Changing Planet

EINSTEIN Part II: A Bundle of Contradictions


"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”

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
  • B. Jones

    This is a beautifully written piece. I like the comparison of Einstein and Newton. I am not a scientist, but I appreciate Einstein’s brilliance as well as his very human, kind side. I remember hearing/reading that the children in his neighborhood would come to his home for help with their math. If he were alive today, I wonder how he might comment regarding nuclear weapons. The quotes you included are very nice.

  • A few months before he died, Einstein remarked, “I made one great mistake in my life… when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.” But he also added as a justification, “[there was] the danger that the Germans would make them.” The Germans were indeed working on the atom bomb, with their greatest physicist Werner Heisenberg heading the program. However, after the war, the commission that was organized to evaluate the German program found that they were way off target. Hitler was personally skeptical, and did not fully support the effort. I think he would have found the present situation deplorable!

  • Richard D. Hughes

    See Richard Rose, the Making of the Atomic Bomb, for a different story than the Einstein/Bohr letter to FDR. Apparently the British were already on to it and had concluded, because of the proximity to Germany, they should send their scientists to work with the Americans and produce it here. I vaguely remember it was the Perle(s?) report.

    • Richard (if I may). Thank you very much for the comment. Your story is entirely relevant. But the events as I understand them were more complicated than what I offered in the blog and perhaps also more complicated than Richard Rose’s account, but even more interesting. Lisa Meitner was one third of the trio that happened upon the splitting of uranium atoms — indeed she was the individual who showed by chemical means that the biproduct of U(235)+n was Rb+Cs+(several neutrons). Since the atomic number of Uranium is 92, and those of Rubidium and Cesium are 55 and 37, respectively, this makes sense, the atomic number is conserved. Since Meitner was Jewish, she was clearly in danger for her life in those days in Germany, and on Hahn’s urging she took her nephew (Otto Frisch, also a physicist) and abandoned Germany. I understand that Hahn gave Ms. Meitner his mother’s diamond ring that she would be allowed use to bribe guards, but that it did not become necessary. They traveled to Denmark and then to Sweden. While in Copenhagen, she reported the discovery of fission to Niels Bohr. Bohr sent a telegram to the three Hungarian-American physicists and one-time classmates, Wigner, Szillard and Teller. The three relayed the message to Einstein (this part of the story was Wigner’s own recollections to me). Einstein’s somewhat bewildering letter sat on FDR’s desk for several months. But on the other side of the Atlantic, Frisch traveled to England and met up with his old friend, Rudolf Peierls (pronounced “piles”). The two made some rough calculations and found that only a few kilograms of uranium would be sufficient to make “critical mass”. Somehow they were able to get their message to Churchill, who in turn contacted FDR. This must have added considerable credibility to Einstein’s original letter. One evening in 1972-’73 I was a guest of Professor Peierls at New College, Oxford. His old friend, Frisch, was his other guest, having arrived from Cambridge. I was exactly half their age, and I felt like a fly on the wall, hearing the most remarkable story — and from the horses’ mouths. Eight or nine years later, in 1982, I had Rudolf Peierls and his wife as guests in my home in Virginia. One day while we were driving on Rt. 1, he recounted another part of the story. He and other scientists had been brought over from Europe on a freighter that docked in Norfolk, Virginia. Then in two buses, with the windows over-painted, they were transported on Rt. 1 to Washington, DC for preliminary meetings. Many years ago the Interstate Highway 95 was constructed parallel to Rt. 1 and is the main North-South thoroughfare between Florida and Maine.

  • Alice Calaprice

    Einstein was indeed a kind man, including being kind to children (except sometimes his own) and animals. However, he also had a sharp tongue when he lost patience with admirers (he felt he did not deserve the adulation he received) and arrogant people: “I am not the kind of snob or exhibitionist you take me to be, and furthermore have nothing of value to say that’s of immediate concern, as you seem to assume” (after a request for a letter to be displayed in a museum); and “It is quite curious, even abnormal, that, with your superficial knowledge about the subject, you are so confident in your judgment. I regret I cannot spare the time to occupy myself with dilettantes” (to a man who claimed to have a better theory of relativity). But in general he was more as he described himself: “I simply enjoy giving more than receiving in every respect, to not take myself or the doing of the masses seriously, am not ashamed of my weaknesses and vices, and naturally take things as they come with equanimity and humor. Many people are like this, and I really cannot understand why I have been made into a kind of idol”; and “My sceintific work is motivated by an irresistible longing to understand the secrets of nature and by no other feelings. My love for justice and striving to contribute toward the improvement of human conditions are quite independent from my scientific interests.”

  • Alice, I am delighted and honored that you added a comment. My guess is that Einstein did not suffer sycophants well, although he was surrounded by a sea of sycophants. His assistants were loyal and respectful, but they were not the sycophants, falling over themselves. A metaphor that I heard associated with Einstein, “Midgets on stilts,” may have characterized academic administrators and not academics. Perhaps you can shed some light on those words.

  • […] one preferred quotes are: — “There have been dual ways to live your life. Read some-more upon National Geographic Post a comment — Trackback URI RSS 2.0 feed for these comments This entry (permalink) was […]

  • Maria Ocampos

    As I am social worker, so interested in human beings and their personalities, Einstein and his contradictions are an attractive, captivating, charming subject. This is very well presented in the quotes, may I add my preferred one? “There are two things that are infinite, the universe and human stupidity”

  • M Yakub Chowdhury

    Sir Bulent Atalay, I have a stupid question. During the time of Einstein there were cars, I guess. Why he was riding cycle? I just want to know. Will be grateful if you reply. Thanks

    • Of course, there were cars, but, for whatever reason, he had no interest in driving a car. There are many photos in which he is seen being driven around, but only one photo where he is behind a wheel. On his first visit to the United States in the early 1920s, he is seen sitting behind a wheel and his wife is sitting next to him… but it is on a Hollywood Film Set. Before finally settling in Princeton, New Jersey, when he was around 53-54 years old, he lived in European cities where public transportation was adequate. In Princeton, he was sometimes picked up by official drivers of the Institute for Advanced Study. But he liked to walk the 1-2 km distance to his office with his assistants, and engage in lively discussions on physics.

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    Appreciating the persistence you put into your site and in depth information you provide. It’s awesome to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same out of date rehashed information. Great read! I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m including your RSS feeds to my Google account.

    • Thank you for your gracious remarks, Sarah. What is worth doing is also worth trying to do well. Ultimately, we can only bask in the reflected glory of individuals like Einstein, Newton and Leonardo…


  • Robert Castleton Wormus

    Albert Einstein, First victim of the Anthropic Paradox?
    Posted March 10, 2013 by Robert Wormus & filed under Miscellaneous.

    An ‘Anthropic Paradox’: The evolved inability of mankind to psycho-physiologically accept the new, abstract, counter-intuitive Modern Physics.

    “About fifteen years ago [1899] nobody had yet doubted that a correct account of the electrical, optical, and thermal properties of matter was possible on the basis of Galileo-Newtonian mechanics applied to molecular motion and of Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field.” (Albert Einstein, 1915)

    “Then Planck showed that in order to establish a law of heat radiation (Infra-red light waves) consonant with experience, it was necessary to employ a method of calculation whose incompatibility with the principles of classical physics became clearer and clearer. For with this method of calculation, Planck introduced into physics the quantum hypothesis, which has since received brilliant confirmation. (Albert Einstein, on Quantum Theory, 1914)

    “In the year nineteen hundred, in the course of purely theoretical (mathematical) investigation, Max Planck made a very remarkable discovery: the law of radiation of bodies as a function of temperature could not be derived solely from the Laws of Maxwellian electrodynamics. To arrive at results consistent with the relevant experiments, radiation of a given frequency f had to be treated as though it consisted of energy atoms (photons) of the individual energy hf, where h is Planck’s universal constant. During the years following, it was shown that light was everywhere produced and absorbed in such energy quanta,

    In fact, my own offering in 1905, ‘The photoelectric effect’ corroborated the ‘physicality’ of Planck’s quantum hypothesis. This then, led to Niels Bohr’s understanding the structure of the atom, on the assumption that the atoms can only have discrete energy values, and that the discontinuous transitions between them are connected with the emission or absorption of energy quantum. This threw some light on the fact that in their gaseous state elements and their compounds radiate and absorb only light of certain sharply defined frequencies. (Albert Einstein, on Quantum Theory, 1940)

    Over night, Albert Einstein acquiesces. His resolve to counter man’s intuitive reality collapses, like a wave front under observation, and the hopes of Modern Physics is dealt a fatal blow.

    ENTER man’s greatest nemesis: The Anthropic Paradox.

    The Anthropic Paradox; Nature’s stubs her T.O.E.


    The ‘Anthropic Paradox’: Man’s adaptive, probabilistic evolutionary process has evolved him into an aggressive, highly intelligf purely ent, humanoid animal, capable of fabricating an illusion of his own intuitive-derived, experience-based, instinct-driven subjective reality; and subliminaly incapable of accepting the counter-intuitive objective reality of an external world .(1)

    I don’t expect man to accept my wild thesis in my lifetime; but I can only hope that he can accept it before our total human extinction event.

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