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EINSTEIN Part II: A Bundle of Contradictions

  Albert Einstein, whose name has become synonymous with “genius,” was a complex man, a virtual bundle of contradictions. The ultimate intellectual rebel, he demonstrated a level of intuition and imagination beyond any mathematical scientist since Isaac Newton. He was a very good mathematician, but not a mathematical genius in the mode of Newton, who...


"Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving". A. Einstein. The photo was taken in 1931 when Einstein was visiting Caltech.

Albert Einstein, whose name has become synonymous with “genius,” was a complex man, a virtual bundle of contradictions. The ultimate intellectual rebel, he demonstrated a level of intuition and imagination beyond any mathematical scientist since Isaac Newton. He was a very good mathematician, but not a mathematical genius in the mode of Newton, who two centuries earlier formulated calculus. But it was not his mathematical prowess as much as the legendary intuition that fueled Einstein’s originality. In one of his latter day pronouncements, he is seen commiserating, “Since the mathematicians have invaded the theory of relativity, I do not understand it myself anymore.”

Ink drawing by the author, inspired by a Yousuf Karsh photograph of Einstein hanging in the Department of Physics at Princeton University.

Just as Newton, at 23, had enjoyed an explosive period of creativity during the ‘Year of the Plague’ in 1665-‘66, Einstein, at 26, demonstrated a similar level of creativity in 1905. These are two minuscule periods in the history of science referred to as “Anni Mirabiles” (“Miracle Years”) that forever changed the way we see the universe. In his own miracle year, Einstein published four ground- breaking papers, three of which could have won the Nobel Prize — the Photoelectric Effect, Brownian Motion and the Special Theory of Relativity. The first of the papers, positing the wave-particle duality of light, earned for him the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. And in the intervening years between 1905 and 1921, he went on to prefigure the phenomenon of “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation” (LASER) in 1917 and to create the crowning glory of all his works, the general theory of relativity (1915). The general theory, governing the large scale universe, is regarded as one of the two most important theories of 20th century science. Moreover, his wave-particle duality provided a crucial first step for the quantum revolution that eventually culminated with the formulation of the other great theory of the 20th century physics, quantum mechanics. This theory, governing the small scale universe, was a group masterpiece of a handful of brilliant young physicists — de Broglie, Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac — and ultimately had its roots in the uncertainty (or indeterminacy) principle of Werner Heisenberg. But Einstein could never come to terms with uncertainty. He found it much too messy, uttering his famous invective, “God would not play dice with the universe.” Yet… so successful did quantum mechanics prove to be that it left Einstein behind, and regarded by the physics community as a kind of living dinosaur.

Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer, Professor of Physics at UCal Berkeley, was appointed the Director of the Manhattan Project. He proved to be as capable an administrator as he had been an academic. After the War, however, when his clearance was rescinded, he became the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study In Princeton, and Einstein's boss.

Einstein was a pacifist, but at least indirectly catalyzed the building of the atom bomb. It was his famous letter of 1939 to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that led to the development of the atom bomb. This letter revealed to government authorities for the first time that German scientists (Hahn, Strassman and Meitner) had discovered the process of Uranium fission, that bombarding Uranium atoms with neutrons caused them to split and release nuclear energy. The ramifications of the discovery, Einstein explained in his letter to the President, could be the creation of a super bomb and that the Nazis appeared to be fully aware of that possibility. This revelation led to the launching of the Manhattan Project, and a mobilization of the most talented scientists and engineers in the country, as well as those who could be smuggled out of Europe.

Einstein was an unusually kind and wise man. Yet, he could never have served as a model family man. While in his early twenties (1903) he married fellow physics student, Mileva Maric, this, in spite of his parents’ deep displeasure, “…she is older than you, and she is so homely…” Later when he found that he and Mileva were growing apart, and she was becoming increasingly dour, he divorced her, pledging to her the monetary component of the Nobel Prize, still only an expectation. Years later when his own son, Hans Albert Einstein, married, he expressed his paternal concern, echoing his own parents’, “… older than you, and so homely…” He even admonished Hans Albert, “at least don’t have any children.”

Finally, Einstein was immensely quotable. Alice Calaprice, a former senior editor at Princeton University Press, published the most definitive collection of quotations in a number of books listed below. Among my favorite quotes are:

—   “There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

—    “If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor.”

—   “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German, and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German, and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.”

—   “I know not with what weapons World Wart III will be fought, but WW IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” (A highly sobering thought, in light of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There are now nine members of the dreaded ‘Nuclear Club.’)

The popular media in lionizing certain scientists frequently gets it wrong. In Einstein’s case, they got it exactly right. Einstein is without a doubt the worthy successor of Newton for the mantle of “greatest scientist ever”.



Calaprice, Alice, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (Princeton University Press, 2011) 578 pages.

Calaprice, Alice, The New Quotable Einstein (Princeton University Press, 2005) 407 pages.

Isaacson, Walter, Einstein (Simon and Shuster, 2007) 675 pages.



NEXT BLOG:  EINSTEIN Part III. “The Absent Minded Professor”

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Meet the Author

Bulent Atalay
Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay