel if he wanted.

However, as I have mentioned, there are many more crazy thoughts in Smolin's text.

First of all, Smolin tries to picture Einstein's personal life and his political methods and attitudes as a key aspect of his personality that is essential to understand his creativity or even the technical content of his greatest discoveries. I think it is a completely silly association. There are no direct, rational links between Einstein's creativity on one side and details of his love affairs or political opinions on the other side.

These two projections of Einstein are largely independent of one another. Relativity and other theories could have been found by very different personalities. Whoever thinks that a detailed analysis of Einstein's love affairs allows us to speed up scientific revolutions in the future is crazy.

Smolin implicitly claims that these things are inevitably synchronized which I view as another example of Smolin's inability to think rationally about science. Smolin simply can't or doesn't want to distinguish science from sociology and from love affairs.

More generally, various pundits such as Mark Trodden claim that it is wrong if scientists are painted as people who are detached from material life. It is clear that such a picture is an oversimplification and that scientists are often ordinary people in many respects but on the other hand, I do think that scientists should fit this description more accurately than other people in many more cases. And many of them actually do. Painting scientists as "completely" ordinary people is a misrepresentation of science - or at least a misrepresentation of what science should be. More seriously, it is a hidden attempt to vulgarize science and attract all sorts of idiots into it who are driven by very different things than the passion for the truth. I think that there are already way too many idiots like that in institutionalized science.

Importance of Einstein's personal life and politics

Another weird thing about Smolin's approach to Einstein is the way how he wants the society to judge Einstein's personal ethics and political attitudes. Einstein has surely done, said, and written many things that many groups of people would dislike. But is there an objective method to decide whether Einstein has done the right thing or whether his critics would be right? Smolin thinks that there is one, I don't.

Smolin seems to criticize Einstein's political opinions. Einstein was a socialist, anti-communist, pacifist (at least before he realized how dangerous the Nazis were), and Zionist. Well, I would only subscribe to anti-communism and Zionism in this list ;-) but I don't understand how Smolin can write that "the man [Einstein] himself was an embarrassment." What the hell does it mean?

Einstein held certain political and other opinions. These opinions were rather coherent and there have always been reasons for wise people to listen to him. I may disagree with some of Einstein's opinions but I can't pick Einstein as a scapeboat who should be described as "an embarrassment". There have been millions of pacifists and socialists around.

The same Smolin who is producing hundreds of essays about mad social-engineering projects to increase the "diversity" is always ready to divide people to the correct people on one side and "embarrassments" on the other side. In this case, Einstein wasn't too lucky because Smolin's PC police have transformed him into an embarrassment. Smolin even seems to agree with a director of the IAS who was opening Einstein's mail to prevent him from meeting the U.S. president, among others. I personally think that this treatment of Einstein's privacy was despicable and those who were doing these things had absolutely no credentials for their acts.

What Einstein has thought about politics is no longer a primary question that determines my opinions about politics today - even though the personality of Einstein has influenced me tremendously when I was a teenager. But what a director of an institute thought 50 years ago is even more irrelevant. I just can't understand why Lee Smolin thinks that it's important whether a particular opinion of Einstein was considered to be an embarrassment by an irrelevant director.

Smolin also criticizes Isaacson, the author of one of the books, for claiming that we shouldn't be overly concerned by Einstein's rough edges. I happen to agree with Isaacson. Einstein is such an important personality that his rough edges, whatever they are, are either secondary characteristics or inevitable by-products of his ingenious mind. Another thing that Smolin dislikes about Isaacson's book is that Isaacson claims that Einstein has underestimated the resilience of American democracy when he was very worried about McCarthyism.

Smolin asks: "Why does Isaacson feel he has to assure us that we don't need to take his subject's political views too seriously?" Well, the answer is that Isaacson realizes that history has proven that Einstein's worries about this point and similar points were not justified and Einstein's political opinions - in this case somewhat misled opinions - were simply not terribly important even though they were clearly more important than the opinions of an average person or an average physicist. Why does Smolin feel that the political opinions of Einstein were more important?

Einsteinian stamp on theories

At the end of his text, Smolin displays his uncontrollably huge reliance on authorities when he suggests that some misguided attempts of an old Einstein to revolutionize science once again should be viewed as an argument to support various kinds of contemporary crackpots such as those who envision a discrete spacetime or those who still haven't understood or accepted the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics.

I simply think that this approach of Lee is mad. Einstein could have afforded to have held these silly views simply because he had already made it. But there was nothing spectacular about the theories he was writing down in his last 30 years. If these theories were the only thing Einstein represented, there would be no reason to hire him or celebrate him.

And if you think about some parrots who would be just indirectly copying these later theories of Einstein or emulating his flawed way of thinking (and maybe even 50 years after his death) but who have never done anything comparable to what the young Einstein did, it is even more obvious that their work doesn't deserve to be supported. I think that no sane person in science would ever suggest that the society should be supporting people who only try to imitate a well-known personality's acts during an era when he was already irrelevant. Nevertheless, that's exactly what Smolin seems to propose.

Lee Smolin, the same man who often talks about original scientists, reveals that he actually likes something completely different, namely if young people are writing even more confused parodies of his and other narrow-minded and physically naive papers that should be viewed as important because they resemble the flavor of some basic misunderstandings of a genius that were written when he was already unspectacular. That's one of the reasons why he surrounds himself with loads of untalented people who only say Yes Mr Smolin. He also likes when people's opinions about the society are judged according to a universal, politically correct criterion.

Moreover, Smolin tries to discuss whether the new developments in string theory follow the philosophy of Einstein. Other people including myself sometimes talk about these questions as well but it is very important to realize that any kind of an answer to this question is an artificially created story. Einstein was trying to answer different questions in a different context and there is no one-to-one correspondence between the answers to some questions in the 1950s and answers to the present questions in 2000s.

Even if there were some correspondence, the "Einsteinian stamp" wouldn't influence the contemporary scientists' decisions about the validity or value of their theories as long as they would be scientists. Smolin seems to care about the "Einsteinian stamp" and similar rituals a lot which is another profoundly unscientific feature of his approach.

Is string theory a continuation of Einstein's dreams to find a unified field theory? Well, it is certainly a continuation of his attempts to figure out verifiable and mathematically elegant laws that account for all forces. At this superficial level, all string theorists are inheritors of Einstein's legacy, even the legacy of the old misled Einstein. From a more technical perspective, however, it's the other way around. String theory is a full-fledged quantum mechanical theory that is fully accepting the premises that Niels Bohr and his friends believed and that is taking the observations and the detailed work of many careful scientists very seriously, unlike the old Einstein.

String theory surely reveals the kind of beauty and depth that we normally associate with Einstein and his dreams but Einstein wouldn't have been able to work on it because he didn't appreciate quantum mechanics.

Einstein, stop telling God what to do with his dice!

If you look at these aspects of Einstein's approach, string theory is clearly the inheritor of the quantum mechanical generation while various loop quantum gravitational and related alternative physicists are inheritors of Einstein's flawed and superficial games attempting to find some extremely simple-minded laws and to convince everyone else (and themselves) that these naive laws should govern the whole Cosmos, regardless of any evidence and any "details".

It is clear that certain aspects of "good science" - at least most of these aspects - are found in the context of many important discoveries. Analogously, certain aspects of "bad science" are frequently associated with attempts that didn't lead anywhere, including attempts of famous scientists who had already "lost it". For example, if someone loses a contact with all newly discovered "details", it is a bad thing.

As we have already mentioned, Smolin apparently tries to do something completely different than a rational analysis of various aspects of Einstein's life and ideas and their actual causal relationships. He wants to attach the same stickers to ideas and approaches in different contexts, using superficial sociological similarities as a justification, and divide them to "good" ideas of "seers" and "bad" ideas of "craftsmen" according to these superficial keys. Such an algorithm is all but guaranteed to lead to nothing else than noise which is indeed what Smolin writes in more than 90% of cases.

Best strategies keep on changing

Another fundamental fact about the philosophy of science that Smolin and dozens of other critics of science seem completely unable to comprehend is that there is no eternal and universal set of rules that would tell you how to make progress in science or that would determine what the society should do to make this progress happen. Einstein's talent combined with his basic philosophical assumptions were important for many of his earlier discoveries and they allowed him to find many important things including general relativity.

But the same strategy simply didn't work afterwards. It couldn't have been clear a priori whether his disciplined search for beautiful deterministic laws describing physics could have led to further breakthroughs. Nevertheless, the answer turned out to be No. Quantum mechanics has revolutionized the framework in which important cutting edge physical theories had to be formulated. Einstein didn't want to or wasn't able to absorb this additional paradigm shift and this simple fact has become a severe limitation that guaranteed that virtually all of his later work was irrelevant and misguided.

But it could have been otherwise. If Nature were organized a little bit differently, Einstein could have discovered special relativity in 1905, general relativity in 1915, and divine relativity in 1925. There is no philosophical or sociological law that would guarantee that such a scenario was a priori impossible. But once you look into the structure of physics, you will see that there is no divine relativity. Nature happens to work differently and all really important new results in theoretical physics after 1925 rely on quantum mechanics in one way or another.

Lee Smolin also tries to pretend that Einstein was still a leader in the middle 1930s, using his paper with Podolsky and Rosen as an example. OK, I don't think it's true. The EPR entanglement (improved by insights of Bell and others) has become a popular way to express some of the most surprising features of quantum mechanics. But it didn't really lead to an increased ability to make predictions. The quantum mechanical heroes knew how to predict the results of all thought experiments (and real experiments) that Einstein designed for them. Moreover, both sides of the debate deserve credit for having defined the questions about entanglement. Most importantly, Einstein's answers were wrong. I happen to think that it is not an irrelevant detail to see who was right and who was wrong. Most of my respect towards Einstein's criticism results from Einstein's previous amazing contributions. If someone else were saying these things about quantum mechanics, I would think that he is simply dense.

Smolin chastises Freeman Dyson and others for believing that famous old men like Einstein were making fools of themselves by expecting another conceptual revolution as profound as the quantum mechanical revolution. Dyson and others realized that this expectation was completely silly and that the following century in theoretical physics would be built on the same postulates of quantum mechanics that were known to Bohr.

Lee Smolin doesn't like the opinion that after quantum mechanics was found, the major conceptual revolutions were over. Smolin doesn't seem to care that Dyson's thesis that quantum mechanics is the correct framework to describe the world is by 10 orders of magnitude at the energy scale and by 60 years more powerful than when Dyson expressed them for the first time. Again, I don't think that these additional developments are details that can be ignored. Whoever ignores them is making an even greater fool of himself than he is.

Peter Galison's theories

Other scholars offer some opinions that I find strange, too. In his 2003 book, Peter Galison tried to argue that Einstein has found special relativity primarily because he was working with train synchronization patents and because his father and uncle did some business in technology.

From the viewpoint of the actual historical resources showing how Einstein was looking for the answers, I have always found these theories extremely unconvincing. The details about his family and jobs look like unimportant curiosities. Already as a teenager, Einstein was demonstrably asking questions what happens with light if you try to chase it. He was aware of some tension between the Galilean transformations on one side and Maxwell's equations on the other side. He decided to solve this problem, and he did so. It was a theorist's approach par excellence and almost any profession of his father and uncle could be painted as being instrumental in Einstein's discoveries.

Technical jobs are surely helpful but on the other hand, it is very clear that there were lots of people around whose background was expected to be much more useful for making similar breakthroughs than Einstein's background. Einstein's contributions were huge. They were arguably surprising but they were not physically impossible. His life has been affected by many social phenomena and personal affairs but these social events are not the most critical aspect of Einstein's personality. I am always amazed how people - including historians of science - misunderstand not only the way how people like Einstein were thinking but how they misunderstand what was actually important and what was unimportant.

And that's the memo.


  1. Prof. Brian Greene said this: "We can certainly go further than cats, but why should it be that our brains are somehow so suited to the universe that our brains will be able to understand the deepest workings?" I think this sums up nicely the visionary aspect of Einstein's pioneering spirit in giving the Universe a better description.

  2. Hi Lubos,
    To me, it seems that you've misunderstood the points of Smolin's article.
    a) Smolin is not at all trying to analyse Einstein's political attitude to understand his creativity. He talks about Einstein's true (not easily shown to public) political views in order to show that they are not as naive as people assumed. And I don't see that Smolin is in anyway criticizing Einstein's political views. By "the man himself was an embarrassment" Smolin is mentioning the views of the executors, not his. And all the following paragraphes with a word "embarrassment" are all the views of others, i.e. the director of IAS, the executors and Einstein's younger American colleagues. Smolin's own view is clearly opposed to them. So I failed to see why you sees Smolin as exactly the other way round.
    b) About the old einstein. I think what Smolin is trying to do is this: the old Einstein remains, at the core, much the same as the young Einstein, in the sense of his priority of what a true story about Nature should be like. It is exactly his indifference to mainstream views and his emphasis on logical structure and conceptual issues of physical theories that makes him the creator of relativity and the disfollower of QM.
    Smolin is not encouraging young people to merely copy and imitate Einstein. I think he is just saying perhaps Einstein's judgement of the difficulties of QM is a REAL difficulty, and thus we should perhaps take his criticisms seriously, and not just ignoring them by simply viewing the 'old' Einstein as no longer spectacular. This is far from "reliance on authorities".
    c) as for Einstein's view on QM, I don't think your criticisms are convincing. You criticised Smolin's emphasis on 'sociological' factors, but it seems that you're implicitly using these factors yourself when you says there's no universal and objective methods for science to progress. Smolin is perhaps vewing that Einstein has a deeper glimpse of the observer-independent reality and so we should take his views on QM more seriously. But you seems suggest that a person's view/meethod can success for some times and then failed afterwords. This to me shifts scientific progress more towards the sociological realm.