Einstein’s Three Great Regrets

Because of the diverse following my blog posts enjoy, there are times when I wonder if the topic I choose for the next post will resonate with most of my audience. Will my readers in widely diverse cultures be familiar with or interested in the proposed post?

My Einstein

With Albert Einstein as the topic, those concerns are alleviated. Einstein is arguably the most recognizable personality (and face) in modern times. This, of course, the result of his unparalleled influence on science – an endeavor which inherently knows no cultural or linguistic boundaries thanks to the universal language in which it is expressed – mathematics. Einstein is also one of the most fascinating people, ever, from a personal standpoint – Time magazine’s “Person of the Century.”

After Energy Was Equated to Mass, the World Was Never the Same

Despite his universal acclaim, Einstein’s lifetime of work left him with some bitter tastes in his mouth, some severe indigestion, and three regrets! The first of these concerns the most famous equation in science: e=mc2. Einstein’s enunciation of that famous relationship – that energy and mass are equivalent and interchangeable – came in 1905 on the heels of his special theory of relativity. The world has never been the same since Einstein’s formulations of relativity – certainly not the scientific world, nor the everyday world of most of this planet’s inhabitants. That famous equation, at once so compact yet profound, is the theoretical basis for both the liberation of nuclear energy and the reality of weapons of mass destruction.

 A Pacifist Who Discovers Bigger Bombs?

Fact is ALWAYS stranger than fiction, is it not? Einstein was one of the world’s great pacifists, a spokesman for humanity and world peace. Pacifist attitudes were not viewpoints adopted by him as he grew older and wiser as with some; rather, they were an essential part of his personality and his belief system. Einstein’s role in the story of nuclear weapons is limited strictly to his scientific discovery regarding the equivalence of mass and energy – with one specific exception, a circumstance which he later regretted. In 1939, many colleagues in the international physics community became concerned about Germany’s interest in uranium deposits in the Belgian Congo. At the time of Einstein’s famous revelation in 1905 that e=mc2, it was not at all clear that vast amounts of energy could be liberated from tiny amounts of mass as the equation declares – at least not on any practical scale. By 1939, the feasibility of powerful weapons based on Einstein’s equation was virtually assured.


Einstein’s colleague, the Hungarian Leo Szilard, planned to present president Franklin Roosevelt with a letter warning him of potential German intentions re: uranium and the development of atomic weapons. Einstein agreed to affix his signature to the letter.

The rest is history, of course, and Einstein had no involvement whatsoever in the resulting crash program to develop the weapon. Einstein was living in the States having fled his native Germany in 1931 because of Hitler’s rise. After the war, when it was shown that Germany had made no real progress toward an atomic bomb, Einstein famously said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.” He further explained that, unfortunately in 1939, there was no way of knowing that.

I believe that Einstein was rightfully at peace with his scientific work, the work that foretold the theoretical possibility of nuclear energy and weapons of mass destruction. His ultimate regret in the whole matter was that mankind had converted the joy and beauty of pure scientific discovery into the sinister menace of nuclear weapons. Always mindful and distrusting of human nature and its frailties, he said, “The unleashing of [the] power of the atom has changed everything but our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

Einstein’s 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics for Discovery of
the Photoelectric Effect: Enter Quantum Mechanics

Einstein can properly be called the father of quantum mechanics, that modern branch of physics which nobody presumably, even to this day, “understands” at a sophisticated level, but which, nevertheless, “explains” many physical phenomena which classical mechanics, the physics of Isaac Newton, could not. Einstein’s famous 1905 scientific paper on the photoelectric effect which won him his Nobel Prize also earned for him the title of “father of quantum mechanics.” In fact, it was a title he actually shared with his German colleague, the physicist Max Planck who first opened the “quantum door” with his 1900 milestone analysis of radiation emitted from heated bodies of mass.

Einstein struggled throughout the better part of his life trying to come to terms with the “enfant terrible” that he co-fathered with Planck. Why was that? Much as Einstein’s relativity theories overturned many of our time-honored notions about space and time, quantum physics quickly shook our existing notions of light, radiation, and atomic structure. Most difficult for Einstein with his deterministic view of physics was a central tenant of quantum mechanics which declares a limit to what we can know and predict in the sub-microscopic regions where atoms reside. Einstein could not abide dictates of the new science which declared that certain things happen purely by statistical chance in that small world. Suddenly, events were governed by statistical probabilities and were not the result of predictable cause-and-effect as in the old deterministic physics of Newton.

Einstein’s frequent technical discussions with his good friend and chief architect of quantum physics, the great physicist Neils Bohr, often ended with Einstein reaffirming his claim that, “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Bohr would counter, “How do you know what God would do?” Second only to his passionate curiosity, thinking like God about science and how it should work was a key element of Einstein’s scientific success – a key component of his scientific “art,” if you will; Bohr knew how to hit Einstein’s soft spot in these contentious but always friendly and respectful discussions.

Einstein and Bohr_2

Einstein and Bohr: Discussing quantum mechanics?

Einstein’s resistance to quantum mechanics lasted throughout his life; the success of the science was soon undeniable, however. Einstein accepted that fact, but claimed that the theoretical basis for quantum mechanics was incomplete – the reason why the nature of its assertions was so strange and puzzling.

By the end of his life, Einstein was forced to make peace with the fact that quantum mechanics would not be complete and decipherable (to his satisfaction) by the time he left this earth. Not seeing a resolution to the quantum dilemma in his lifetime was Einstein’s second great regret.

Einstein’s famous “Cosmological Constant;”
 Great Regret #3

In 1917, Einstein amended his 1915 general theory of relativity by adding no less than a “fudge factor” to his theory to account for the fact that the universe appeared to be relatively “static” in nature – neither contracting or expanding. Both Newton’s gravitational theory of 1687 and Einstein’s radical re-definition of its nature in 1915 predicted that the action of mutual gravitational attraction between ANY two bodies of mass should result in a universe which is contracting – drawing closer together. To account for our seemingly static universe, Einstein reluctantly amended his 1915 general theory of relativity by proposing what he called, a “cosmological constant” to account for the discrepancy.

Surprise! The Universe Is Redefined…and Rapidly Expanding!

In 1924, one of science’s greatest astronomers, Edwin Hubble, delivered a bombshell to science in general and astronomy in particular. Using the new 100 inch Hooker reflecting telescope on Mount Wilson, in California, Hubble announced that the universe is not defined by the galaxy in which we reside. The reality is that there are untold millions of sister galaxies distributed throughout a universe orders of magnitude larger than previously believed.

 Hubble Galaxies_1Hubble telescope: Deep-field view of countless galaxies

Many of those faint and fuzzy “stars and nubulae” man has observed over thousands of years are actually complete galaxies unto their own, each containing billions of stars…and likely, planets similar to our own. Furthermore, Hubble later determined that these myriad galaxies are rapidly receding from one another; in other words, the universe is rapidly expanding. The closest major galaxy to our own is the Andromeda galaxy, a mere 2.4 million light-years away. Since light travels at the constant speed of 186,000 miles per second, when we view the Andromeda galaxy today, we are actually seeing light that left it 2.4 million years ago!

Einstein was left holding the bag containing his cosmological constant which was a reticent, ad-hoc determination on his part in the first place and based on a totally different universe. He called the circumstances surrounding his constant, my “greatest blunder.” Today, the mystery of an expanding universe has prompted investigations into strange, not easily detectable entities in space like “dark matter” and “dark energy.” It is thought that these may provide at least part of the answer to the strange behavior of our expanding universe.

Science constantly changes, refining previously held “truths” with improved versions of same and sometimes inserting revolutionary new breakthroughs – like Hubble’s. I think Einstein was overly hard on himself with respect to the cosmological constant, given that reality. RIP Albert Einstein: You did good…real good!

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