World Lines: How Einstein kept it simple

  • 02 July 2008
  • From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.
  • Lawrence Krauss

I HAD thought I would be sick of Albert Einstein by now. Following the centenary in 2005 of his annus mirabilis - the year in which he produced four papers that changed the world, including his special theory of relativity - I figured the constant hype and adulation would have left a sour taste. But Einstein keeps on surprising me.

As a young man, I - like so many others - was motivated by the myth of Einstein to pursue a career in theoretical physics. Later, I began to see the older Einstein as a tragic figure who wasted the last 25 years of his life on a fruitless search for a unified field theory that was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of modern physics.

But as I've learned more about the man, I have begun to recognise the depth of his accomplishments and the clarity and simplicity of thought that he maintained throughout a complicated life. That genius is reflected not only in his physics - he excelled at extracting simple truths from complex phenomena - but also in his writing.

In particular, there is a letter on religion that Einstein wrote to the philosopher Eric Gutkind in 1954, which was recently sold at auction. (I, with several colleagues, tried to put together a winning bid, but even the richest of us ended up about $350,000 short.) Much has been made of Einstein's apparent belief in the pantheistic god of Spinoza, but in this letter he is quite specific, writing: "The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses."

Here is a straightforward statement of a truth that hurts so much that US presidential candidate Barack Obama got into trouble even hinting at it: people often turn to a god because coping without one is just too difficult. Einstein did not argue for a universal atheism, but he clearly saw the idea of a god interested in our affairs as a human creation.

People often turn to a god because coping without one is just too difficult

On the Bible, Einstein's letter says: "The Bible [is] a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

I have spent a lot of time with scholarly theologians, and am always struck by how hard they have to work and how many epicycles they have to invent to keep their theology consistent with current knowledge. Their powers of interpretation are impressive. But Einstein cuts through their efforts in a single sentence: shifting interpretations cannot change the fact that the Bible results from a childish phase of human development.

Even religious people implicitly recognise this. A Pew Forum poll published this month shows that while 92 per cent of Americans are religious, the vast majority of them do not subscribe to specific biblical doctrine. Their belief in belief is clearly stronger than their belief in the Bible, or any other sacred text.

On Judaism, and the idea of Jews as chosen people, Einstein says: "For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people... have no different quality for me than all other people... although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."

As someone who was brought up Jewish, with many friends and colleagues who insist that Judaism is somehow less silly than other religions, this is a breath of fresh air. Similarly, Einstein's support for Israel should not bolster anyone's claim that Jews have a divine birthright.

The writer of this letter is no fuzzy old philosopher-scientist uttering vague yet poetic words. This is a clear, brave intellect, and I wish I could be as clear myself. But that just proves something I already knew. I'm no Einstein.

From issue 2663 of New Scientist magazine, 02 July 2008, page 50