The scientist as public intellectual.May 11, 2015, Vol. 20, No. 33 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
This year is the centenary of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the occasion for revisiting that momentous discovery by paying tribute to one of the most famous scientists of modern times. Steven Gimbel’s brief book is a welcome contribution to that event, placing Einstein in his “space and times,” as his subtitle has it. “It was relativity,” he declares, “that made Einstein Einstein”—that gave the scientist the authority (the standing, a jurist might say) to pronounce on public affairs. Sixty years after his death, Einstein still enjoys that authority. The current issue of an English journal, in a discussion of the war against ISIS, quotes at length (and critically) a 1947 article by Einstein on the Cold War. And as I write, a Washington Post article on the Middle East peace process cites Einstein on the futility of repeated experiments, concluding, “This applies to Gaza.”
The biographer of Einstein has to cope with this Einstein—the post-history, so to speak, of his hero, who ventured out of his natural terrain and acquired a new persona—as well as the prehistory of his hero—the genesis of the ideas that went into the theory that “made Einstein Einstein.” The latter is the more challenging because there was little in his background and early years to foresee a theory so novel and abstruse.
Born in 1879 to an assimilated German-Jewish family—Albert was a secularized version of Abraham, the grandfather after whom he was named—he was sent to a Catholic school in Munich, where he was the only Jewish child in his class. Bullied by his classmates and harshly treated by the teachers, he hated everything about school and learned, he later insisted, nothing. The high school, the gymnasium, was no better. What education he received was from reading on his own and from his uncle, an engineer, who introduced him to the mysteries of mathematics. His unruliness and inattentiveness in class and his difficulties with the other students and teachers have given rise to the “myth,” as Gimbel puts it, that Einstein was autistic. The myth was not entirely unwarranted. As a child, he had “developmental problems” and “issues” with speech, and as a youth, was inept in conversation, socially awkward, inappropriately dressed, and had the affinity for music and visual images rather than language that is characteristic of autism.
When his family moved to Milan, Einstein, at the age of 16, joined them, and to continue his studies in German, he attended the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich. (He was admitted after failing the first entrance exam.) Neglecting classes, misbehaving, and flouting the social conventions, after four years, he barely passed the final exam (he scored next-to-last). Physics was his favorite and best subject, but, lacking a recommendation from his teachers, he failed to get an assistantship to a physics professor or even a private tutoring job. The situation became more difficult when his girlfriend, Mileva, a fellow student, got pregnant. She returned to her home in Serbia to give birth to the child, and came back to Zurich leaving the child behind. (This episode was entirely unknown until well after Einstein’s death.) In 1901, the offer of a job as a patent clerk in Bern permitted them to marry—an unhappy marriage, as it turned out, although it produced two sons to whom Einstein was devoted. They were eventually divorced, leaving Einstein free to marry (happily, this time) another schoolmate, his cousin Elsa.
In this unlikely atmosphere, Einstein somehow persisted in his study of physics. In a memoir, he explained that his interest in that subject had been inspired by two childhood events. He was 4 or 5 when he was shown a compass and realized that the needle always pointed north because it was governed not by any visible or empirical force but by a simple, rational, irrefutable rule. The other epiphany occurred at the age of 12, when he came upon a book on Euclidean geometry, which demonstrated that the intersection of the three altitudes of a triangle in one point, although not on the face of it evident, could be proved without doubt.
“This lucidity and certainty,” he recalled, “made an indescribable impression upon me.” It was in this spirit, without a professional position or credentials, that he took on the “very revolutionary” project, as he described it, of transforming physics. The theory of relativity in 1905 did just that, overturning the structure of Newtonian physics with a radically new concept of matter and light based purely on reason.
On rereading ‘Culture and Anarchy.’Dec 1, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 12 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
It was by chance that my first reading of Culture and Anarchy with my students coincided with the centenary of its publication. But it was not by chance that I chose to read it then, in 1969, at the height of the culture war. Anticipating that war by more than a century, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) wrote a passionate defense of culture—high culture, we would now say—against the prevailing low culture that he saw as tantamount to “anarchy.”
Edmund Burke’s war on terror—and ours.Sep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
The war on terror is over, the president assured us a year ago. Now, we are told, that war is very much with us and will be pursued with all due diligence. The president was obviously responding to the polls reflecting the disapproval of the public, but also to critics in his own party. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sadly commented on his admission that he had “no strategy yet”: “I think I’ve learned one thing about this president, and that is: He’s very cautious—maybe in this instance too cautious.”
A century-old precursor to the Obamacare debateApr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
The debate over Obamacare may remind a student of British history of the debate in Britain over the National Insurance Act of 1911, which was in effect until the initiation of the welfare state after World War II. The protagonists in that debate (like ours, not formally a debate, but implicitly that) were Winston Churchill and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Churchill, a rising star in the Liberal party and a member of Herbert Asquith’s cabinet, heartily promoted the act.
How the Revolution, and two thinkers, bequeathed us ‘right’ and ‘left.’ Dec 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 13 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. So, too, extreme situations make bad policy and worse philosophy. The French Revolution was just such a situation; compared with the French, the English and American revolutions are almost unworthy of the title of revolution. No one took the measure of the extremity of that revolution better than its contemporaries Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. And nobody drew the most far-reaching, antithetical, and enduring political and philosophical lessons from that revolution.
How ‘the greatest Victorian’ speaks to us. Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)—“the greatest Victorian,” as an eminent historian of that period memorialized him, editor of the Economist, author of The English Constitution, and a prolific essayist—is almost unknown today.
How and why the Jews have thrived in England. Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By DANIEL JOHNSON
In the last words of this book, the author quotes her brother Milton Himmelfarb in one of his last essays: “Hope is a Jewish virtue.” Nobody embodies that virtue more felicitously than Gertrude Himmelfarb, who over a long and fruitful life of scholarship has given hope to all who have encountered her, whether in person or in print.
What are yours?3:14 PM, Mar 19, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
No matter how this weekend's vote turns out, we're going to need to take a break from health care reform. Like government spending, health care has crowded out the market for political discussion. Glance at the news, and you would have no way of knowing that other things are happening.
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