Tuesday 27 September 2016

Witty replies from Einstein

 Just over a century ago, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany. Recognized in his lifetime as one of the greatest intellects of the ages, he revolutionized scientific thought with his General Theory of Relativity, which he published in Berlin in 1916. He received many letters from a fascinated, respectful public, as well as from friends and colleagues. These excerpts are taken from a collection selected and edited by Helen Dukas, Einstein's secretary and Banesh Hoffmann, a physicist and former collaborator of Einstein.

           "Dear Miss Ley," Einstein wrote to a young cousin who had missed him on a visit to Stuttgart in 1920, "I hear you are dissatisfied because you did not see your uncle. Let me tell you what I look like: pale face, long hair, and a tiny beginning of a paunch. In addition, an awkward gait, and a cigar in the mouth - if he happens to have a cigar - and a pen in his pocket or hand. But crooked legs and warts he does not have, and so he is quite handsome - also no hair on his hands such as is often found on ugly men. So it is indeed a pity that you did not see me. With warm greetings from Your uncle, Einstein".

           Einstein disliked the rat race for promotion. In May 1927, when the scientific world was wondering who would be the successor to Max Planck's professorship at the University of Berlin, he wrote to Ehrenfest:            "I am not involved, thank God, and no longer need to take part in the competition of the big brains. Participating has always seemed to me to be a type of slavery, no less evil than the passion for money or power".

           Replying to birthday greetings from Sigmund Freud in 1929, who referred to him as 'You Lucky One', Einstein wrote: 'Why do you stress my luck? You, who have slipped under the skin of so many a man, have nevertheless had no opportunity to slip under mine.'

           In 1930, a letter from England posed the following question: "If, on your death bed, you looked back on your life, by what facts would you determine whether it was a success or failure ?"            "Neither on my death bed nor before", replied Einstein, "will I ask myself such a question. Nature is not an engineer or contractor, and I myself am a part of nature."

           A New York sixth-standard student wrote in 1936 to ask whether scientists prayed, and if so, for what. "I have tried," said Einstein, "to respond to your question as simply as I could. Here is my answer:            "Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the actions of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a supernatural being."            "However, it must be admitted that our actual knowledge of these laws is only imperfect and fragmentary. So, actually, the belief in the existence of basic all embracing laws in nature also rests on a sort of faith. All the same, this faith has been largely justified so far by the success of scientific research."     "But, on the other hand, everyone 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 that of man, and one in the face of which, we with our modest powers must feel humble".

           An editor preparing to address the 1948 conference of the American Library Association wrote to complain of a widespread loss of interest in science books for the layman. "Most books about science", replied Einstein, "that are said to be written for the layman seek more to impress the reader than to explain clearly the elementary aims and methods. After an intelligent layman has tried to read a couple of such books he becomes completely discouraged. His conclusion is: I am too feeble minded and had better give up. In addition, the entire description is done mostly in a sensational manner which repulses a sensible layman."            "Not that the readers are at fault: it is the authors and the publishers. No popular book on science should be published before it is established that it can be understood and appreciated by an intelligent and judicious layman."

           In 1950, a graduate student wrote to Einstein for advice. The student was Jewish, and he had fallen in love with a girl of the Baptist faith. While the young man's parents liked the girl, they were frightened of inter-religious marriage and gave voice to their objection. The young man found himself torn between his love for the a girl and his desire not to alienate his parents and cause them lasting pain. Einstein drafted a reply on the back of the letter :            "I have to tell you frankly that I do not approve of parents exerting influence on decisions of their children that will determine the shapes of their children's lives. Such problems, one must solve oneself".            "However, you must ask yourself this question : am I, deep down, independent enough to be able to act against the wishes of my parents without losing my inner equilibrium ? If you do not feel certain about this, the step you plan is not be recommended in the interests of the girl. On this consideration alone should you make your decision depend".

          And when will it all end? In answer to an oral question from a child, transmitted by her mother, Einstein wrote the following reply :            "There has been an earth for a little more than a thousand million years. As for the question of the end of it, I advise: wait and see!            P.S. I enclose a few stamps for your collection".

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