Bookmark and Share

A Corner of My Mind: Great Visionaries, Part 2

Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

It is purported that Albert Einstein once quipped, probably with a smile in his voice, “I’ve only ever had three good ideas.” They say, as with many great minds, that Einstein was modest. Yet from the lofty realms of the theoretical physicist’s fertile mind sprang ideas that revolutionized physics.

Among those ideas, in 1916, was his famous general theory of relativity. “... providing a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time.” The theory proposes that “... distance and time are not absolute.” Acceleration pulling in one direction, as in an elevator moving upward, feels exactly like gravity pushing you down. “If gravity is equivalent to acceleration, and if motion affects measurements of time and space, then it follows that gravity does so as well.”

Go figure, if you can. Otherwise, join us mere mortals. “Theoretical physics is a branch where mathematical models and abstractions are employed to explain and predict natural phenomena.” The study of electromagnetism gave us television, computers, and other technologies.

Einstein concluded that “The gravity of any mass, including our sun, has the effect of warping the space and time around it ... for instance, clocks tick more slowly the closer they are to a gravitational mass like the sun.” His predictions were confirmed, and he became an American hero, in 1919 when his theory of general relativity was proven by an experiment which confirmed that light rays from distant stars were deflected by the sun’s gravity.

Said Einstein: “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1921 was awarded to Albert Einstein in 1922 “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”.

His famous E=mc2 was called “The secret of the stars,” by theoretical physicist Michu Kaku. “The cosmic engine that drives the entire universe.”

A German Jew, Hans Albert Einstein was in the U.S. when Hitler came to power in 1933. Einstein elected to remain in this country and became a citizen in 1941. Hitler’s anti-semitism lost the brutal dictator another great scientist.

On the eve of World War II, a worried Einstein put aside his strong beliefs in pacifism and wrote a series of four letters to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in which he expressed his fears that Germany might secretly be working on a nuclear weapon. Roosevelt finally agreed with him and authorized The Manhattan Project. Some of the best American scientists worked on developing an atomic bomb. Einstein was not one of them. He was considered a hazard because of his pacifist beliefs.

I remember a story told to me in Los Alamos by the elderly wife of a scientist. During The Manhattan Project, a group of scientists went to Santa Fe to spread word that they were secretly working on submarines up there on “The Hill.” People just weren’t interested. One bartender was more concerned with his herd of sheep than with submarines. Babies in Los Alamos were born in P.O. Box 1663, the only Los Alamos address, and furniture was delivered there.

The scientists succeeded in their work but, for Einstein, war was a disease. Germany had already surrendered when the two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A distraught Einstein exclaimed: “I could burn my fingers that I wrote that first letter to Roosevelt.”

In 1952, Einstein was asked to be the president of Israel. He humbly declined.

The great physicist spent the last thirty-five years of his life still teaching at Princeton and working on his Unified Field theory, in which he attempted to combine the four forces of the universe, the strong force, the weak force, electromagnetism and gravity into one. He never succeeded in that particular quest.

There are now physicists approaching “The Theory of Everything” from the quantum mechanics angle.

Two of Einstein’s strangest predictions are the existence of black holes, those massive gravity wells at the center of galaxies that overcome the speed of light and suck in photons, which makes black holes invisible, and occasionally swallow an orbiting star that ventures too close to the gigantic maw. While Einstein himself didn’t believe in black holes, their existence and weirdness has since been proven. Within these enigmatic vortices time and space are warped.

No, I don’t know how either.

The Big Bang theory, which states that our universe was created in a state of extremely high density and temperature ten billion years ago, was also a prediction that came out of general relativity. The theory has been called “...the biggest leap of the scientific imagination in history.”

Einstein, forever modest, said: “All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”

No one except Einstein was thinking of gravity as equivalent to acceleration, as a geometrical phenomenon, as a bending of time and space. Although it is impossible to know, many physicists believe that without Einstein, it could have been another few decades or more before another physicist worked out the concepts and mathematics of general relativity.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” said Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

The great physicist treasured creativity and said of his adopted country: “What makes the new arrival devoted to this country is the democratic trait among the people. No one humbles himself before another person or class ... American youth has the good fortune not to have its outlook troubled by outworn traditions.”

But he also found much room for improvement:” Racism is America’s worst disease. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I would sit with my parents and relatives on the rooftop of our apartment house on hot summer nights and stare at the Statue of Liberty, lighting the harbor with her torch. Now when I think of Einstein, I picture that torch, lighting the harbor and the world.

After Einstein’s death at 76, nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, summarized his impression of Einstein as a person: “He was almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness . . . There was always with him a wonderful purity at once childlike and profoundly stubborn.”

Some of Einstein’s quotes:

“God may be subtle, but he isn’t plain mean.”

“All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.”

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are not certain, they do not refer to reality.”

“Anger dwells only in the bosoms of fools.”

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

“I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

“All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.”

This last article was supposed to be about Vladimir Lenin, but from my research, it seemed that to fill the slot of “revolutionary” Che Guevara was more colorful and controversial, though certainly not as deep a thinker as Lenin.

Che Guevara (June 14,1928-Oct. 9, 1967)

“Memo to The White House, October 12, 1967: CIA tells us that the latest information is that Guevara was taken alive. After a short interrogation to establish his identity, General Ovando — Chief of the Bolivian Armed Forces — ordered him shot.”

“Go ahead, shoot, coward,” Che Guevara shouts to his executioner. “You are only killing a man!”

Like much of Guevara’s life, whether or not he actually said this is open to question. Che’s biographer reports that the wounded revolutionary actually shouted to his captors: “Do not shoot! I am Che Guervara and worth more to you alive than dead.”

The excerpt from the White-House memo is not open to question.

Guevara, an Argentine medical student, author, intellectual, guerrilla leader and Marxist theorist was transformed by his travels through Latin America, where poverty and economic inequalities prompted him to blame capitalism, neocolonialism and imperialism, among other “isms.” His experiences led him to adopt the Marxist ideal of overthrowing capitalism through world revolution as the only cure. To his credit, he did not expect these revolutions to occur simultaneously.

In keeping with his grandiose ideals, Guevara joined Fidel and Raul Castro and their fighters on Granma, a yacht that sailed to Cuba on a mission to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s U.S.-backed dictator.

Eventually, the revolution succeeded and Guevara went on to become the third in command after Fidel and Raul. He instituted agrarian reform, a literacy campaign and other good works, but also reviewed appeals for war criminals during the revolutionary tribunals with death by firing squad for those found guilty.

Guevara played a key role in bringing Soviet missiles to Cuba. That escapade brought the world to the brink of World War III. Guevara was bitter over his perceived Soviet betrayal when they turned their ships around and headed back to Russia. “If the missiles had been under Cuban control,” Guevara told a British journalist, “they would have fired them off.” Millions of atomic war victims, Guevara believed, would have been worth the cost if it benefited the cause of socialist liberation.

True to his Marxist teachings, Guevara went abroad to instigate revolution, unsuccessfully, in Congo-Kinshasa and Bolivia. There he was captured and executed.

“Mostly revered and occasionally reviled, he is passionately characterized along the entire continuum as everything from a heroic defender of the poor, to a cold-hearted executioner.” Perhaps this poet-warrior was both; an Argentine doctor and a murderer.

Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Perhaps Time will tell.

Che wrote his own epitaph months before his death: “Wherever death may surprise us, let it be welcome, provided that this our battle cry may have reached some receptive ear and another hand may be extended to wield our weapons.”


blog comments powered by Disqus