What Einstein Might Teach Us About Our Viral Divide
On this date in history, Albert Einstein came to the United States for the first time. The famed scientist has been on my mind lately as the coronavirus pandemic has hardened the partisan battle lines in this country over science and religion. Democrats like to portray themselves as the party of science, while Republicans think of themselves as the party defending religious freedom.
It’s a false choice, of course. Although the most devout Americans do skew Republican at the ballot box and the religiously unaffiliated do tend to vote Democrat, there are millions of pious Democrats and agnostic Republicans in this country. There are also scientists (and Democratic politicians) of deep faith. Catholic school-educated Anthony Fauci has publicly credited the Jesuits with nurturing his own seriousness of purpose. Fauci’s boss, Francis Collins -- the top scientist at NIH -- is an evangelical Christian. Nancy Pelosi, of all people, may have put it best. She’s a partisan politician, yes, but also a practicing Catholic who spoke recently about how her faith in God and in the medical experts can help America get through this pandemic.
“It won’t happen unless we respect science, science, science,” she said. “And for those who say we choose prayer over science, I say science is an answer to our prayers.”
It was this sentiment that got me thinking of Einstein, who arrived on these shores for first time on April 2, 1921, a visit marred by an academic spat. Although the particulars of the argument are long forgotten now except among Einstein biographers and those studying the early history of particle physics, what’s instructive about the episode is how Einstein handled himself.
By the time of his first American visit Albert Einstein was already a world-renowned physicist. With that fame came jealousy and, inevitably, scholarly sniping. As Einstein prepared for the first of four widely anticipated lectures on the general theory of relativity, discordant sounds of dissent came from the Midwest.
The primary voice of remonstration was Dayton C. Miller, a professor at the Case School of Applied Science. Miller was a mathematician and physicist who had been educated at Princeton, the school hosting the lectures (and Einstein’s future academic home). Miller had been performing experiments in the esoteric field of ether drift. The results of this research, he claimed, contradicted Einstein’s findings on gravity. If accurate, they would have undermined Einstein’s theory of relativity.
In time, Miller’s experiments, which could never be duplicated, would be discredited. But long before that happened, Einstein responded in a way that disarmed his critic and set a tone for his career. Instead of attacking the man or publicly shaming him -- the preferred 21st century method of public discourse -- Einstein went to Cleveland to meet Miller and talk to him.
Einstein also discussed ether drift with a mathematics professor named Oswald Veblen, who'd been brought to Princeton by the school's former president, Woodrow Wilson. Although he was born in America (to Norwegian parents), Veblen spoke fluent German, then the international language of science.
It was in this language, his native tongue, that Albert Einstein confided his view of any experiment purporting to cast doubt on relativity. “Raffiniert ist der Herrgott,” Einstein said, “aber boshaft ist Er nicht.” (“The Lord God is subtle, but malicious He is not.”) By that he meant that the Almighty wasn’t in the business of toying with laboratory results in order to fool scientists. In other words, the data was the data.
In a 1926 letter to quantum physicist Max Born, a fellow German Jew (and fellow Nobel Laureate), Einstein amplified on this idea. “Quantum mechanics is very worthy of regard. But an inner voice tells me that this is not yet the right track. The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced that He does not play dice.”
Four years later, in another letter to his old friend Veblen, he amplified on this idea: “Nature hides its secrets through the sublimity of its being, but not through cunning.”
Much later, after his work in particle physics helped end World War II by reducing Nagasaki and Hiroshima to rubble, Einstein was asked why it was that human beings could discover the secrets of the atom, but not control them. The same might be said of a lethal virus sweeping the globe, and Einstein’s answer would be equally appropriate.
“That is simple,” the great scientist replied. “Because politics is more difficult than physics.”