JANUARY 23, 2000

On May 19, 1919 British scientists did a major break through experiment during a solar eclipse demonstrating one of the principles of Albert Einstein’s controversial theory of relativity. It was Einstein’s firm conviction that light bends when passing through a strong gravitational field such as that exerted by the sun. During the solar eclipse the light from a distant star was shown to be deflected by the force of the sun’s gravity by a 1.75-sec arc, which was what Einstein had predicted would be the case according to the mathematics of his theory. The empirical data had proven his theory to be correct.

When later asked what his response would have been if no bending of light had been detected Einstein replied, "Then I would have been sorry for the dear Lord—because the theory is correct." Well, as it turned out the dear Lord had no cause to be sorry. The heavens declared the glory of Einstein’s universe and God was permitted to live in harmony with it.

Albert Einstein was named the Person of the Century by TIME magazine. All of us live today in Einstein’s universe: the universe of E=mc2, of nuclear power and space exploration, of relativity and quantum mechanics, of quarks and quasars, of the big-bang creation and an expanding universe, of the space-time continuum and black holes where the laws of modern physics disappear into the unknown of singularities. All of these things are the earmarks of the universe bequeathed to us out of the mind and spirit of Albert Einstein, believed by many to be the greatest mind and genius of the 20th century.

Einstein’s was an unusual genius. He did not talk until age 3, and not that well at age 9. It was thought he might be retarded. He resisted the rigid discipline of European schools, was told he would not amount to anything by an exasperated teacher, and called a lazy dog by another. He went on to fail the entrance exam to the Swiss Institute of Technology which he managed to pass a year later after boning up on zoology, biology and additional languages. Upon graduation he was unable to get a teaching post and so took a job as an examiner for the Swiss Patent Office in Bern, with the title technical expert, third class.

It was while working as a minor clerk in the Swiss patent office in 1905 that Einstein developed and published at age 26 his theory of Special Relativity—the second part, the theory of General Relativity, was published some 8 to 10 years later. Einstein’s relativity theory demolished two of Isaac Newton’s basic assumptions upon which physics up until that time had operated: (1) that time is absolute and universally the same, flowing steadily from past to future, and, (2) that length/mass is absolute in space regardless of motion.

The only constant in Einstein’s theory was the speed of light—186,283 miles per second—and it remained constant even when emitted from a rapidly moving body. The size or mass of an object and the passage of time in relation to it were relative to the rate of motion and the force of gravity. In Einstein’s theory a space ship would increase in mass as it increased its rate of motion, while time would slow down and decrease a proportionate amount. As the ship approached the speed of light its mass would approach infinity while time would approach zero. In more down to earth terms it could be said that time at the equator is passing more slowly than time at the poles because there is proportionately greater mass and rate of motion at the equator than at the poles. Space and time are thus not two different realities in relation to one another, but two facets of one reality, space-time.

Other parts of Einstein’s theory that boggle the mind and set Newtonian physics spinning in confusion, are: (1) that space (and with it time) is curved by the force of gravity and the mass of an object, and (2) that mass and energy are interchangeable. The latter is expressed by the equation connected with his name: E=mc2. Einstein’s theory was the first to explain how the sun could burn for billions of years while not shrinking in size. The amount of power released when matter is transformed into energy is immense. Think of it in terms of the potential energy and power resident within the mass of a single human body. If the matter within your body were immediately transformed into pure energy it could, who knows, maybe blow up a city. You are a walking powerhouse. "You are as gods!" as it says in one of the Psalms.

Einstein’s theory of relativity was and still is very difficult to grasp. At first even well trained and educated scientists had difficulty grasping it. When British astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was asked if it was true that only three people understood relativity, he paused and then said, "I am trying to think who the third person is." Once when asked to explain his theory of relativity in a few sentences Einstein replied: "If my theory stands the test of time the French will say I’m Jewish and the Germans will say I’m German. If not, the Germans will say I’m Jewish and the French will say I’m German. That’s relativity!" Einstein had a great wit. Once while listening to an exceedingly boring after dinner speech he leaned over and said to a friend: "I have discovered a new theory of eternity." He once described hell as "the devil approaching menacingly every half-hour with his pitchfork loaded with a fresh bale of letters to be answered." He also said, "Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it."

What were Einstein’s views on science and religion? When some clergy leveled charges of atheism against his theory of relativity, Einstein replied, "I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings." Spinoza was a 17th century Jewish philosopher who held to the view that the divine reality was revealed in the substance and structure of nature, and nature’s laws. He was for all practical purposes a pantheist, and so was Einstein. Einstein often kept Spinoza’s God in mind when he was evaluating a new theory. He would ask himself: "If I were God, would I have made the universe in this way?"

Einstein had what he called a "profound reverence for the rationality made manifest in existence." This attitude of reverence and humility before the infinite order of the universe was in Einstein’s view "to be religious in the highest sense of the word." Science, he said, "purifies the religious impulse of the dross of anthropomorphism" [making god in our image] "but also contributes to a religious spiritualization of our understanding of life." If religion needed science to correct its views of nature and creation, science also needed religion to bring some sense of moral order into human existence. "Science without religion", he declared, "is lame", while "religion without science is blind."

So convinced was Einstein of an orderly universe of predictable laws that he had a hard time coming to terms with the unpredictable sub-atomic universe of Quantum Mechanics where it is impossible to determine the position and momentum of an electron spinning around the nucleus of an atom. That is because the very act of observation has an affect upon it, and because the electron behaves and even appears to be in two places at the same time. The Uncertainty Principle of quantum mechanics was something that emerged out of Einstein’s own theory of relativity, but he did not like it and resisted accepting it for many years.

Einstein had two favorite sayings: "God is subtle, but he is not malicious" (which is inscribed in German above the fireplace of the faculty lounge math building at Princeton where Einstein taught and theorized). The second saying was one he used to do battle with the chance notions of quantum mechanics: "God does not play dice with the universe." Niels Bohr, who disagreed with Einstein on this matter replied: "Stop telling God what to do." Einstein had devoted himself to science to escape "the I and the We for the It"—meaning he wanted to forsake "the capriciousness of men for the certainty of atoms"(TIME). But the irony of his quest is that his own work "led to a view of the universe in which the neat mechanism of causality gives way to a cosmic game of chance" (TIME, Dec. 31, 1999).

Albert Einstein’s life and thought have had a profound influence upon the world, not only the world of scientific knowledge but also the world of religion and philosophy. As TIME magazine noted, "Einstein’s theory of relativity not only upended physics, it also jangled the underpinnings of society." From a world of absolute laws and certainties we entered a "universe in which space and time were all relative." This "paved the way for a new relativity in morality, arts and politics"(TIME), and even religion and theology. We now know that all things are relative. What you think and feel and believe about God and the universe and human values depends on your point of view. There are few absolute certainties out there anymore. This is not all bad, however. If we can realize that all our views, political and religious, are limited by our individual and collective perspectives, then we can learn to be more tolerant and accepting of differences, and try to find common ground for living together in a world and universe that is greater than we can know.

Einstein did not spend all of his life in the physics lab spinning theories. He was a humanitarian, a pacifist, a helper of his people, a believer and supporter of the Zionist cause for a Jewish homeland. He was offered the post of the first President of the new State of Israel, but he turned it down. He was not a political animal. He was a theoretical physicist. "Politics is for the moment", he quipped, "while an equation is for eternity."

Of his pacifism Einstein said, "My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred." Einstein’s pacifism, like his physics theory, was relative, not absolute, and he made an understandable exception to the fight against Nazi Germany. He was able to come to America in 1933 (after Hitler came to power) and became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He used what influence he had to help other Jews get out of Germany and find refuge in the United States.

Einstein feared that Germany would develop the Atomic bomb and sent a letter to then President Roosevelt expressing his concern. His letter is said to have had some influence upon Roosevelt’s establishment of the Manhattan project, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. Einstein was greatly distressed when the U.S. became the first nation to use such a weapon against Japan, an action he felt was unnecessary. His last public act before his death was signing a statement with British philosopher and mathematician, Bertrand Russell and other prominent scientists renouncing war. The statement asked: "Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?" On contemplating the devastation that would be wrought by a nuclear holocaust Einstein reflected that people would no longer be able to hear Mozart. Mozart, his favorite composer, represented to him the spiritual apex and expression of human civilization and culture at its best.

The last great project of theoretical physics which Einstein labored at for the last 30 years of his life was to construct a unified-field theory that would unite the forces of electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces, under one set of equations. He did not succeed. He was unable to develop the mathematics. "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe", he continued to believe, "is that it is comprehensible." He had been driven all of his life to try and grasp the "great eternal riddle" of this vast world. Though he had contributed greatly to solving that riddle, he remained truly modest and humble about his accomplishments. "I know from my own painful searching, with its many blind alleys, how hard it is to take a reliable step, be it ever so small, towards the understanding of that which is truly significant." And then he continued:

The God of Einstein’s universe was one revealed in the beauty and mystery of the laws of nature which the human mind but dimly comprehends. "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious", said Einstein. "It is the source of all true art and science." "Everyone", he wrote, "who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe—a spirit vastly superior to [us], and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble."

Even as of old "the heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims the Eternal’s handiwork."