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!

Chance Encounters: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now!

Just a bit of background: The Danish postage stamp pictured was issued in honor of Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Laureate in physics from Denmark and father of the scientific quantum theory of the atom. A close colleague and contemporary of Einstein’s, Bohr’s role in physics and his work on quantum theory share the highest pedestal in physics along with Einstein’s relativity theories and Newton’s mechanics. No, I never met Niels Bohr, but I did have a chance encounter with someone who knew him very well and who contributed to quantum theory.

Bohr Stamp_1

It occurred many years ago, 1960 to be exact. I had just transferred to Stanford University from San Jose State College to begin my junior year there. On a September afternoon in 1960, I moved into Stern Hall, the on-campus dormitory at Stanford, with much anticipation (and many qualms) about the great adventure ahead. Being the first in my entire extended family to ever go to college, I had a great number of those qualms and, just like two years prior when first enrolling at San Jose State, I was continually “learning on the fly.”

Checking in at the dormitory desk, I was handed a key to room 102 which was not yet occupied by my (unknown) roommate. It was nice to have first choice of the beds and desks, even though the room was symmetrically arranged. Who will be my roommate and where, in this great United States, will he be from: Perhaps a proper Bostonian with an eastern accent? Maybe a southerner…with an even stronger accent. Because my home in San Mateo was only twenty miles away from the Stanford campus, I was excited about meeting someone from a completely different part of the country.

The day wore on and still…no roommate: I thought that was somewhat odd. Finally, my roommate, Bob, strode through the open door carrying surprisingly little luggage. No wonder! Bob was from…Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University! “Well, so much for the cultural exchange,” I thought to myself, but I could readily see that Bob was a good guy and we would get along fine. That proved to be true even though he was a music major and I, an engineering student going in rather different directions.

But this meeting of roommates is not the subject of this post; the particular encounter which I want relate was Bob’s doing one evening, not far from campus. His mother lived literally just a mile across the El Camino Real which borders the 9600 acres (not a typo!) of the Stanford campus. One evening, we jumped into his Volkswagon beatle and drove over to the house. From there, we drove several blocks in the same residential area to visit two boyhood friends of  Bob’s who he must have known at nearby Palo Alto High School.

As we pulled into the large driveway, he related that Dan and George were twins. He also gave me a heads-up that their father worked at Stanford – a very smart man who won a Nobel Prize in physics, he told me! Despite my youthful naivete, even I  knew at the time that a Nobel Prize in physics is a pretty big deal. I knew little else. We walked in to a very warm, friendly living area which featured a full-size pool table.

Bob introduced me to his friends and to their father, Mr. Bloch, who was relaxing in a large easy chair and puffing on a pipe. We probably shook hands although I cannot recall for certain – at least I hope so.

I hope I shook his hand because Felix Bloch was, in his early years, one of the great young European physicists who ushered-in the scientific revolution called “quantum physics.” The great unveiling of the atom and its mysteries took place in the first three decades of the last century, and Felix Bloch was there when it happened and contributed to it. He worked with and knew, personally, some of the greatest European names in science: The “Great Dane,” Niels Bohr, the father of the quantum atom; The German, Werner Heisenberg of “uncertainty principle” fame; the Austrian whose innate genius was said by colleagues to be second only to Einstein’s, Wolfgang Pauli; and most of the others in the famous cast of roughly two dozen. This revolution, this peeling-back of atomic physics and its mysteries, took place almost exclusively in Europe because that is where the greatest talent in physics resided.


Felix Bloch was Swiss-born, talented enough and fortunate enough in circumstance to participate in one of the great epochs of science. A young Felix Bloch can be seen in the illustrious company of Bohr and the others at Bohr’s Institute for Physics in Copenhagen, posing on the long auditorium benches in the famous lecture hall where assaults on the mysteries of quantum physics were launched and often won. These period photos date from around 1930 when brilliant young physicists received invitations from Bohr for extended working visits at the Institute. It is no exaggeration to say that the atom grudgingly yielded many of its secrets as the result of the myriad gatherings and collaborations that emanated from Bohr’s circle of brilliant young minds. 

Have you ever had a medical MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)? If so, then you, along with millions of others have benefitted from the talent and fundamental research of Felix Bloch…and many others. My wife’s bout with cancer (complete recovery) several years ago invoked the miracle of MRI many times. It was in recognition of his research on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR, that Bloch shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1952. The beginnings of that research date back to the original work of Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Paul Dirac who first endeavored to understand the atom and its mysteries. The seminal paper of Bohr’s which first cast a quantum light on the then-mysterious atom was published by the very young physicist in 1913. It followed on the heels of the 1900 paper of Max Planck which revealed the quantum nature of radiated energy and the 1905 paper of Einstein’s on the quantum photoelectric effect (Nobel Prize, 1921). My wife’s benefit from MRI technology was a first-class connection with the man I met way back in 1960.

One other personal connection to Mr. Bloch and his contributions comes to mind: My first real job, ever, came through my high school physics teacher at San Mateo High School. He recommended me for a summer position at the Stanford University Microwave Lab that summer between graduation and college. While there, I assisted two physics post-docs with their research projects in …NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance – well before its advent as a medical tool and two years before meeting the man so instrumental in the field. Felix Bloch had come to Stanford in 1934, so it was not surprising that the university would be well-versed in and actively pursuing the physics and the technology in the Microwave Lab and elsewhere on campus. For those interested, I add a humorous postscript at the end of this post.

In summary: I had no clue about the importance and historical significance of the gentleman that I met that evening in 1960. I never would have guessed that he came to reside in familiar, nearby Palo Alto only after an early life spent travelling between the intellectual centers of early European physics, working with many of the greatest names in modern physics!

Since retiring from engineering twelve years ago, I have become very interested in science and science history, as most of you have surmised, so I learned about much of this over the years since. I delved quite deeply into Einstein’s relativity several years ago, but it is only now that I have generated the courage to really learn something in detail about quantum mechanics, a revolution in physics which is just as strange and equally challenging as Einstein’s relativity. Ironically, and surprising, the old textbook for one of my physics courses at Stanford is where I expect to get my firmest footing in the theory (again!). I re-discovered that old text by thumbing through my library (I almost got rid of it once!). Too bad that I did not have the requisite perspective and drive back then to better learn and recall what I now appreciate is contained in that textbook.

Equally regrettable is the fact I did not realize, at the time, my great good fortune in personally meeting Felix Bloch. If I had any inkling back then of what I know today, I would love to have bought lunch and a bottle of fine wine at the best bistro in Palo Alto and discussed with him his recollections of those weeks and months spent in the company of physics’ elite at the Bohr Institute of Physics in Copenhagen. I would certainly have made sure that I at least shook his hand when introduced! As the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes, “Too soon oldt; too late schmart!” Ah, so true.

Quantum book

Several days ago, I pulled a recently purchased book off of my “must read” shelf and dove-in. The book is titled “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar, an historical/scientific account of quantum mechanics. Reading the richly-detailed historical account of this scientific revolution revitalized the memory of my introduction to Felix Bloch and prompted the post you have just read. One need not have much of a science background to benefit from Mr. Kumar’s outstanding account of those colorful days and events in the intellectual centers of European science. His recounting is as much a story of the human spirit as it is a scientific overview. I heartily recommend this book; it truly captures the golden years of physics during the first decades of the twentieth century. Google any of the names mentioned, above, and the internet will provide a treasure-trove of both historical and scientific information. “Niels Bohr” would be where I would start! He was at the center of the quantum revolution; everyone else who orbited around quantum physics, including Felix Bloch, was heavily influenced by the “pull” of his persona and acumen.

A Humorous Postscript: My contributions to NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) technology during a summer job in the Stanford Microwave Lab – 1958. My job as a student intern that summer was to help two physics post-doctoral students with their lab experiments involving NMR in ferrite materials. One of the assignments was to grind “chips” of this black rock-like substance into very tiny, round ferrite balls for magnetic resonance testing.

This was accomplished by using cylindrical “wells” bored about an inch deep into blocks of wood. Each well had a small inlet pipe through which compressed air could be used to blow the small ferrite chips around the walls of the capped cylindrical wells. Different wells were lined with different grades of sandpaper. The idea was to “start the ball rolling” using a rough grade of sandpaper, progressively polishing the forming sphere using finer and finer grades.

This particular day, I had eight different, tiny samples to prepare. It was tedious work, efforts for which there is no Nobel Prize! After a full day spent forming ferrite spheres and polishing them to precise diameters as measured with a micrometer, I had my ferrite mini-menagerie. I carefully used tweezers to place them on a twice-creased sheet of paper where they nestled in the apex of the folds. I proceeded to deliver my ferrites and started across the open courtyard between buildings when a sudden gust of wind lifted my paper. My tiny ferrites were now nowhere to be seen. I was standing on the grass at that instant, so forget about finding them. Sorry, no Nobel Prize for me that day; instead, I felt like dummy-of-the-day. My post-doc was quite sympathetic; he probably had a good laugh once I slunk out of sight. Who said doing science was easy?