A Pi Day Q&A with Our “Einstein” Authors (#PiDay)

Happy Pi Day, everyone! Today, we thought it would be a fun idea to showcase a piece on how Einstein influenced our current PUP authors’ research and career decisions.

We’ve chosen two questions that will show how influential Einstein’s ideas really were – across a wide spread of fields:

[1] How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

[2] What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

Check out what our authors had to say:

Alice Calaprice, author of The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

AC: Einstein didn’t influence my career choice–he serendipitously became part of my career in publishing! I happened to be around at the right place at the right time: in Princeton at the start of the Einstein Papers Project, i.e., the preparation of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein series for publication by PUP, in the mid to late 1970s. I happened to be looking for a full-time job and I happened to have the right qualifications to work as assistant to John Stachel in producing a computerized index of everything in the Einstein Archive, housed at the Institute for Advanced Study at the time. This work gave me the opportunity to read almost everything in the archive–most of it in German–and to familiarize myself with what’s in it. It also gave me the chance to witness the Einstein Centennial firsthand in 1979 at the Institute, and to participate in the centennial of the special theory of relativity in 2005. A very rewarding and long career in publishing followed my years at the Institute, for which I’m still grateful.

Some fifteen years later, in 1995, after having finished the index and by now a longtime senior editor at Princeton University Press, I was asked by Trevor Lipscombe, the physics acquisitions editor, to write a book of quotations on a variety of topics by Einstein. I had–just for fun and unbeknownst to Trevor–already gathered quite a few quotes while working on the index and while copyediting the first few volumes of the Collected Papers, so Trevor’s request was surprising but seemed timely, doable, and reasonable. About a year later the first edition of The Quotable Einstein was published with 400 quotations and their sources. The initial print run was something like 3,000 (the director didn’t think the book would sell well), but the volume went into six or seven re-printings of that first edition. Three more editions followed, spaced about five years apart, and around 25 translations were contracted, some in languages I had never heard of. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, published last December, is my last contribution to this genre, with a total of around 1,600 quotations. In the meantime, I also wrote three other popular Einstein books for Johns Hopkins University Press, Greenwood, and Prometheus. So, who knew I’d become a specialist on Einstein?! Certainly not me! But maybe it was a good fit, and so it happened. I’ve loved working with all my Einstein colleagues and Einstein aficionados over the past 31 years–they’ve enriched my life tremendously and provided many good times.

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

AC: Of course, the best present for Einstein would be a world at peace–something he longed for more than anything else, in my opinion. He felt close to all of humankind and I think it pained him that we couldn’t all just get along. Peace for Einstein would also imply the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and certainly of automatic assault weapons at home. Maybe for his birthday, Princeton Pi Day organizers, in concert with local peace groups, could burn representations of these weapons in a bonfire in his honor.

Jean Eisenstaedt, author of The Curious History of Relativity: How Einstein’s Theory of Gravity Was Lost and Found Again

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

JE: As a student in gravitation in the sixties my question was about black holes, their structure and their very existence. Years before, Einstein himself could not stand the idea of a crushed star and he was not alone in thinking so. Still, very few people believed in crushed stars. The word “black hole” was only invented in 1968 and black holes theory had to be constructed. Nobody knew whether or not black holes did exist for real. Thus, I wanted to understand the black hole concept physically and theoretically – from a historical standpoint and more precisely why it had been invented so late: fifties years after General Relativity! Why didn’t Einstein understand completely the theory that he invented?

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

JE: A world at peace.

Steve Gubser, author of The Little Book of String Theory

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

SG: Einstein’s influence on my field of research, string theory, is profound.  String theory is an extension of Einstein’s general theory of relativity that includes quantum mechanics in a consistent way.  Many problems in string theory can be attacked using the methods of general relativity, and objects like black holes, discovered in general relativity, are objects of intense study in string theory as well.

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

SG: Einstein deeply desired to find a unified field theory.  He spent much of his time in Princeton searching for such a theory.  String theory is arguably the closest we have come to a unified field theory.  But it is incomplete and experimentally unproven.  The perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein would be a breakthrough, either on the theoretical or experimental side, that would give us clear confirmation that string theory is essentially on the right track, or (equally valuable) guide us toward a novel way of realizing Einstein’s final goal of a unified field theory.

Robert P. Kirshner, author of The Extravagant Universe: Exploding Stars, Dark Energy, and the Accelerating Cosmos

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

RK:  When I was a kid, “Einstein” was always used as a synonym for “annoyingly smart” – in a pejorative way.  If you knew 6 x 7, somebody would say, “Who do you think you are? Einstein?” Or if you swung and missed at a fastball, somebody would pipe up, as the next one came zooming in “OK, Einstein, hit this!”

It wasn’t until much later that I began to understand what Albert Einstein had done in theoretical physics. His contributions were unique, and truly revolutionary — General Relativity had very little to do with the problems other people were trying to solve, and Einstein came at the problem from a geometric viewpoint, which nobody else was doing.  This was a feat of imagination, and a great creation.  It also matched the observational facts, and predicted new phenomena.

Curiously, my own work in observational astronomy has pointed right at the weakest spot in Einstein’s reputation.  When he applied General Relativity to the universe, he added in the “Cosmological Constant” to produce a static universe.  Denoted by the Greek letter Lambda, it acts like a kind of anti-gravity to balance out the attraction of stars and galaxies for one another.  But only a decade later, observations showed the universe is not static– it is expanding. Einstein was a little grumpy about this and banished the cosmological constant from further discussion.  Whether he actually said it was his “greatest blunder,” I’m not sure, but he certainly thought it was not worth talking about.  It became a kind of poison ivy for theoretical physics– nobody wanted to touch it.

But only a decade ago, we found that the expansion of the universe is speeding up.  We need something that acts just like the cosmological constant.  Today’s astrophysicists have gone diving in Einstein’s wastebasket to retrieve his discarded idea.  Even when he said he was wrong, he was wrong about that!

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

RK: I would enjoy telling Einstein that the latest astronomical observations show that we need something very much like the cosmological constant.  His eyes would bug out!  Maybe he would express some affection for that Lambda he threw away in 1932.

Abraham Loeb, author of How Did the First Stars and Galaxies Form?

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

AL: The mathematical beauty, elegance, and simplicity in Einstein’s approach to understanding nature convinced me at a relatively young age to study physics. His famous mistakes (involving the cosmological constant and the nature of quantum mechanics) convinced me at a later age to continue doing physics even after some of my ideas (as a practitioner in the field of cosmology) failed.

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

AL: We currently have the technology to obtain a radio image of the silhouette of the black at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Once obtained, such an image could have been a perfect gift for Einstein’s birthday in the 21st century, since black holes were predicted shortly after Einstein came up with the general theory of relativity almost a century ago.  By now this theory had been tested over a vast range of scales, from neutron stars and black holes on the scale of a city to the entire Universe. I find it remarkable that all the data collected over the past century did not identify undisputed evidence for even a single failure of the theory across the broad variety of phenomena that it describes.

Fulvio Melia, author of High-Energy Astrophysics

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

FM: What distinguished Einstein from other thinkers, particularly in the sciences, was the evident clarity of his thoughts. As an aspiring young physicist, I was drawn to him, both for the excitement he generated with his work, but also for the manner with which he explained what he was doing. He was a physicist’s physicist, arguably the best there ever was. Like many others, I was inspired by the elegance and depth of his theories, and was naturally drawn to his style of scientific investigation. For most of my career, I have studied phenomena directly coupled to his view of space and time—black holes, relativistic plasmae, and the expansion of the universe. And now that I spend a fraction of my time writing about them, I am often reminded of the impact Einstein has had on science and our culture. The 21st century would be very, very different without him – may we never forget this.

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

FM: It would be difficult to impress an individual with Einstein’s intellect. Certainly a material gift would be insufficient. I am convinced that would moved him greatly was the joy of discovery, the glory of epiphany, the total satisfaction of knowing that he “understood” a truth of nature. Much has happened in physics to confirm or validate his great work after he passed away. Perhaps the most significant outcome has been the realization that black holes—the most exotic phenomena predicted by his theories—actually do exist. And in the next few years, radio astronomers will be making an actual photograph of the giant black hole at the center of our Galaxy, almost a century after his work on relativity. That photograph would be my gift to him.

Ze’ev Rosenkranz, author of Einstein Before Israel: Zionest Icon or Iconoclast?

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

ZR: Einstein actually did not influence my choice to become an historian. That stemmed from other factors such astrying to understand my own personal and family history. Growing up Jewish in Vienna was also a major factor – it was very hard to escape the weight of history growing up in the aftermath of the Holocaust … However, Einstein has influenced my choice of research. Originally a German-Jewish historian, I now focus exclusively on the private and political aspects of Einstein’s life and work. And, strangely enough, even after all these years, it never get’s boring …

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

ZR: Well, the serious response to this would be world peace. He would be greatly disheartened and sickened by all the continued turmoil and violence in the world (although he wouldn’t be surprised by it). On a lighter note, a great 21st century present for him would be a Facebook page so that he could keep close tabs on the status of his fellow celebs …

David A. Weintraub, author of  How Old Is the Universe?

Q: How did Einstein influence your research or career choice?

DW: I spent many years answering questions with “it’s all relative,” not knowing what that phrase actually meant but knowing that it sounded important.  I read biographies of Einstein and read as much about relativity as I could as a high schooler, so Einstein’s legacy certainly excited me about physics and helped lead me into the profession.

Q: What would be the perfect 21st century birthday present for Einstein if he were still alive?

DW: A unified field theory that was so elegant and beautiful that he would know that is was correct.


A big thanks to all of our authors for their contribution to our PUP Pi Day celebrations. Again, have a happy Pi Day, all!