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Einstein as a Missionary of Science

Discover Einstein’s forgotten legacy as a science populizer, communicator, and educator.

The Nature of RealityThe Nature of Reality
Einstein as a Missionary of Science

Excerpted from “ Relativity: The Special and the General Theory 100th Anniversary Edition ” by Albert Einstein with Commentaries and Background Material by Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn © 2015 by Princeton University Press and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Reprinted by permission.

A widespread image of Einstein is that of an isolated philosopher-scientist pondering the mysteries of the universe, far removed from everyday life. But this is a very misleading portrayal of his personality and his life. Einstein was a man of this world, collaborating and exchanging ideas with friends and institutions and acting as a politically engaged citizen. For four decades, from 1914 until his death, he articulated his views on every issue on the agenda of mankind in the first half of the twentieth century. In numerous articles, in correspondence with peers, and in public lectures he expressed his opinions on a variety of public, political, and moral issues, such as nationality and nationalism, war and peace, and human liberty and dignity. He also launched tireless attacks on any form of discrimination. Although Einstein expressed himself bluntly, was controversial, and was often considered simpleminded and naïve, his positions nevertheless made a significant impact.

One aspect of Einstein’s life and work that has not received the attention it deserves is his role as a missionary of science, a popularizer, a communicator, an educator, and a moderator of science on the international stage. Einstein deliberately lent his name not only to political causes but also to the public dissemination of scientific knowledge on a worldwide level. Like few other scientists, he succeeded in conveying the results of his work to a broader public. Einstein not only published popular works and newspaper articles on his relativity theories but also held generally comprehensible lectures in publicly accessible venues, such as adult education institutions and planetariums. In February and March 1920, for example, he gave a series of 10 lectures on kinematics and equilibrium of bodies for the general public at the Adult Education College of Berlin. And in 1931 he famously lectured at the Marxist Workers’ School on “What a Worker Needs to Know about the Theory of Relativity.” The playwright Berthold Brecht attended this lecture and was inspired by it in writing “The Physicist” (part of his famous anti-Nazi play “The Private Life of the Master Race”).

Einstein’s theory of relativity, the special and the general, presented a revolutionary worldview, with new insights on the concepts of space, time, and gravitation. The theory generated widespread interest and curiosity in broad intellectual circles and in the general public, creating an immediate need for authorized and accessible accounts of these ideas to dispel misunderstandings and to facilitate informed debates on the new ideas. Einstein felt compelled to respond to this need and thus wrote the “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory,” a booklet about relativity for a popular audience, prior to which he had published three elementary essays—without the mathematical formalism—on the relativity principle and on the transition from the special to the general theory. This booklet, however, was the first comprehensive account after the final presentation of the theory.

Two years earlier, in 1912, Einstein had become a missionary of science in yet another sense: he had built a new bridge between physics and astronomy that was inspired by fundamental conceptual challenges of relativity and had far-reaching consequences for both physics and astronomy. To validate the predictions of relativity, it had been necessary to involve astronomers and to engage in a new form of collaboration between physics and astronomy. Ultimately, it became a new challenge to create and further develop an astrophysical community that until then had been practically nonexistent. Einstein made great efforts to motivate astronomers to check his predictions of general relativity, such as the gravitational bending of light and gravitational redshift. But his attempts were often met with indifference and even resistance. Only gradually did he succeed in rousing the interest of astronomers.

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The turning point came in 1919, when the English eclipse expedition led by Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s prediction of the gravitational bending of light. Thus, not long after the First World War, an English expedition had contributed to the success of the theory of a German-Swiss-Jewish scientist. In this way, science became a medium of international cooperation and Einstein its leading protagonist. Einstein became a celebrity practically overnight and proved well prepared to make judicious use of this prominence. From an early age, his thinking had been framed in internationalist and antimilitarist terms, and he felt that science should not be pursued as a narrow-minded, specialist enterprise. Einstein therefore took up the challenge of addressing the then-fledgling mass media and tried to explain aspects of his revolutionary theory to a wider public.

It is no exaggeration to claim that the public reception of general relativity and its creator contributed to a change in the societal status of modern physics on a global scale. First, quantum and, later, nuclear physics became an important driving force in enhancing the societal relevance of physics owing to their impact on a wide array of scientific fields and their real and potential applications. However, it was also the symbolic capital of Einstein’s relativity revolution that helped establish physics as a leading paradigm of modernization, demonstrating that societal progress had become dependent on the progress of basic and not just applied science.

Einstein’s personal contribution to this shift in perspective—as a cosmopolitan missionary of science during his travels—cannot be overestimated. He seems to have channeled some of the momentum of his youth that he drew from popular scientific culture to couple scientific and societal progress on a global scale. His journeys enhanced the processes of emancipation that were already underway in local scientific communities seeking a greater role for basic science within their societies. Of course, the local situations differed widely, from Spain to Japan, from Paris to Buenos Aires. A common feature of all the interactions between Einstein and the various scientific communities during his trips, however, was the significant increase in the awareness that basic science is a global endeavor of crucial relevance to all societies. In many cases, local-language editions of the present booklet preceded his visit and contributed to intellectual debates and to the public understanding of relativity.

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This project/research was supported by grant number FQXi-RFP-1822 from the Foundational Questions Institute and Fetzer Franklin Fund, a donor-advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.