The World as Einstein Saw It

By I. M. Oderberg

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, and in this centenary year there will be many tributes paid to his scientific genius. In his lifetime he became the symbol par excellence of the scientist, his stature having captured the imagination of the general public even though the subtleties of his theories were like a foreign language. His image was used in the same way as an older contemporary's in the realm of music, for Paderewski, the consummate pianist, had become the synonym of musical genius: as one would say of a child that he might become a Paderewski -- so, if scientifically inclined, an Einstein. It would be easy to lose sight of the warmly human being behind the lofty image created by the imagination of the Western world. He felt strong bonds of fellowship with others, being sensitive to his indebtedness for what he had received in various ways, and his responsibility to share all he had to offer of himself. As he wrote in 1931:

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us is here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though he sometimes thinks he senses it. But without deeper reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other people -- first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy. A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. -- Ideas and Opinions, p. 8

Einstein himself did not withdraw from the general affairs of mankind to pursue his researches in an ivory tower shut off from all but his colleagues. His many essays and other occasional writings testify to his genuine interest in numerous causes, most of them purely humanitarian, some of them protesting discrimination against fellow human beings, whether on religious, racial, or other grounds.

His genuine humility, commented upon by scientists and others, shines out of an anecdote that went the rounds after his death in 1955. One afternoon as he walked the grounds at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, possibly reflecting upon his latest major undertaking, the elusive formula that would bind together the laws of electromagnetism and gravitation, he heard a child crying. Searching for the reason, he located a little girl whom he recognized as the daughter of a colleague. He asked what was troubling her, and she replied that she could not follow her teacher who had been trying to instill the rules of arithmetic. He said that he too had difficulty with figures, and perhaps they could sit down together and be of mutual help. Painstakingly, he went through the preliminary steps leading to an understanding of addition and subtraction, multiplication and division. After a while, she had grasped the rules.

Another anecdote relates that after his sister's paralysis from a stroke, he visited her almost every afternoon, taking along one of Plato's Dialogues to read to her. A colleague met him on one occasion and asked for the name of the book under his arm. Einstein gave the title and said he had changed to this particular Dialogue even though he had not finished reading the previous one, because he felt that was what his sister wanted. His colleague said he thought Einstein was wasting his time since she was completely immobile and could neither hear nor understand. But Einstein replied that he felt intuitively he was doing what she wanted, and he would continue to read to her. That he did experience intuitive guidance in his life is certain from his own writings. The following is but one of many such passages:

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. -- The World As I See It, p. 22

An illustration of the impetus of intuition upon Einstein was brought out in the personal portrait published in 1944 by Dimitri Marianoff, Einstein's son-in-law. The young man had asked Einstein how he had arrived at his famous relativity theory. Einstein said that after much work he found he had not advanced very far toward a solution to his problems. One night he retired in utter discouragement and feeling very depressed. He told himself there was nothing more to be done. Then he experienced an intuitive flash illuminating his subject and piecing together the parts as in a puzzle. The next day he began to work out his equations, in appropriate sequence.

The role of intuition in scientific and other discovery and research has been pointed out by a few historians of science, but never more tellingly than by the Greek philosopher Plato in his Republic. There he wrote that the rationalizing part of the mind -- its computer, he might have called it today -- can take us only to a certain point, the limit of its resources. To advance beyond that point the noetic or spiritual part of the mind must take over, irradiating the soul with light so that the overall picture comes into focus. An answer to a problem will not necessarily be provided in so many words, but the entire issue will become apparent. It will then be the concern of the reasoning part of the mind to work out the logical relationship of all parts within that whole.

Of course, we should not here ignore Einstein's tremendous contribution to the remaking of our thought-life or way of looking at the universe from atomic nucleus to the cosmos at large. When the man in the street thinks of Einstein or his relativity theory, he relates either one or both to the atom bomb or nuclear energy without comprehending the fundamental basis of the famous formula that brought forth our atomic age. A profound development arising from the practical application of special relativity's C = mc2 is the realization that mass and energy are equivalent or, in other terms, matter is energy and energy is matter.

Without entering into the technical, scientific details of his special and general relativity theories, we may say the first applies to all phenomena except gravitation and that it unifies space and time in a continuum. The second rests upon the first and applies to gravitation, a formula he later elaborated into a generalized theory of gravitation. The philosophical implications of these theories are far-reaching.

The previous model of the universe was not of a unitary organism but an arrangement of disconnected parts -- "absolute" space, "absolute" time, and hard, indivisible particles of matter, for example. Einstein conceived the cosmos to be a vast, whole organism, with the numerous observed components working together. As he said:

The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in Nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. -- The World As I See It, p. 264

In his last years he labored to bring together under one equation the forces of electricity, magnetism, and gravitation, and published a unified field theory in 1929, later withdrawn. He replaced it in 1949 with a more comprehensive one, but it too was inadequate, and research is still proceeding for the magic insight into the nature of the one cosmic energy that manifests as electricity, magnetism, and gravity.

The idea of the universe as an organism in these days of astrophysical research into the various families, large and small, of galaxies of stars and their lesser attendants, is almost a commonplace. But one corollary shows the concept has not yet seeped into our everyday awareness. If it had done so, we would surely by now be more aware of the responsibilities we bear for our manipulation of and impact upon the forces and bodies we represent by the term "nature." Einstein felt that further research would tend to show that there are not two or more unrelated forces operating in the universe, but that the processes we perceive, deduce, or have discovered, are expressions of the one energy manifesting in various ways according to conditions. It is because of this view that he said "God does not play dice with the world," a statement that has been misconstrued in some scientific quarters as meaning that he was deterministic and closed to the concept of statistical chance. These scientists hold that the laws of cause and effect that seem to operate on the cosmic scale do not apply at the atomic level, where "randomness" prevails.

Einstein very firmly upheld the principle that causation operates throughout the universe; and it is indeed difficult to conceive that something can produce results, i.e., effects, without being itself both causal and the result of a previous cause of some kind that we may not at first discern in the event in question. This in theory should operate on the atomic level as it does on the cosmic. Advanced nuclear physics has set out to explain the results of experiments by suggesting numbers of subparticles within the atomic nucleus, all bound together by forces, and therefore acting in accordance with some law operating at that level. Current theory groups these subparticles in families because of common properties. There must be some kind of an inherent bonding agent which could be called the other side of an inner-caused determinism -- i.e., necessity arising out of the innate composition of the atomic entity. The most promising of the unified field theories of today suggests that there is a supergravity, and the gravitational force results from a "symmetry relating particles with vastly different properties."

If we view the atomic world as a miniature of the solar system as Niels Bohr proposed and, further, regard each component and subcomponent as electrical in manifestation, just as the planets can be said to be of negative charge in relation to the sun's positive, then definitely there seems to be no reason to deny to this atomic realm the causal relationships we discover in the larger spheres of activity. This, it seems to me, is what Einstein really meant by the remark quoted above, that "God does not play dice." His difficulty during his lifetime in accepting the implications of the quantum theory does not affect the validity of his view of causation. Einstein's own considerable contribution to quantum work when he published his paper in 1905 on the particle aspect of light should not be forgotten. His attitude to the later claims of quantum researchers has been misjudged. His mind was not closed, but it was his contention that not enough was known of the phenomena to come to definitive conclusions.

He was himself quite prepared to have his concepts superseded, as his had replaced those of Newton and others. Einstein was a humble man, and there is no gainsaying the statement that in a manifested, relative universe, there can be no "absolutes." However, when he wrote that space is finite, one should qualify the remark. To illustrate what he meant, he asked us to visualize a ray of light leaving the sun. It would return to its source even after hundreds of millions of years. This would arise from the effect of gravity that he visualized as arising from the curvature of space. Furthermore, he formulated the idea that there is a relation between the amount of matter or "energy events" in the universe and the structure of space-time. It would depend on there being enough matter to halt the outward thrust resulting from the initial explosion -- now called the "big bang" -- that scattered matter far and wide, whether the rushing out into far space would continue until exhaustion of energy, or reach a climactic point or condition and then begin to return toward the center. This concept of the possibility of a halt to the expansion of the universe is exercising the minds of astrophysicists today as they argue whether there is indeed enough mass to effect a halt.

As a result of Einstein's belief in the curvature of space, he deduced that it is not infinite but could appear to be so because we live outside or on the "skin" of a vast sphere (Scientists use the analogy of a balloon. If it is blown up, specks on the skin grow farther apart. Astronomers favoring the "big bang" theory explain the seeming rush of stars and other bodies away from our place in space as due to a similar phenomenon.), as it were; that space is finite yet unbounded in a sense. But then a question arises: What is beyond and inside the sphere if our visible universe is on the surface? Our answer must surely be space -- what is to us unmanifest or abstract space, if you will; that is, the Infinity that the ancient sages pointed to but did not name for fear of limiting it, names being definitions and therefore limits. Consequently, Einstein's finite space could be better tagged "spacial extension" rather than space per se.

Oriental thought has many treatises explaining that what appears to us to be empty space is really full of entities of varying ranges of energy frequency different from ours. A new scientific view of what space might be like is emerging from recent research into holograms -- three-dimensional pictures projected from a film. Each spot of light making up the picture contains within itself the whole image in miniature. Applied to the cosmos, the idea is that what we see of the world and star bodies composes only one portion of a multi-dimensional universe. Each particle of it contains within itself the whole cosmos, and the cosmos contains each particle within itself. This opens the door to a much wider, more sophisticated view of what fills space than the "ether" of earlier scientists and philosophers that was rejected by Einstein. For him space was a vacuum, but we can now see it is not. We wonder what he would have theorized could he have known the latest data coming from new techniques and researches.

Einstein was interested in so many things besides abstruse ideas about space. In 1926 he presented a paper explaining why rivers form meanders. Another early work was that mentioned above, concerned with the "photo-electric effect" in which he deduced that light is corpuscular as some had said before him, and he called these particles "photons," a word that can be applied to any quanta of radiant energy. One of his first papers, also published in 1905 -- the year of special relativity and the photo-electric report -- dealt with the movement of particles in liquids first noticed by Robert Brown the Scottish botanist and thereafter called "the Brownian movement." Einstein concluded that the particles were moved around or jostled by the molecules of the liquid.

There is much that could be said about his ideas on topics other than the strictly scientific. For instance, he wrote in 1934: "The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and the sense in which he has attained liberation from the self." This liberation implies not only a freedom from egotism, but also from religious dogma. He was often asked whether he believed in God or was religious, and he coined the phrase "cosmic religion," his approach being neither anthropomorphic nor denominational. He marveled at the evidence of a vast intelligence at work throughout those reaches of the cosmos with which his fertile mind concerned itself:

. . . a belief bound up with deep feeling, in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience, represents my conception of God. In common parlance this may be described as 'pantheistic' (Spinoza).
-- Ideas and Opinions, p. 29

It is perhaps enough to add here that for the hard-and-fast views of preceding generations he substituted relativities, banishing "absolutes," such as "ultimate" indivisible particles. In replacing the invariable constants ascribed to Newton and others with a different constant in the case of his relativity theory the velocity or speed of light in a vacuum -- he was himself in the web of an "absolute." For he placed light outside the category of relativity, which is surely questionable, for space is not a vacuum, utterly empty. If a beam of light bends as it approaches such a magnetic body as our sun, slowing down before it bypasses it, then we have at least one variable. Indeed, in the 1930s, Einstein was said to have stated that he was no longer certain that space is finite, but that it may be infinite after all.

But what do topics such as this have to do with our daily lives? As he asked in The World As I See It:

What is the meaning of human life, or of organic life altogether? To answer this question at all implies a religion. Is there any sense then, you ask, in putting it? I answer, the man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unfortunate but almost disqualified for life. -- p. 237

Later in the same work he said: "The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvellous order which reveal themselves both in Nature and in the world of thought" (p. 264).

Once we can grasp the idea that we are all growing entities within a limitless cosmos of multitudes of universes, large and small, of varying ranges of materiality and ethereality, that we are all interrelated, we shall see ourselves in a new and vital perspective. We have an infinity of time to grow ever more perfected expressions of our innate possibilities. As the French mathematician and philosopher Jean d'Alembert stated in 1715: "To someone who could grasp the universe from one unified viewpoint, the entire creation would appear as a unique fact and a great truth." Einstein's main approach was similar to this view of d'Alembert -- the inherent oneness of our universe, all its parts composing an aspect of a cosmic organism. But in the unfathomable reaches of infinite space, there must be an uncountable number of such universes.

(From Sunrise magazine, March 1979. Copyright © 1979 by Theosophical University Press.)

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