QUESTIONS ABOUT EINSTEIN

 Readers who have  questions about Einstein are invited to send them to me at hohanian@einsteinsmistakes.com. I 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's worth 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 later time).

 

 
 
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