Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Happy Birthday, Albert Einstein

Today is the 128th anniversary of the birth of Albert Einstein and I propose we dub this international science day, a holiday dedicated to thinking about science and the role science and scientists do and ought to play in our society. Einstein left a legacy that effected both science itself and the relation between science and the broader society. What made him special in both cases was the fact that he was not a mere technician, but an intellectual. Einstein's thinking was rarely constrained by conventional wisdom -- even when he was wrong, as he was with quantum mechanics, it was for reasons beyond an appeal to tradition.

Many of his great successes were not the result of completely novel theories, but in his ability to free himself from presuppositions so deeply ingrained that they largely went unnoticed or unchallenged by the rest of the world. The central equations for the special theory of relativity, the Lorentz transformations, were published by several other physicists prior to his famous 1905 paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," but it was only Einstein who turned them into the theory of relativity. It was only he who would take the leap and challenge Newton, the most successful theory in the history of science.

H.A. Lorentz, just years before him, tried everything he could think of to figure out how to shoehorn the equations and their resulting bizarre effects into the classical worldview. Einstein's brilliance was his ability to translate the seemingly incomprehensible into thought experiments that exposed unnecessary assumptions and allowed him a different way of seeing. At sixteen he wondered what would happen if one drove a motorcycle at the speed of light and looked in the rear view mirror. Since we see behind us in the mirror because the light from behind bounces off the mirror to our eye, if we were going at the speed of light would we see the world behind us, a frozen image, or a blank mirror?

The answer turned out to be that we would see the world in the mirror just as we always do, but this counter-intuitive result only came to him when he realized he needed to think about time differently than he and everyone else had, a difference that came to him when he walked away from a train station and glancing back at the clock realized that if he were walking away at the speed of light it would look like the clock never moved, like time would be standing still. Finding the extraordinary in the mundane, discovering assumptions and questioning them. Einstein was not merely a technician, he was an intellectual.

This meant that he was not afraid to leave his domain and provide a scientist's voice in the larger world because he was well aware of the role the larger world -- especially the political world -- played in science. As a young man, he had seen his father and uncle's business manufacturing electronic components run into the ground by large companies, especially Siemens, a company with unparalleled access to the Kaiser. And that Kaiser represented everything that Einstein loathed about the Germany of his youth -- marshal, arrogant, nationalistic. He left at 16 renouncing his citizenship only to lured back to Berlin before World War I.

The war was a realization of his worst nightmares, not only the unnecessary carnage but the complete trampling of everything civilized and humane. To object to the war made one a traitor. When 93 of the leading German intellectuals signed the so-called "manifesto to the civilized world" declaring German militarism and national identity one and the same, he was sickened and spoke out against the war in no uncertain terms. He was vilified by the nationalistic German right. He was the Michael Moore, the Jane Fonda of the times; his name causing bile to raise in the throats of German conservatives during and after the war. He was never one to shy away from speaking out when he saw injustice anywhere with respect to any group. the scientist is not a technician to be locked in his lab speaking only to technical conferences. Scientists are to be public intellectuals. When the scientists' voices are missing from public discourse, their place is taken by charlatans and charismatics, and the results are never pretty.

On this anniversary of Einstein's birth, we need to think about the connection between science, scientists, and society. When we train the next generation of scientists, are training a generation of technicians or a generation of intellectuals? Will they be like Einstein and Frank von Hippel, citizen-scientists? When we have to face the next generation of challenges will their voices be heard?