Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Einstein's Jewish Science

The characterization of the theory of relativity as "Jewish science" is often held up an example of what I call the philosopher's fallacy, that is, making claims about how the world does or does not work based upon explanatory schemes for which we have little evidence, but which we want to be true because we've worked them out in such great detail. These explanatory schemes can be quite elaborate, detailed, and often appeal to very deep-seated hopes, fears, and beliefs. The problem here, of course, is that the world is going to work in the way it does, whether we want it to be that way or not. In light of the current war on science, the latest front being the war on epidemiology, it is worth looking at the Einstein example in a bit more detail.

What could be meant by the phrase "Jewish science"? The usual sense we attribute to it is the trivial one: the theory came from the mind of a Jew. Einstein had a Jewish mother, so by Jewish and Nazi standards (the former being more restrictive) he was Jewish. Einstein did not believe in the God of Abraham, and so in terms of metaphysical belief was not Jewish. So was relativity "Jewish science" in this trivial sense? Yes and no.

This claim is not quite as absurd as it may seem. Einstein's theory of relativity replaced Newton's mechanics. Newton's theory, while undeniably furthering the clockwork universe view in which the material world was a well-oiled machine without any need for an interactive God, came from a very theological place. It was a reaction against Rene Descartes' attempt to divide the physical world of objects from the spiritual realm of souls. Newton's physics sought to explicitly put the Divine back in the material universe by making space itself God's sense organ. The absolute and inviolable natures of space and time were metaphysical testaments to the unchanging perfection of God. Then along comes Einstein who argues that both spatial lengths and temporal durations (not to mention simultaneity at distant points) are not absolute but depend on one's frame of reference. Einstein's relativity was an affront to Newton's physicist's Christianity. That fight was lost, but some reactionaries like the Discovery Institute's William Lane Craig battle on.

We love to take this period and oversimplify it, so this sense of the phrase is often the end of the discussion. We love the Hogan's Hero's picture of the Nazis as bumbling idiots. But life is more complicated than that. Philipp Lenard, who received the Nobel prize in 1905 for his work on cathode rays, was one of those who viciously attacked relativity and Einstein declaring the theory "a Jewish fraud." It was not a matter of pure ignorance.

(Lenard did have a personal beef with Einstein. Lenard was a master experimenter who played a major role in discovering the photo-electric effect -- which Einstein won his Nobel prize for explaining. The explanation was a significant piece in starting quantum mechanics and Lenard was furious that Einstein's name was the one attached to the phenomenon in most minds at the time.)

The oversimplification in the usual understanding comes from the fact that term "Jewish" meant several things to Germans of the period. At the time, the term had a distinctly political connotation. Anti-Semitism has deep and awkward roots in Germany. (Indeed, the word comes from German scholar Wilhelm Marr's attempts to differentiate his sociological argument for the inferiority of Jews, Antisemitismus, from the mere Jew hating, Judenhass, of the common bigot an die Strasse.) Before WWI, Kaiser Wilhelm II was a radical Christian, but made sure not to completely alienate Jewish financiers. Jews could hold certain jobs, but not significant political posts. After the war, with the fall of the old order and the imposition of Republican Democracy, Walther Rathenau became the first Jewish foreign minister -- until he was assassinated. "Jewish" became code for the new Social Democrats and had the sense of anger that things are no longer how they were back in the good old days.

The First World War split German society much as contemporary American society is split. The nationalistic, religious, patriotic, anti-scientific right was pro-war and determined to maintain that they did not start the war and if they did it was necessary pre-emption and furthermore they didn't lose the war and if they did it was because of internationalistic, pro-science, anti-morality, minority-coddling, progressive center-left weren't patriotic enough to support the war. (Germany had an active far left as well. the arguments between the Communists and the Social Democrats were also quite nasty.)

The Kaiser equated German militarism with German identity. To oppose the war, therefore, became the same thing as being anti-German. The poster child of this was Albert Einstein. We have this iconic image of Einstein as an older, rumpled, playful sage with unruly grey hair. But in his younger days, Einstein was extremely political. He left Germany at 16, swearing never to return, but was lured back by Max Planck who had built the finest physics department in the world at the University of Berlin.

When WWI came to pass, Einstein saw the nightmares of his youth realized and stood in opposition to the war when doing so was extremely unpopular and seen as anti-German. After the war, with feelings still raw towards their neighbors, the right seethed to see Albert Einstein used as a good-will ambassador. And Einstein went out of his way to use phrases that he knew would send the right-wing back home absolutely ballistic. He wrote and spoke in ways that political scientists and economists consider naive, but were politically quite effective in providing a folksy and plain-spoken finger in the eye of the German conservatives. Einstein was the Michael Moore of Weimar Germany. When Einstein went with Chaim Weitzman to the United States on an Allied ship to raise funds for a Jewish university in Jerusalem, his trip was seen in the same way as Jane Fonda's trip to North Viet Nam.

To call Einstein's theory of relativity "Jewish science" really was not terribly different than calling Darwin's theory "liberal science." The war against modern physics in Germany between the world wars was a part of the broader culture war, something that is eerily reminiscent of what we are seeing today. This is not to say that things here are exactly like they were there or that we are headed towards fascism or anything of the sort. But history is important and understanding what was happening on the ground is crucial if we take seriously the notion "never again."