Einstein: Missionary of Science
By Jürgen Renn
Jürgen Renn is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. This is the story of how he came to play such a major role in popularizing Einstein.
I encountered Albert Einstein at crucial turning points in my life, first studying his general theory of relativity while exploring quantum field theory on curved space-time backgrounds for my diploma thesis in physics at the Freie Universität in Berlin. I published my first papers on general relativity together with two postdocs I had the fortune to work with at the time: Tevian Dray and Don Salisbury. I would like to have pursued this topic for my PhD thesis as well but instead turned to quantum field theory and statistical physics. Meanwhile, I developed a passion for the history of science and began to prepare an edition of Galileo’s manuscripts. In 1985, working on my PhD in Rome, I was convinced that I could do physics and the history of science at the same time, and that I would stay in Italy for a long time to come. But things would soon change dramatically.
Kurt Sundermeyer, one of the people who taught me about general relativity, brought my attention to an advert looking for an assistant editor at the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, then located at Boston University. I quickly applied and, after being interviewed by the founding editor, John Stachel, got the position. The work I did for the edition turned out to be a revelation and deeply shaped my future career. Arriving in Boston in 1986, the first volume was already underway and included the early letters between Albert and his fiancé Mileva Marić.
This newly discovered source gave key insights into Einstein’s early intellectual biography, leading up to his “miraculous year” 1905. Together with Robert Schulmann I published a special edition of these letters for Princeton University Press. Working on the scientific annotation of these letters, I was very fortunate to work with and learn from my senior colleagues John Stachel, Robert Schulmann, and David Cassidy. Later I also profited from encounters with other Einstein experts such as Fabio Bevilacqua, Diana Buchwald, Jean Eisenstaedt, Peter Galison, Hubert Goenner, Gerald Holton, Don Howard, David Kaiser, Martin Klein, Anne Kox, John Norton, Karin Reich, David Rowe, Robert Rynasiewicz, and many others, some of whom have meanwhile become close friends. John Stachel played a pivotal role in launching Einstein studies as a field of collaboration among physicists, historians, and philosophers of science and has always been my mentor in this field. He also pioneered broad-ranging studies in the history of general relativity, a field that I soon made my own, working in close collaboration with talented younger colleagues, in particular, Michel Janssen, Tilman Sauer, and Matthias Schemmel. Eventually, Michel, Tilman, the two Johns, several other younger colleagues, and I formed the team that would produce a four-volume study on The Genesis of General Relativity, published with Springer in 2007. But this is getting ahead of things.
In the late 1980s, commuting between Boston and Berlin, I also collaborated closely with the exceptional science historian and native Berliner Peter Damerow, who was always a great source of inspiration for my work. Together with an Italian colleague, Paolo Galluzzi, Peter and I developed a vision to create an electronic Galileo-Einstein Archive which would make all of Galileo’s and Einstein’s archival resources openly available in digital form. The idea was supported by the NSF and its program director Ron Overman, and we used the grant they subsequently awarded to explore our vision of an electronic archive in hypertext format. Like-minded colleagues all over the world were contacted, including the people who were just then creating the Web at CERN in Geneva. But our vision was evidently premature and the result was eventually limited to an electronic archive of Galileo’s manuscripts on mechanics. This was realized only after the foundation of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science where I became a director in 1994. It took the persistence and courage of the current director of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Diana Buchwald, supported by Princeton University Press, to eventually realize over twenty years later the vision of a freely accessible Digital Einstein Archive.
The Genesis of General Relativity was the first major collaborative research project of the newly founded Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Today, the collaboration endures as the new image to emerge from this study of Einstein’s most important achievement continues to be developed. The project has also been expanded by the work of younger colleagues at the institute such as Alex Blum and Roberto Lalli. Together with one of the founders of the project, Michel Janssen, another colleague, Christoph Lehner, recently published the Cambridge Companion to Einstein. The research undertaken in this field is not confined to the intellectual dimension of Einstein’s work, however, but also extends to the cultural and political contexts, as is illustrated by Milena Wazeck’s study Einstein’s Opponents, or by Giuseppe Castagnetti’s and Hubert Goenner’s studies on the institutional contexts. I plan to bring some of these perspectives together in my forthcoming book on Einstein, entitled On the Shoulders of Giants and Dwarfs.
Einstein’s engagement as a missionary and popularizer of science has made a deep impression on me and it is in this spirit that my collaborators and I became involved in the Einstein Year 2005, when the centenary of Einstein’s miraculous year was celebrated. The centerpiece of this celebration in Germany was the extensive exhibition “Albert Einstein — Chief Engineer of the Universe,” an online presentation of which can still be seen today.
Working with other scholars on Einstein’s life and work continues to be a great source of inspiration for me. I am particularly grateful for the friendships that have developed from my various collaborations. One striking example is my friendship with Hanoch Gutfreund, a great scholar, an interminable source of energy, and a wonderful human being. With Hanoch, I recently wrote two books for Princeton University Press, The Road to Relativity and Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. 100th Anniversary Edition. In preparing these books, we developed a common style of popularization without compromising on scientific rigor. Having met late in life, we are all the more determined to write many more books together.
Jürgen Renn is a director at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. His books include The Road to Relativity.
Einstein graphic courtesy of the Albert Einstein Facebook page.