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the ever-fascinating herr einstein

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‘I am truly a “lone traveller” 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 the sense of distance and a need for solitude – feelings which increase with the years. No doubt, such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of opinions, habits, and judgements of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.

Albert Einstein, 1931


Currently reading a book called Einstein & Oppenheimer: the meaning of genius, a slightly grandiloquent title, and the book is at times rather dourly ponderous, but fascinating, especially about that remarkably self-contained solitary, Einstein. Solitary but not too solitary, for the list of his correspondents is daunting. My own correspondence, even with the whole internet to assist me, is paltry by comparison, and I know that comparing myself in any way to Einstein is – well, cheeky to say the least. But since I compare myself with everyone else, why not with him?

This book treats of the theoretical work of Einstein in some detail and with apparently great proficiency [I’m in no position to judge], but though I really do try to get my head around the idea of a unified field theory, quantized general relativity and the whole concept of a gauge theory, I’m more interested in his temperament, his basic nature, and the associations I keep making with my own.

One interesting association was Schopenhauer. I read a collection of his writings in my early twenties. Probably the first philosopher I read after Nietzsche, and before the more tamed, academic philosophers of the Anglo-American tradition. Schopenhauer was a dour, dignified pessimist, a kind of modern Stoic, whose writings could nevertheless provide much consolation for solitary types, as for example this passage, which much influenced Einstein:

What a person is for himself, what abides with him in his loneliness and isolation, and what no one can give or take away from him, this is obviously more essential for him than everything that he possesses or what may be in the eyes of others… for one’s happiness in this life, that which one is, one’s personality is absolutely the first and most essential thing.

Reading passages like this, when you’re young but yet not so young that you haven’t already experienced years of solitude, is of course only partially consoling. It’s also hard, very hard. We don’t want to face the reality of our own nature, even when that nature – its cogitations, its imaginings, its memories – has given us such pleasure and sustenance over the years. We constantly hope for some kind of self-transformation, a hope deferred that makes the heart sick. But to return to Einstein, he obviously had other consolations, a brilliance and a focus well beyond the best of my imaginings and application. And the extraordinary results of that brilliance and focus were surely enough to allow him to feel well satisfied with his solitary self.

Clearly, in his quiet way, Einstein was a man of enormous self-confidence. Of course, being recognized, from 1915 until his death, as by far the most transformative scientist of the twentieth century will have had some effect upon his ego, but in fact his self-confidence was manifest well before he presented his theory of general relativity. Silvan Schweber, the author of the book I’m reading, illustrates this in ingenious fashion.

Einstein, under the early influence of Schopenhauer, went on to read various Hindu philosophico-religious texts [another association: after reading Schopenhauer, I went out and bought copies of The Upanishads and The Bhagavad-Gita, but I didn’t get very far with them]. It was apparently under the influence of Vedic philosophy that Einstein developed a curious habit of holding his thumb and forefinger together, in what is called the vitarka gesture, especially when he posed for photographs. This gesture, often presented in images of Vishnu and Buddha, is a sign for compassionate teaching, and in a later Buddhist teaching it symbolized the union of method and wisdom. There are at least four extant pictures of Einstein using this gesture, shown below. It might seem pretentious almost, but I find it powerful in its quiet assertion.

Solvay, 1911. Einstein second from left

Solvay 1913. Einstein standing, centre

Solvay 1927. Einstein is now the central figure



Written by stewart henderson

July 26, 2012 at 11:46 pm

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