The eternal mystery of the world is that it is comprehensible          -Albert Einstein

Every century has a scientist who towers over all others. For the 20th century, this was Albert Einstein (born: 14 March 1879). As with Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton, not all may know about the technical details of his work, but everyone has heard his name. Once it was said, with a grain of truth, that just three people really understood Einstein’s theory, and that included him. Yet, perhaps because of such publicity, his name became a household word in his lifetime.

Einstein was justly famous for many significant contributions to physics. He gave an elegant explanation for the zigzag (Brownian) motion of minute particles suspended in a liquid. He was the first to use effectively the then newly discovered quantum nature of light to account for the quantitative aspects of the photoelectric effect in which electrons are ejected from some metals when radiation of appropriate frequency falls on them. He unmasked the intrinsic intertwining of space and time, thereby demolishing the intuitive illusion of absolute space and absolute time entertained by normal human minds. He established the mathematical equivalence between energy and matter: E equals m c-squared (E = mc2). He did all this in 1904/05 when he was barely a youth of 26.

As if all this wasn’t enough, Einstein probed into the structure of space-time, and discovered the effect of mass on it: which is to distort it ever so slightly. This revolutionary theory  was published in 1915 when Europe was plunged in another madness of war. This theory drastically changed our notion of matter, transforming it into a singularity (highly concentrated spot) of space-time. It also reduced the great Newton’s worldview of gravitation and force as just approximate metaphors useful in many calculations, but by no means reflecting the ultimate nature of reality. Einstein’s gravitational theory demands an understanding of such sophisticated mathematics as Riemann tensors and Christoffel symbols, but it fits well with an expanding universe and big bang cosmology. It was accepted by the physics community not only because it was elegant, but also because it explained what Newtonian gravitation could not (the gradual shifting of the perihelion of Mercury), and it predicted the bending of light in a strong gravitational field (which was verified). It also predicted the existence of subtle gravitational waves: an utterly new concept whose existence was verified only recently, a full hundred years after its prediction.

Einstein went on to seek bonds between gravitation and electromagnetism. He was instigated in this pursuit by the physicist’s philosophical prejudice that multiplicity should always be reducible to simplicity: the scientific mono-principle-ism that is the equivalent of theological monotheism. But Einstein’s relentless search for a unified field theory in which so many of his followers worked has  turned out to be a wild-goose chase thus far. But the believing physicists have not given up. All the esoterica of string and superstring theories are essentially high powered mathematical gymnastics struggling to envisage observed fundamental particles and fields as different modes and states of a multidimensional abstract space, even as religions envisage God as a cosmic personage deeply interested in the affairs of earthlings, especially in their good and bad behavior.

Einstein was a guiding light for physicists during the first half of the 20th century, revered and respected by one and all,

But he had difficulty subscribing to the altered views of Reality that the architects of quantum physics were formulating: irreducible indeterminacy, inseparability of subject and object, the centrality of consciousness in the measurement process, etc. He was unswervingly wedded to a classical deterministic world of which physicists of the 19th century were so sure. He argued in vain endlessly with no less a giant of 20th century physics: Niels Bohr. But the more youthful builders of quantum mechanics left him more or less alone in his quest for a unified field.

Einstein was more than a brilliant physicist and  absent-minded professor. He enjoyed playing and listening to music, he was a humanist who pleaded for peace, an unostentatious thinker who did not care for position or honors. He was driven out of his native Germany because he was born in the Judaic tradition. When Nazi physicists wrote against what they called his Jewish physics in a book Hundert Physiker gegen Einstein (100 Physicists against Einstein), he said, “One physicists should be enough to prove me wrong.”

Though he did not subscribe to the details of religious doctrines, he had reverence for Nature and for the Unknown, and recognized the relevance of religion. “Science without Religion is lame,” he famously stated, “and Religion without Science is blind.” Perhaps what he meant was that with scientific knowledge alone one can at best totter along life’s journey aimlessly: a religious framework enables one to walk better on the path with meaning and purpose. Likewise a religion that is untutored in and ignorant of science is groping in the darkness of eras past in trying to grasp the nature of perceived reality.

Einstein was a celebrity. Movie stars and politicians wanted to hobnob with him. He was at home with the giants of his age. In 1955 he authored a manifesto for Peace with  Bertrand Russell which was co-signed by many eminent scientists of the time. Here they said  in good faith: “There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.” Little did they know about the mindset of chronic haters; and little could they foresee what lay ahead for humankind in the century to come. About Gandhi Einstein once said that future generations would find it hard to believe that a man like him ever lived. Einstein was Time magazine’s Man of the Twentieth Century, his work made Physics the Science of the Century.

There is a story to the effect that once when Einstein was traveling by plane, a high school youngster happened to be seated next to him. “What do you do?” the teenager asked the scientist. “I am studying physics,” Einstein answered. “Oh, I finished it already last year,” the young man replied. I see more than a joke in this conversation. It is symbolic of the fact that when it comes to the search for knowledge humanity is divided into two groups: modernists and pre-modernists. For modernists there is so much more to learn about the world, our knowledge is always incomplete, perhaps erroneous, and is constantly growing, but only if we continue searching. The pre-modernists, like the high school kid, are convinced that everything there is to be know has already been known, well established once and for all times by our distant ancestors: It is all enshrined in the sacred texts of the past, to be regularly recited and revered. One group looks into the future, readying itself  to face the challenges of a changing world; the other is constantly invoking the past of its own tradition, deeply fulfilled in the process and urging all to accept their visions of received Truths. One has a universal vision; the other is comfortable in its parochial pride. With such contrasting perspectives (using a phrase from Rudyard Kipling) never the twain shall meet.

March 14, 2016


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