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Life on the fringe

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Later in life Albert Einstein became a household name and a symbol, in a way, of the wise elder. While he had a healthy ego, he also had a sense of humour and didn’t take the opinions of the world too seriously. This is the picture painted in the biography by Walter Isaacson, a book that shows not only his scientific genius, but also how his life weaved in and out of many of the social issues of his time.

Einstein was raised in a Jewish family. They weren’t religious, but they came from the ancient Jewish culture, a heritage Einstein came to appreciate only later in life. Part of the culture was a respect for learning. Although Jews could be relegated to the fringes of society, rabbis were scholars and the arts and sciences tended to be treated with respect.

Across Europe, for centuries, Jews had been tolerated, or not, depending on the government and the public mood. Jews were convenient scapegoats during hard times.

As a boy in Munich, where the Jewish population was small, Einstein was bullied by his schoolmates. He put up with it and appreciated how his teachers seemed to be free of prejudice. The bullying only reinforced his sense of isolation.

By temperament, he was an outsider, a non-conformist, even as a child. From early on he challenged his teachers and then his professors. When he graduated from Zurich Polytech he could not get an academic position, even at the lowest rank.

Finally he got a job as a clerk at the Patent Office in Bern. This allowed lots of time for his independent work on the foundations of physics. His boss even encouraged him. Even after he published his ground breaking papers in 1905, he was so ahead of his time that it would be years before he got a position in academia.

Einstein was an outsider in politics too. He was skeptical of rules of any kind and by nature he distrusted government. Not that he was an anarchist. He was even more distrustful of tyranny, of mob rule.

In 1923 he learned of the “beer hall putsch” in Munich, where his family had lived. Nazis marched in the streets, egged on by Goebbels, later Hitler’s propaganda minister. Tens of thousands of Germans lined the streets. It was an attempted coup, or at least a great piece of street theatre. The difference can be slight.

Jews were among the scapegoats – the people to blame for the overall dysfunction of a society that had been bled dry by the reparations payments fixed by the victors in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, after the Great War. The victors themselves had themselves sought to find a scapegoat after a long and bloody war that was in reality just another conflict of many as nations sought a balance of power.

After the war, the old order in Germany fell apart and eventually some street-smart rabble rouser would find a way to power. That person was Hitler and the Nazis were his machine.

Part of the Nazi propaganda was that the soul of Germany had been overwhelmed by intellectuals. Jews were both a different race, at least in theory, and part of a culture that respected learning. They were doubly damned.

The society was ready for “disruption,” to use a word we love today.

Encouraged by Goebbels, the future propaganda minister, in May of 1923 the mob turned on libraries and bookstores. Books represented learning, study, debate. They were stolen and burned. It was a grand spectacle.

The coup failed, or was at least postponed. Hitler went to prison for a few months, where he wrote My Struggle, outlining his mad philosophy and toxic goals for Germany. He came out of prison more powerful than before. Ironically, although it was panned by scholars, Hitler’s little book later became required reading in Germany and brought Hitler an income.

In 1923, Einstein understood what was happening. The book burning revealed the failure of the “intellectual aristocracy,” as he called it. Jewish professors and researchers, including physicists, were expelled from the academies and few of their colleagues tried to resist.

The intellectual traditions of the arts and sciences had not helped Germany to rebound after the Great War. Employment was rife and national pride had been reduced. The Nazis outlawed any kind of free thinking or criticism. Modern art was banned.

The new power brokers mocked learning. There was only one truth, whatever Hitler and his goons came up with. There was no debate, no search for new data, no fine tuning of ideas.

In the latter part of his scientific career, Einstein went from revolutionary to curmudgeon. Although he had helped to found quantum theory, he disliked its reliance on probabilities. He spent years trying to unify relativity and quantum mechanics, but did not succeed.

Yet throughout his lifetime, Einstein remained an empiricist who looked closely at the evidence. His criticisms forced other physicists to strengthen their theories.

It was the same in politics. He distrusted governments on principle, but recognized that democracy, for all its flaws, was the best protection against tyranny. He favoured a functional association of nations as a buffer against concentration of power.

He was a pacifist until it became obvious how great a threat the Nazis were. When it became clear they were working on a powerful new weapon, Einstein became a key figure in convincing President Roosevelt that the Americans must respond by launching their own atomic research program.

In science and social issues, you might not agree with Einstein, but his arguments were always coherent and disciplined. This is how science and society move forward. It is an uneven process, but it has taken us out of the caves. No matter how fractious the world seems today, by historical standards it is a paradise.

Even in the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, children and adults died from infectious diseases of all types – even from a minor cut after sepsis set it. There was no protection from the health threats that have been eradicated in recent decades, at least in the developed world.

Life was hard. Lack of hygiene meant teeth fell out early and disease flourished everywhere. To heat water, someone had to make a fire. City streets and the air above them were filthy. Antibiotics and vaccines had not yet transformed public health.

In the last few centuries, science has created miracles and also the fuels and machines that eventually started warming the planet. Even so, today, with technology, research and the information available in democratic societies, we have many choices about how to reverse the trend.

Science and civil discourse will play key roles in coming to grips with all of our difficult issues. These were Einstein’s values. He was often wrong, but he was always seeking the truth.

Today, it seems as if the values of our parents and grandparents are under assault. In the West, factual evidence is mocked in many spheres and informed debate replaced by name calling and intolerance.

It seems impossible that modern democracies could crumble under their own weight. Yet for centuries, Germany had been one of the most civilized cultures in world history, the birthplace of Goethe and Beethoven.

Until, one day, it wasn’t.

You might also enjoy this article on the fast pace of change in our world.

Author: David Holt is the editor of Silver Magazine and Editor-In-Chief of HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand for Silver. This is his personal blog for Silver readers.

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