Readers who have
questions about Einstein are invited to send them to me firstname.lastname@example.org.
will answer them on this page as time and tide permit.
If Einstein made so many mistakes, why
is he regarded as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century?
Paul Dirac said, “One must not judge a man'sworth from his poorer work; one must
always judge him by the best he has done.” This is an appropriate criterion for
judging physicists and other practitioners of pure sciences and arts, although it
does not readily extrapolate to other professions that emphasize applications (if
a political or military leader has great successes to his credit, we can’t discount
his failures that perhaps cost the lives of thousands). If we judge Einstein by his best work, we see that he was the greatest scientist of the twentieth
century, and the greatest scientist of all time, after Newton.
Have other famous physicists besides
Einstein made big mistakes?
Yes, many did. For instance,
in 1985 it was believed that the universe would probably stop expanding at some
point and then recontract. Stephen Hawking published a paper in which he
claimed that if this happens, the direction of time (“the arrow of time”) would
reverse, and we would perceive everything in the contracting universe as
running backward in time. This was immediately recognized as a mistake by colleagues
who read the paper in preprint form, and, in the same issue of The Physical Review in which Hawking’s
paper was published, there also appeared the proof that he was wrong. Other physicists
who committed memorable mistakes were Joseph Weber (an early pioneer in the development
of detectors of gravitational waves, who in 1968 mistakenly claimed he had
observed gravitational waves arriving from the direction of the galactic center),
Fred Hoyle (an eminent astronomer who in the 1940s contrived a mistaken
steady-state theory of the universe, with spontaneous creation of matter in
empty space), Arthur Eddington (a brilliant astronomer and early supporter of
Einstein’s theories of relativity, who in the 1920s proposed badly mistaken modifications
of general relativity), and René Blondlot(a distinguished physicist and member of the Académie des Sciences who in
1903 mistakenly claimed to have discovered “N rays,” a new kind of invisible radiation
supposedly emitted by some materials and refracted by prisms of solid metal).
The jury is still out on Edward Witten and other proponents of all those string
theories that have by now been under interminable construction and remodeling for
thirty years. Will we have to wait another thirty years for a verdict?
Did Einstein work on weapons of mass
destruction, and why did he ignore the contradiction between such work and his
avowed pacifist stance?
In the 1920s Einstein worked
on the development of the Anschuetz-Kaempfe gyrocompass, intended mostly for
use on German U-boats, and in the 1940s he worked for the US Navy Bureau of
Ordnance on the redesign of detonators for torpedoes used by US submarines.
Nevertheless, he publicly declared “Non-cooperation in military matters should
be an essential moral principle for all true scientists.” There is no ready
explanation for this contradiction between Einstein actions and his words. It
has been suggested that he needed the money he earned in fees and royalties
from his work on the gyrocompass. But even during the hyperinflation in Germany
in 1923, Einstein had secret foreign bank accounts, so he was spared the penury
of most of the German population and had no pressing need for extra cash. A
more likely explanation is that he loved to tinker with practical problems,
maybe reminiscent of the problems he had dealt with at the patent office, and
he simply gave no thought to the wider implications of the weapons systems to
which the gyrocompasses and detonators belonged.
Did Einstein have Asperger’s syndrome?
If Einstein had the syndrome,
he must have been a borderline case, difficult to diagnose even with a live
subject who can be observed and interviewed, and impossible to confirm post
mortem. The most that can be said is that Einstein was prone to the
aversion to social contact, the insensitivity, and the lack of empathy and sympathy
characteristic of the syndrome. As he himself said: “My passionate sense of
social justice and social responsibility has always contrasted oddly with my
pronounced lack of need for direct contact with other human beings and human
communities. I am truly a lone traveler and have never belonged to my country,
my home, my friends, or even my immediate family, with my whole heart; in the
face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for
solitude...” A notorious example of his lack of empathy is found in the letter
he sent in 1901 to his girlfriend Mileva after she fled to the home of her
parents to give birth to the illegitimate daughter he had fathered. The
letter rambles on for pages about the latest developments in physics, and only
at the very end does it drift into some cursory afterthoughts about Mileva’s
predicament, with a formulaic declaration of how much he already loves this
baby daughter (which he had not seen and never made any effort to see at any