If you read anything at all about science, you will come across praise for Albert Einstein, commonly depicted with Charles Darwin as one of the can-do-no-wrong fathers of modern progress and technology.
Einstein, in particular, gets a lot of free passes. My admired SlateStarCodex, who is otherwise very perceptive, writes here about how Einstein is the genius that out-geniuses other geniuses, after he ponders a list of geniuses with terrible ideas:
Linus Pauling thought Vitamin C cured everything. Isaac Newton spent half his time working on weird Bible codes. Nikola Tesla pursued mad energy beams that couldn’t work. Lynn Margulis revolutionized cell biology by discovering mitochondrial endosymbiosis, but was also a 9-11 truther and doubted HIV caused AIDS. Et cetera. Obviously this should happen. Genius often involves coming up with an outrageous idea contrary to conventional wisdom and pursuing it obsessively despite naysayers. But nobody can have a 100% success rate. People who do this successfully sometimes should also fail at it sometimes, just because they’re the kind of person who attempts it at all. Not everyone fails. Einstein seems to have batted a perfect 1000 (unless you count his support for socialism). But failure shouldn’t surprise us.
Einstein, who was brilliant, didn’t even close to batting a perfect 1,000, I’m sorry to say.
If you have a close look at Einstein’s and Darwin’s careers, it’s immediately obvious that they were not saintly genius at all, but fallible humans — humans who were as often wrong as they were right, whose foibles are systematically hushed by science popularizers, in the name of protecting hallowed pillars of the ruling ideology.
Take general relativity, the foundation of Einstein’s enduring fame. As Jason T. Wright, a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, argues here, general relativity was so hard to use that even Einstein wasn’t sure what it predicted: he got the deflection of starlight wrong the first time he calculated it; and then he wrote a paper saying gravitational waves don’t exist — when the fact is that not only they do exist, but they are probably the only logical conclusion of general relativity.
In addition, Einstein got so many things right because he, like so many before him, was standing on the shoulders of giants — giants who are much less popular than himself.
Einstein’s entire work, as it’s very well-known among historians of science and very little known among the lay public, was built on the equations of Scotland’s James Clerk Maxwell, the basis of electrodynamics, as they show that electricity and magnetism are two aspects of a single force.
We should add the work of Jules Henri Poincaré to that mix, as he worked on predecessors to many of Einstein’s theories. Poincaré remarked on the apparent “conspiracy of dynamical effects” which caused apparent time and distance to alter according to the speed of an object following an 1887 experiment performed by Albert Michelson and Edward Morley that failed to obtain the results anyone at the time expected.
Under conventional Newtonian physics, light travelling in the direction of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun should have appeared to have a different speed from that of light travelling at right angles. Still, it remained resolutely constant, as Poincaré observed. Distances compress and time slows enough to make the velocity of light stay constant, he pointed out.
Einstein’s later paper on general relativity only served to seal the prohibition on travelling faster than light; but Einstein did add a key insight to that notion: that it then must follow that the speed of light is the universe’s sole constant (now, since the Big Bang included much faster speeds, apparently) and that nothing material can move faster than light; that means that time and space are malleable, and thus gravity pulls space and space drags you.
That’s why Einstein’s stance against gravitational waves makes little sense: the logical conclusion of his own insights is that gravity doesn’t exist as a force of nature. We can keep referring to gravitation, not as a force, but only as a shorthand for the effect of the four-dimensional curvature of space-time that actually brings masses together.
However, Einstein won his Nobel Prize not because of that central idea of general relativity but largely because of his discovery that a beam of light is not a wave but rather a collection of discrete wave packets. This is a key insight leading to quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, God’s dice and the notion that electrons are not really orbiting protons but occupying “slots” — again, all conclusions that Einstein disliked completely and argued against for decades.
Einstein was wrong on so many things related to his field of expertise that it’s hard to keep track: for one, he thought that nuclear weapons would be impossible to build (he saw them built well within his lifetime, by scientists less august than himself). As two commenters to the SlateStarCodex post, Scott Aaronson and “nelshoy,” wrote:
Einstein believed in a static universe that would’ve been dynamically unstable (though he did quickly reverse himself once he saw Hubble’s data), gave terrible arguments against the existence of black holes… doubted the fundamental nature of quantum indeterminacy and entanglement (though in his defense, his opponents like Bohr weren’t giving strong arguments—those would only come later), and mostly wasted his last decades pursuing a unified field theory that ignored not only QM but even the nuclear forces. He also pursued false leads (even “stupid” ones) along the way to general relativity… Einstein also apparently rejected continental drift, which seems more traditionally crazy to me as a nonphysicist.
Myths have built upon Einstein’s statues to a worrisome extent: the frequently cited first empirical testing of general relativity, during the 1919 eclipse, wasn’t the astounding success that many trumpet. In reality, the results from the observation didn’t prove the theory, because of “systematic error” in the use of telescopes, bad weather and inconclusive conclusions.
This has been known for quite a long time. It was first stated in “Gravitation versus Relativity” (1922), by Charles L. Poor, and restated in Chapter Two of “The Golem: what you should know about science” (second edition, 1998) by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. Still, it’s easy to find admiring references to the 1919 eclipse testing, together with an entire edifice of Einsteins’ quotations, real and fake, that seek to prove his genial insight on everything under the sun.
As this Aeon article notes, Einstein is frequently quoted on a wide variety of non-scientific subjects, including education, intelligence and politics (he was offered the presidency of Israel, which he declined, in 1952), religion, marriage, money and music-making:
On education we get: ‘Education is what remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in school.’ On intelligence: ‘The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.’ On politics: ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.’ On religion: ‘God does not play dice.’ On marriage: ‘Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably they are both disappointed.’ On money: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ On music: ‘Death means that one can no longer listen to Mozart.’ And on life in general: ‘Things should be made as simple as possible but not any simpler.’ Only the quote about dice can be attributed without a doubt to Einstein.
It’s significant that this adoration is directed to a man who, in his personal life and opinions, was hardly a model. A pioneering virtue-signaller, Einstein kept a diary between October 1922 and March 1923, in which he muses on his travels, science, philosophy and art. In China, the man who famously once described racism as “a disease of white people” describes the “industrious, filthy, obtuse people” he observes, as The Guardian explained here.
In the diaries, Einstein notes how the “Chinese don’t sit on benches while eating but squat like Europeans do when they relieve themselves out in the leafy woods. All this occurs quietly and demurely. Even the children are spiritless and look obtuse.” After earlier writing of the “abundance of offspring” and the “fecundity” of the Chinese, he goes on to say: “It would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary… A peculiar herd-like nation [ … ] often more like automatons than people.”
In Colombo in Ceylon, a place that rarely got the best out of colonial-minded Europeans, Einstein writes of how the locals “live in great filth and considerable stench at ground level” adding that they “do little, and need little. The simple economic cycle of life.” These are the raw, prejudiced, irrelevant, uneducated opinions of a middle-class man with little to no knowledge of politics or history, and no particular capacity to apply his intellect to those subjects.
And thus we finally arrive at socialism. Einstein wasn’t your average, clueless apologist of mass Soviet murder. He was much more than that.
In “Red Millionaire: a political biography of Willy Munzenberg” (2018), Sean McMeekin notes that Einstein was among the most prominent cronies of Munzenberg, the controller of international Communist front organizations in the 1920s and 1930s who used his “formidable talents in the black arts of propaganda” to spread Stalinism across the globe:
At the height of his influence, Münzenberg controlled from his Berlin headquarters a seemingly invincible network of Communist front organizations—charities, publishers, newspapers, magazines, theaters, film studios, and cinema houses—which stretched, on paper at least, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. Many of the interwar period’s most famous intellectuals—Upton Sinclair, Henri Barbusse, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and John Dos Passos—came under his ever-expanding organizational spell.
Einstein was deep into this organization. In May 1943, he was among the hosts of the poet Isaac Fefer and the famous Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, during their seven-month Soviet flag-waving tour of North America and England, as noted in “In Stalin’s Secret Pogrom. The postwar inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee,” edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov.
Eventually, the pictures that the pair took in New York with the likes of Einstein, Robeson, La Guardia, Chaplin and Menuhin were used in evidence against them: in January 1948, Mikhoels was ordered to go to Minsk, ostensibly to review a play for the Stalin Prize. He was abducted and killed by the secret police; his body was dumped on a snow-covered street and his death announced as a traffic accident. In a conjunction exquisitely characteristic of Soviet Socialism, he was given a state funeral while his murderer was secretly awarded the Lenin Prize: and Einstein never made an objection or remarked upon Mikhoels’ past existence ever again.
Einstein did have a reflection on the sustained bout of murder and destruction he witnessed in the 1940s: “Only the creation of a world government can prevent the impending self-destruction of mankind,” he wrote around 1950.