Einstein for the 21st Century: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture

by Peter L. Galison, Gerald Holton, Silvan S. Schweber, Editors

Princeton University Press, 2008, 400 pp., illustrated, $35.00

Reviewed by Michael Riordan

book cover

We all recognize Albert Einstein for his unparalleled contributions to 20th-century physics, in which he established a radically new style of scientific thought founded in the simplicity, rationality and symmetry of Nature. But few of us know much about his broader impact on philosophy, art, and modern culture. This book, based on contributions to the Berlin Einstein Symposium of 2005, helps fill this gap in our appreciation of the man and his works. Edited by three physicists with distinguished careers in the history of our field, it gathers in one volume the observations of twenty scholars about the many dimensions of Einstein and his impacts on science and culture. In addition to the editors themselves, the authors include leading historians and philosophers of science such as Lorraine Daston and Michael Friedman, art historians Linda Dalrymple Henderson and Caroline A. Jones, novelist E. L. Doctorow, and Nobel laureates David Gross and Dudley Herschbach.

As Holton remarks in his introductory article, "Not since Isaac Newton's Principia can one imagine an analogous symposium to mark a physical scientist's legacy in such a wide spectrum of fields" (p. 3). He identifies Einstein as a German Kulturträger, or culture carrier, one who "not only imbues and represents the culture of his time and place, but also stimulates others, widens their horizon, imagination, and vocabulary" (p. 13). Kant and Goethe, for example, prodded European culture into completely new realms of thought. The other contributors then help to flesh out Holton's vision of Einstein's "meaning" for the 20th century and beyond.

Daston writes eloquently about Einstein's search for a paradise beyond the merely personal, a longing shared by Peter L. Galison, Gerald Holton, Silvan S. Schweber, Editors Princeton University Press, 2008, 400 pp., illustrated, $35.00 Einstein for the 21st Century His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture with such turn-of-the-century physicists as Max Planck and Henri Poincaré. The transcendence they sought was more than just a replacement for Judaism or Christianity; it was "a genuinely new ideal of how to be and know in the world" (p. 16). These theorists helped redefine what it meant to be a scientist, or more exactly a theoretical physicist — just then beginning to emerge as a distinct avocation. Their community of like-minded thinkers is recognized more broadly today as a "scientific community," a term first coined by Charles Saunders Peirce in the late 19th century.

Despite his vast contributions to physics, Einstein was largely unknown to the public until 1919, when observations of the bending of light rays by the Sun gave stunning confirmation of his theory of general relativity. He subsequently became a cultural hero in part because of his wartime pacifism and opposition to German militarism. But this fame earned him the undying enmity of the nascent Nazism in Weimar Germany. Relativity began to be reviled as "Jewish physics" by the Nazis, including two Nobel laureates, and Einstein eventually emigrated to America and Princeton in 1933, just steps ahead of Hitler. Curiously, his 1920s emergence as a cultural figure also marked the end of his major contributions to theoretical physics.

Art historian Henderson remarks that Einstein's impact on modern art began in that decade. She debunks the "myth" that his ideas of special relativity spawned the cubism of Braque and Picasso, which had deeper roots in the multi-dimensional, non - Euclidean geometries of 19th century mathematicians. But Einstein's theories of relativity did influence Dadaism, German Expressionism and the Bauhaus, Russian Constructivism, and the Surrealism of Salvador Dali. To these avante-garde artists, the fourth dimension was not one of space but of time, which they tried to invoke or evoke in their work. For Caroline Jones, "Einstein is the unspoken fulcrum" (p. 131) of an important shift in spatiotemporal visualization by artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She discusses how distinctly differently the French Impressionist Claude Monet and today's "explicit Einsteinian" Matthew Ritchie—whose artwork graces the book's dust jacket—have rendered the ideas of time and motion.

Although interesting, the contributions of Galison and Schweber did little to expand my understanding of Einstein. In "The Assassin of Relativity," Galison writes principally about Friedrich Adler, a theorist and contemporary of Einstein's at Zurich, whose leftist leanings led him to murder the Austrian Prime Minister in 1916. We glimpse their correspondence while Adler languished in jail awaiting trial, and watch as a dispute about relativity erupts between them. All I learned here about Einstein was his compassion for and loyalty to an old friend, however guilty of a heinous crime. Schweber writes about "Einstein and Nuclear Weapons," retelling the wellworn story of his famous August 1939 letter to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility of a uranium bomb. But later in the piece, he offers numerous details I'd previously been unaware of about Einstein's reactions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and his postwar efforts to promote international control of nuclear weapons.

This volume ends with an article by Harvard string theorist and author Lisa Randall on "Energy in Einstein's Universe" focusing naturally enough on E=mc2 and dark energy. That space itself, even without any particles or radiation present, contains energy is the most astonishing scientific revelation of recent decades. And the fact that this dark energy dominates the mass-energy density of the Universe, accelerating its rate of expansion, is equally amazing. But as measurements of dark energy improve, it increasingly appears that Uncle Albert got there first—and got it correct, although for the wrong reason—by postulating the cosmological constant. What has been called his "biggest blunder" is doing an awfully good job recently of fitting the growing data on dark energy. As Randall observes, Einstein's blunder was not in adding the cosmological constant to his equations of general relativity, but in assuming that the Universe was static as his reason for doing so.

In summary, Einstein for the 21st Century is an excellent account, written from diverse perspectives, of the many and varied influences that Einstein has had upon modernity and the way we have come to grasp our world. I heartily recommend it for readers who want to understand his impact in this broader sense.

Associate Editor Michael Riordan teaches the history of physics and technology at Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.