Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, remains difficult for me to grasp fully. But I feel I have come to understand something of the man — his expansive spirit, his relentless curiosity, and his reverence for the beauty and order of nature and thought. I was daunted as I began, but delving into Einstein was a delight.
And there is a logic of sorts to that, as humor was an aspect of Einstein’s genius. Freeman Dyson suggests that his ability to make light and to laugh, even at himself, was one key to the magnitude of his scientific accomplishment. Science is often about failure. Einstein himself proposed that he made so many discoveries because he was not afraid to be proven wrong, repeatedly, on his way to all of them. But Einstein also employed humor to philosophical and ethical effect, weighing in trenchantly on mankind’s foibles.
Einstein held a deep and nuanced, if not a traditional, faith. I did not assume this at the outset. I’ve always been suspicious of the way Einstein’s famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” gets quoted for vastly different purposes. I wanted to understand what Einstein meant as a physicist when he said that. As it turns out, that particular quip had more to do with physics than with God, as Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies illuminate.
Einstein did, however, leave behind a rich body of reflection on the “mind” and the “superior spirit” behind the cosmos that has never made its way into popular consciousness. He didn’t believe in a personal God who would interfere with the laws of physics. But he was fascinated with the ingenuity of those laws and expressed awe at the very fact of their existence. Throughout his life, he thrilled to all he could not yet understand. He was more than content with what he called a “cosmic religious sense” — animated by “inklings” and “wondering,” rather than by answers and conclusions. Here is a passage that comes close, I think, to a concise description by Einstein of his quintessential “faith”:
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves … Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”
With Paul Davies, I was able to pursue how Einstein changed our view of space and especially time, a subject that has always intrigued me. Before Einstein, as Davies describes it, human beings thought of space and time as fixed and immutable, the backdrop to the great show of life. But we now know they are elastic and intertwined, part of the show themselves. Einstein described our perception of time as an arrow — traversing linear and compartmentalized past, present, and future — as a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Such language is evocative from a religious standpoint. As Davies discusses, it echoes insights that run throughout Eastern and Western religions and ancient indigenous cultures. Davies finds an affinity between Einstein’s view of time and the religious notion of a reality “beyond time,” and of “the eternal.” And because he speaks as a person conversant in current advancements of Einstein’s science — cosmology and the Big Bang, black holes, even the search for life beyond this galaxy — his insights carry for me a special weight of authority and, yes, wonder.
I came across many wise and touching pieces of writing by the spiritual Einstein while preparing for these conversations. Einstein was a passionate letter writer. He wrote to fellow scientists, friends, and strangers. He loved responding to the letters of schoolchildren. One of his correspondents for a time was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. He had struck up a warm friendship with her and her husband, King Albert, just before World War II. In one tragic season in the midst of already tumultuous political times, her husband died suddenly, as did her daughter-in-law. Einstein wrote to her:
“Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you. And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.”
I emerged from these discussions with a new sense of Albert Einstein — not just as a great mind, but as a wise man. He was fully human and flawed, certainly in his intimate relationships. But he was undeniably an original, and not just as a scientist. If past, present, and future are an illusion, as he said, none of us ever really disappear. We all leave our imprint on what is now. I have a profound sense of Einstein’s imprint, and it comforts me. I suspect that if he heard he was the subject of a program called Speaking of Faith more than 50 years after his death, he would make a funny, kindly, self-deprecating joke. But if he could listen with twenty-first-century ears, he might be intrigued by how his generous, questioning, “cosmic” religious sense is deeply kindred with the religious and spiritual yearnings of our age.
Images: top, an inset of a page from one of three existing Einstein manuscripts on special relativity (1912). No known original manuscripts exist from the year of publication in 1905. (courtesy of The Jewish National & University Library, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
bottom, Albert Einstein sailing his boat on Saranac Lake. (courtesy of The Fantova Collection, Princeton University)