Wednesday, August 25, 2004

OF GODS AND HEROES

I have the pictures of six heroes mounted above my desk: Galileo, Newton, Huygens, Darwin, von Neumann and Einstein. The lives and contributions of these men shed a lot of light on my own path. They all made super-human contributions to our understanding of the world we live in. They are all flawed individuals with many failures and setbacks in their resume. They’re both human and superhuman, inspiring me by their illustration of the heights to which ordinary people can climb.

I’d like to talk about Einstein today. If you want to expand your knowledge about this guy, pick up the September, 2004 issue of Scientific American. The issue celebrates the centenary of that most amazing year (1905), when Einstein burst upon the world with four papers in quite different subjects, each worthy of a Nobel Prize. In the same year, he had a Ph. D. dissertation rejected. He resubmitted another (which was accepted) and held down a job as a “Patent Clerk”. I often pictured this job as consisting of sitting in some dimly-lit cubicle filling out forms, but it wasn’t. He did brilliant research work on submitted patents. He was often called upon to testify in court cases involving patents. In his spare time (hah!) he submitted numerous patents of his own. Not your average “clerk”.

All this establishes him in my mind (and just about everybody else’s mind) as a truly exceptional human being. If you are full of questions about the nature of the world and how to discover it, you really need to take a very close look at this guy.All my other heroes stood with one foot in the “dark ages” and one foot in the “modern world”. For example, Galileo famously got into trouble with the Church when he pointed out that Jupiter had moons (so the heavens were not eternally perfect and unchangeable). Darwin raised a stink when he unseated man as the special creation of God. And so on.

We don’t usually think of Einstein in these terms. He was, we think, a thoroughly modern man. His famous (and incorrect) rejection of Quantum Mechanics is remembered by his remark “God does not play dice with the Universe”. He had a way of expressing his point of view with “God talk” even though there is no evidence that he took religion seriously. I used to think that this was just a way of speaking, but I’ve lately come to the view that Einstein did, in fact, accept one fundamental assumption of religion (also incorrectly), that the Universe was elegant and comprehensible. He spent his whole life working from that assumption, which is an aesthetic judgement of the way the Universe should be – a religions attitude.

Of course, many people share this belief and it’s come by honestly. Who could not be struck by the elegance and order of the Natural World? Many people go beyond this by claiming that the wonderful order of nature is evidence that a mind like ours (appreciating elegance, beauty and order) created it all. Who hasn’t felt that way from time to time? Pretty though it is, this common sentiment is not a reliable guide to the inner workings of the world. It ignores things that are not structured. It ignores things that cannot be perceived (99.999% of everything right in front of us). It assumes structure where there is none. It ignores complex, messy structure. It’s just a nice, warm feeling. We need to let it go at that. Einstein, along with more traditional religious thinkers, took it for an actual insight into fundamental principals underlying the world. Great simplifier that he was, he stripped organized religion out of it and left “God” to stand for nothing much than a word for “the order and elegance of the world”. But the basic mistake remained.

Of course, this belief in order and elegance (and his exceptional ability to see it where none had even looked before) lead him to many of his greatest discoveries, which all tended to simplify and unify our understanding of what makes the universe tick. His theories of relativity (special and general) were based on the simplifying and elegant assumption that the laws of physics were "Symmetric". They worked the same everywhere in the universe under similar conditions (moving at a constant speed, accelerating, working in a gravitational field). Even his lesser-known contributions follow this line. For example, he unified the “causes” of permanent magnetism with magnetism induced by an electric field (discovering electron “spin” in the process).

While his faith in order and elegance lead him to his greatest discoveries, it also lead him to his biggest blunders. He assumed the Universe was in a steady state, neither expanding nor contracting. He assumed that the probabilistic elements in Quantum Mechanics would eventually be banished by something more elegant and understandable. He spent the last decades of his life trying to create a theory that would unify Quantum Mechanics and Relativity -- a project that still shows no signs of producing elegant or comprehensible results, if results are to be expected at all.
To his eternal credit, Einstein always bowed to experimental results. He felt that they were the only way of knowing the truth. But sitting in his cage at the zoo at Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, he was encouraged to work on theory only . Einstein had no graduate students to disturb his dreams. He did no experiments to remind him of the solid, inconvenient world of the laboratory. Lost in theory is lost indeed.

Einstein’s article of faith was that there was no phenomenon so weird or complex that he (or someone equally talented) could not develop a “beautiful” theory to describe it. This fundamentally places the human mind in the center of the Universe. Just as Galileo’s Church placed a man-made-God in the center and Darwin’s society placed man himself in the center, Einstein had not completely thrown of the shackles of ancient religion which claims that the Universe is constructed for the convenience of human beings (or their anthropomorphic gods) so that any aspect of it can be “explained” in terms that humans can understand (and actually find “beautiful”).

There is no reason to assume that a complete and accurate theory of the real world will ever be developed by mankind. There is no reason to assume that such a theory is even possible. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. We can shed a little light here and there. But we must not lose track of the difference between fantasy and reality.