“Einstein’s mistake was really the flipside of his strength. I think it is for all of us.”
Corey S. Powell is the science editor at Aeon, a contributing editor at Discovery, and the author of a forthcoming book co-authored with Bill Nye. David Bodanis classifies himself as a “recovering academic,” and taught at Oxford before making writing his full-time profession. He is the author of two books on Albert Einstein, E=mc2 and Einstein’s Greatest Mistake. David and and Corey recently sat down for a livestreamed Heleo Conversation on the persistence, mistakes, and misunderstood spirituality of the 20th century’s greatest scientist.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. The full video can be viewed below.
Corey: Why Einstein? What drew you to him, and what did you want to talk about that hasn’t really been talked about before?
David: My father passed away when I was 10. He was a good man, but I didn’t know him very well, and I was always fascinated with the question: what survives? What lasts over time? I’ve written some mediocre books—where I was responding to what I thought the market expected—and they were hard to do. But the ones that are good—that wrote themselves, that had a real pull—they always answer that question: what survives?
What’s this invisible world around us that, if you could see microscopically, if you could see various chemicals in the air, we’d be like the ridiculous giants in Gulliver’s Travels and these microscopic things treat us nicely. They observe us, in ordinary life we don’t know anything about them, but they’re benevolent towards us and they’re always there. I love that. It’s similar for these equations that surround us; that explain how the whole universe works. Einstein, this massive mind whose insights surround us and possibly will last forever, he tapped into them. It’s not that I can see my father through writing these books, but it gives me a feeling that I’m going into a waiting space where something eternal can be brought down to earth.
Corey: The thing that you’re bringing down to earth is not just this conventional message of Einstein the genius, but Einstein the fallible person, Einstein the person whose genius was circumscribed. What were his mistakes and why is that interesting? Why is that legacy as important as the things that he got right?
“I began to think of Einstein more as a person, not just an assemblage of cute little anecdotes. He liked scrambled eggs and strawberries for breakfast, which is all very nice, but I could eat scrambled eggs and strawberries, and I don’t end up like Einstein.”
David: Getting older, I found people become more people. When you’re first learning something as a student, you learn about E=mc2 and that’s all very nice, but the people behind it are kind of invisible. Then, you realize, “Oh, what’s it like to be 20. What’s it like to be 30.” These people experience the same things. I began to think of Einstein more as a person, not just an assemblage of cute little anecdotes. He liked scrambled eggs and strawberries for breakfast, which is all very nice, but I could eat scrambled eggs and strawberries, and I don’t end up like Einstein.
Then, you become more focused on the inner person. I became really interested in Einstein’s marriage. He was deeply in love with his first wife—they were science students together, but they fell apart, not because either was malicious. He was busy with work, she had to take care of the kids, and even a massive mind like Einstein is limited by these matters. It makes you think maybe that’s one reason that he reached up towards the stars so much. It’s a safe place to go to. As to the mistake, the mistake was really the flipside of his strength. I think it is for all of us.
He said, “I might not be as smart as other people, but I have the persistence of a mule.” That persistence is great when you’re going in the right direction, you admire it, but when you start going in the wrong direction…that’s what happened in physics. He had certain attitudes and wouldn’t change them because they had been proven to be effective. When he did change them, briefly, it was shown that he didn’t have to—the famous cosmological constant issue. Later, with quantum mechanics, he doubled down, and I think the same thing happened in his relationship.
He had a vision of a perfect beautiful marriage. With his first wife, when it was working, it was great, but then it didn’t work. He became disappointed, bitter, and nasty for a while. He married on the rebound to a woman who was the opposite of his first wife; he had a vision that pulled him along and that was kind of dangerous. He wasn’t really reacting to the real world. Who was this woman that he decided to share his life with?
Corey: You’ve touched on a very interesting idea, that there was a reactive process in his life. The second marriage was something of a reaction to the first one. His attitude towards quantum physics was a reaction to his earlier experience with the cosmological constant.
“[Einstein] was fundamentally a classicist. He liked certainty, he liked variables that meant specific things, hard numbers, and hard causality. The blurriness of the Schrödinger equation was fundamentally irritating to him, as was the uncertainty principle, at something beyond a rational level.”
David: His work on general relativity was a reaction to his limited work on special relativity. It all traces back. Do you think that happens in our own personal lives?
David: If you tell your life to somebody, looking backwards it makes sense, but at the time it feels like a reaction. For me, maybe some of those reactions are to searching for immortality. I wonder what the original thing was for Einstein. Understanding why there’s structure? What do you think? You’ve spent a lot of time with his work.
Corey: The common line, as far as his objection to quantum physics, was that he was fundamentally a classicist. He liked certainty, he liked variables that meant specific things, hard numbers, and hard causality. The blurriness of the Schrödinger equation was fundamentally irritating to him, as was the uncertainty principle, at something beyond a rational level.
David: Somebody asked once what did he believe, what pulled him forward. He said he felt like he was a little boy going into a beautiful library. The room was dark, there were books on the shelves, and those books had the wisdom of the universe. Most of the time, we couldn’t go in, but occasionally the brightest members of our species were allowed to take one of the books from the shelves, open it up.
Then, you had to close the book and put it back. He believed what was waiting in those books were things that were very, very clear.
Corey: I love that metaphor. You have the library and those individual books are like the hidden variables. This idea that underneath all the quantum uncertainty, if you could just get down to that deeper level, you understand a hard causal mechanism that’s creating that illusion.
David: It’s understandable. He had a certain basis for it, but if you know Bell’s theorem and other things later in the 50s and 60s, they found that hidden variables can’t explain it. So to his famous line,“God does not play dice with the universe,” Niels Bohr replied, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”
Corey: I’ve never really had a clear sense of Einstein’s frame of mind in his later years. He’s sometimes portrayed as a guy who was increasingly remote from the rest of the scientific community, and treated as an old fuddy-duddy. Then, sometimes I get a very different picture, like he was more and more involved in political and humanitarian activities, but when he was in the science he still felt deep satisfaction. That he still truly believed in what he was working toward. What was going on as he kept going down this hard classicist path?
David: It’s a little bit like Einstein was inside Schrödinger’s box. Both are there, and in this book I tried not to collapse the wave function. He spent 10 years in which he desecrated his beautiful, simple equation to general relativity, because he thought experimental evidence is needed. Then when he went back to his beautiful, simple equations he realized experimental evidence, the latest thing that everybody believes in, can be wrong. That gave him some confidence. In all his years in quantum mechanics he thought, “These people don’t have the life experience I do. They’ve gotten caught up with the latest thing.”
Think of people who say, “Trump’s not so bad after all. There’s money and I can get this job in the administration.” They jump for it, and somebody else is saying, “I’m not old-fashioned if I resist it. Rather, I’m sticking to principles which later people will realize are good foundational principles of America.”
Einstein felt like that most of the time, but he also knew there was this rushing world of ongoing physics.
His friend Niels Bohr, they were about the same age, and Niels Bohr kept on doing good work. When Bohr came to Princeton at one point to give a seminar, Einstein scurried in and scurried out. He was embarrassed to face him. It wasn’t what it had been in the glory days. A few times he wondered did he get it wrong, but then would think, “No, it can’t be.” He took great strength through Spinoza.
In the 17th century, Spinoza believed you could explain everything with causality, and in Spinoza’s time nobody could yet do it. Spinoza had the belief that the future would redeem him.
Do you feel like that a little bit? You work in editing—rational, intelligent material—and the world around us is not always rational, not always intelligent. Do you feel it’s there, waiting for a more important time?
Corey: There’s this obsession right now about the simulation hypothesis, this idea that all of reality is a simulation. We’re already pretty good at making simulated computer environments. If you imagine that there’s another intelligence, greater than us, making even better simulations…maybe there are billions or trillions of simulated realities. So, just by pure chance, we’re probably in a simulated reality. I find that ridiculous. What you were saying made me think about that. I do feel like I’m walking through a world that would benefit from a good editor. If I were running this simulation, there’s some subroutines here that are not doing their job properly.
“One of the differences between arts and sciences is that usually if you repeat something in the sciences it’s dull. It’s no good. In the arts you can do it over and over.”
The 1930s are an interesting time in Einstein’s life. He’s past special relativity, past general relativity, past his debates with Bohr. He’s living in America, he’s well into his 50s, and yet he has a set of papers in the mid-1930s: the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paper. This idea of Einstein-Rosen bridges is coming back now as a possibility in understanding quantum gravity. He revisited the idea of gravitational waves and finally sorted out his confused equations. That late Renaissance doesn’t really fit into most of the Einstein biographies. Do you have a sense of what was going on with him at that point?
David: I think his mind was exceptional. Many people fade after a certain efflorescence when they’re young. Some people stay really, really good. Chandrasekhar was like that. Da Vinci, of course. But one of the differences between arts and sciences is that usually if you repeat something in the sciences it’s dull. It’s no good. In the arts you can do it over and over. Famous story: someone says to Steven Spielberg, “You always make the same movie over and over again. Innocence under attack. A little seaside town under attack. A 2000 year-old alien under attack. Why?” Spielberg says, “It’s a good movie.”
A musician or a poet can have certain themes and do them over and over. As a writer, I feel lucky. Looking for eternity can keep me running indefinitely.
For Einstein, a similar thing was his fascination with the roots of what we know of our reality. The EPR paper was associated with quantum entanglement. It’s a magnificent idea. We’re still only just beginning to build quantum computers. He was getting close to 60 when he came up with that, and I think for him it was two things.
It was a continuation of what he had been fascinated about with the photoelectric effect—he always said he thought about quantum matters more than anything. But also, he knew that people looked down on him. He knew that he had left the mainstream of physics, but he also felt that he was right. I think that came from an incredible impetus to say, “Look, on this side, magnificent things can still come out. You guys have gone in the wrong direction.”
Plus, being a refugee can jump-start your freshness. You’re out of the usual rhythms, you don’t have your typical libraries and books. You get used to examining things afresh.
Corey: I’d like to use this opportunity to talk about Einstein’s religious beliefs. Einstein’s spirituality and his attitude toward God is something I’ve seen mangled quite a bit. You mentioned his dedication to the Spinozan view of the world. How did those two things fit together? I think people try to split the things that he called God and the things he called science apart from each other, but to me they feel very much one and the same.
David: People find it hard to view something in and of itself. We have current debates in America, in England, and people say, “I need validation from the past. I don’t have time to research it property. I don’t read German, I’m not looking in the archives, so I’ll pretend that somebody I like is on my side and somebody bad is on the other side.” It totally trivializes it. Indeed, that issue is one you can write an entire book about.
When you began your science/religion book, what changed in your understanding?
Corey:God in the Equation started out as a straight cosmology book, inspired by the discovery of dark energy and the expanding universe, and working backward from there to talk about general relativity, Einstein’s 1917 cosmology paper, and the beginnings of physical cosmology. I was trying to understand the motivation. As soon as Einstein wrote a cosmology paper, he had to think about what kind of universe he’s describing. It wasn’t enough to describe how the universe worked. He felt that he also had to describe the universe itself.
“The world and the laws of the world are one and the same, this thing later in life he called the ‘cosmic religious feeling.’ This feeling of being in harmony with the universe.”
David: Why isn’t it enough to just have the equations? Is that because he had grown up Jewish and semi-secular, but knowing that his religion was disrespected often for poor reasons? Why did he feel he had to assess it?
Corey: Some of it may have been Talmudic. Once you put the text out there, you have to put the commentary on the text, or somebody else is going to do it. At the time, he was very devoted to Ernst Mach. Mach told him that the two had to go together, but Spinoza also told him that. The world and the laws of the world are one and the same, this thing later in life he called the “cosmic religious feeling.” This feeling of being in harmony with the universe. There’s this continuity, a very general relativity concept. There are no discontinuities in physicality, from the microscopic to the cosmic. Relativity should be able to stretch to all scales, and maybe that’s part of what bugged him so much about quantum physics is that it set this hard wall.
David: Yes, he didn’t like that. Clarity meant a lot. Also the laws of the universe meant this view that human beings have certain capacities, but we also need ethics on top of it. The raw human animal can be a beast. Remember his line: “Technological progress is like giving an axe to a pathological criminal.”
Corey: He was very quotable.
David: I think Einstein was used to always doing things on two levels. Why? How was he misunderstood in his lifetime about religion? Did people grab onto him and say, “The cosmic religious feeling is exactly the same as revealed religion and therefore we’re right?” Or did they say about some of his comments, “No, I don’t believe in a personal God.” Did Buddhists get strength through him?
Corey: He wrote to all kinds of people. He wrote to religious leaders, to Gandhi. In his personal correspondence, there is a lot of sophisticated dialogue about spiritual issues. He was, in many ways, the first media celebrity scientist, and as the first media celebrity scientist in an age when radio was just beginning, even at the time he was quoted quite superficially. He was describing what his interviews were like and said, “I crack a joke. I say some things that they don’t understand. They all laugh and write it down. Those are my press conferences.”
It makes you feel better if you despair about fake news on Facebook and Twitter wars. People were feeling the same thing back then.
To answer your question, the public image of his religious views ended up pretty cartoonish. I think part of the reason he wrote that 1930 essay for the New York Times Magazine about the cosmic religious feeling is that he was trying to put his stamp on it, though I don’t think that helped one bit. It just ended up as, “Oh, see? He does believe in God. He is a spiritual man.”
David: What do you think he meant by cosmic religion?
Corey: It’s a slippery term, a very calculated term on his part. It was this idea that the driving force of the universe is rational law, and that when he says “God” in the most intimate sense, he means there are laws of human morality that we associate with God and there is the universe itself, which is this mathematical entity. But he also knew that there’s this long transition from what he called the “primitive conception of God” to what he imagined was this far future of a rational, Spinozan conception of God.
I think this phrase “cosmic religious feeling” was almost something he was testing for the public, to guide them towards this idea that you can still say the word religious, you can still associate it with God, but he was trying to get them incrementally away from the idea of this thing that he hated: a personal God who responds to prayer.
David: Which he associated with the infancy of mankind.
Corey: It’s infantile, it’s tribal, hate-driven, revenge-driven, fundamentally a very regressive form of spirituality.
“In 21st century America, people can get irritated beyond measure with some fundamentalist, and desperately grab for somebody out of the past to match your view. But it’s not the same as what Einstein did, which is being calm, taking your time, and trying to see what you could specify.”
David: What I like about Einstein is that there was this childlike part of him. He would be genuinely responsive. He could say, “Yes, I dislike the way some people have used literal personal religions, but that doesn’t mean I have to be an atheist. Let me explore this ground that Spinoza did.” Even things that there’s no language for. He did that with physics, he came up with his own language. He did transition probabilities in a fresh way, and that’s hard to do.
In 21st century America, people can get irritated beyond measure with some fundamentalist, and desperately grab for somebody out of the past to match your view. But it’s not the same as what Einstein did, which is being calm, taking your time, and trying to see what you could specify.
Corey: I feel like we’ve circled back to the idea that his mistakes were, in some ways, the great strengths of his legacy. This stubbornness, this childlike sense of wonder, and this relentless curiosity. These things go together in a strange contradictory way.
David: Maybe that answers your question about what he did in his 50s, in 1935. That stubbornness, but the curiosity didn’t go away either, so he’s still nibbling away at quantum mechanics—even when he came up with the beautiful entanglement.
When he’d play the piano he would noodle away for hours, associating. We forget how important improvising is. Something might not be right, but you explore. You don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to stop.” You just maybe adjust this chord. Move it in a different way. I love the fact that he had the guts to keep on doing that.
Corey: There’s a great Carl Sagan quote: “What you want to achieve as a science educator is resonance.” I love that idea, that the vibration keeps going and building and produces maximal beauty from the smallest impact. A letter can beget a theory can beget a book, can go out in the world, and if you’re lucky the vibrations keep going.