Andrew Robinson to talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church

In late 1915, in Berlin, Albert Einstein announced the general theory of relativity: his greatest achievement. In 1931-33, he lectured on relativity in Oxford, receiving an honorary degree from the university and staying in rooms in Christ Church, before fleeing his home in Nazi Germany and settling in Princeton. How much is known about Einstein’s time in the city of dreaming spires? For the centenary of general relativity, Einstein biographer Andrew Robinson will give a talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church, Oxford on December 3. Robinson, the author of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, will reflect on relativity, Einstein’s intriguing relationship with Oxford and the puzzle of his universal fame. 

Ahead of his talk, Robinson shares some fascinating details about the historic visit:

Einstein in Oxford

By Andrew Robinson

My father was a physicist at Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory for more than four decades, revered Einstein’s work and wrote a textbook on relativity. I was born, brought up and largely educated in Oxford. So I am naturally curious about Einstein’s relationship with the city.

When Einstein paid his first visit to England in 1921, The Times carried a two-sentence news item headlined “Professor Einstein at Oxford”. It read as follows: “Professor Einstein paid a private visit to Oxford University as the guest of Dr. Lindemann of Wadham College. A tour was made of the principal University buildings and the Professor returned to London in the evening.”

Einstein receiving an honorary degree at Oxford. Source:

Nothing further came of this Oxford visit for a decade. But the name of Einstein’s host in Oxford in 1921, the physicist Frederick Lindemann, proved to be very important. Though born in Germany in 1886, Lindemann was actually brought up in Britain and regarded himself as British. But he returned to Germany as a PhD student in Berlin. In 1911, when his Berlin supervisor, the future Nobel laureate Walther Nernst, organized a key scientific conference in Brussels—the first Solvay Congress—Nernst appointed his student Lindemann as one of the scientific secretaries of the conference. And it was at this historic conference—where the young Einstein lectured on quantum theory—that Lindemann first met him.

In 1919, Lindemann was elected Dr Lee’s professor of experimental philosophy (that is, physics) in Oxford, and began the much-needed rejuvenation of physics at the university, centred on the Clarendon Laboratory. The Dr Lee’s chair was attached to Wadham College, where Lindemann remained a fellow until his retirement. But in 1921 Lindemann was also elected, as was legally possible in those days, to a “studentship not on the governing body” at Christ Church, which had provided the endowment for the chair. This entitled Lindemann to rooms in Christ Church that were more spacious than Wadham could provide, and from 1922 for the rest of his life, until his death in 1957, ‘Prof’, as Lindemann was known, lived in Christ Church. He was living there when he became close to Winston Churchill in the mid-1920s and eventually acted as Churchill’s key scientific adviser during the Second World War.

In 1927, Lindemann made his first attempt to persuade Einstein to return to Oxford and give one or two lectures, on behalf of the newly established Rhodes Trust—without success. In 1930, he tried again. This time, Einstein agreed, then changed his mind. But Lindemann was determined. He saw Einstein in person in Berlin, and also worked on Mrs Einstein. Einstein agreed to give three lectures—one on relativity, the second on cosmological theory and the third on his much-discussed unified field theory—and to stay in Oxford for some weeks. A solicitous Lindemann assured Mrs. Einstein in a letter:

He can of course have as many meals as he likes alone in his rooms and I will endeavour to preserve him as much as possible from importunate invitations. I am taking steps to see that he can get some sailing, so that I hope he will not feel that he is wasting his time here altogether.

Einstein arrived in Oxford in early May 1931 and was given rooms in Christ Church on Tom Quad (now the Graduate Common Room) belonging to the classical scholar Robert Hamilton Dundas, who was away on a world tour in 1930-31. At a practical level, he was looked after by Lindemann’s indefatigable manservant and general factotum, James Harvey. Lindemann himself acted as Einstein’s mentor and guide, showing him the sights and introducing him to various friends and acquaintances. According to Lindemann, over the course of Einstein’s visit, he “threw himself into all the activities of Oxford science, attended the Colloquiums and meetings for discussion and proved so stimulating and thought-provoking that I am sure his visit will leave a permanent mark on the progress of our subject.”

His first Rhodes lecture was on 9 May. Entitled “The Theory of Relativity”, it drew a packed house in the Milner Hall of Rhodes House, with some people standing. But since the lecture included much mathematics and was also in German, it quickly went over the heads of most of the audience. Those whose maths was good enough to follow Einstein’s calculations, mostly lacked sufficient German to follow his words, while the German speakers certainly lacked sufficient maths.

By the time of the second lecture a week later, devoted to the recent notion of an expanding universe, there were somewhat fewer listeners. As The Times correspondent cautiously noted:

Once more he had an audience which, though not so large as for his first lecture, almost filled the hall. An analysis of the audience was interesting. Senior and junior members of the University were divided by a barrier. The senior members consisted chiefly of teachers in the faculties of Literae Humaniores, mathematics, natural science, and theology, all of whom are affected in some degree by the new theory. The junior members were drawn by considerations partly of science, partly of language, and partly of curiosity. The element of curiosity, however, was not so strong as for the previous lecture, and most of those present had a serious interest.… Two blackboards, plentifully sprinkled beforehand in the international language of mathematical symbol, served him for reference.

One of these Einstein blackboards was wiped by an over-zealous cleaner. Fortunately, the other one was rescued by one of the Oxford dons with a serious interest in relativity, who whisked it away to the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street, where it today attracts much intrigued, if bemused, attention from visitors. (The wiped blackboard still exists, too, but lies ignominiously in the storeroom of the Museum.)

Just before the third lecture on 23 May, Einstein was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University at the Sheldonian Theatre. The Public Orator, presenting Einstein to the vice-chancellor in Latin, claimed that relativity, “which touched both science and philosophy, was specially acceptable to Oxonians … who had learnt from Heraclitus that you could not bathe in the same river twice”.

Then the audience in the Sheldonian—or at least those members strong enough to cope not only with Latin but also with Einstein’s German and his mathematics—proceeded to Rhodes House. After this lecture, Einstein remarked that the next time he had to lecture in Oxford, “the discourse should be in English delivered”. To which one of Lindemann’s friends was heard to murmur in German: “Bewahr!” But two years later, when Einstein gave the Herbert Spencer lecture in Oxford in 1933, “On the Method of Theoretical Physics”, he wisely spoke it in an excellent English version translated from his German by colleagues from Christ Church. This lecture included a piercing tribute to an Einstein hero, Galileo:

Conclusions obtained by purely rational processes are, so far as Reality is concerned, entirely empty. It was because he recognized this, and especially because he impressed it upon the scientific world, that Galileo became the father of modern physics and in fact of the whole of modern natural science.

However, Einstein also stated, controversially, his growing view—which would come to dominate his work in the United States—of the importance of mathematics over experiment in devising physical theories:

It is my conviction that purely mathematical construction enables us to discover the concepts and the laws connecting them which give us the key to the understanding of the phenomena of Nature. Experience can of course guide us in our choice of serviceable mathematical concepts; it cannot possibly be the source from which they are derived; experience of course remains the sole criterion of the serviceability of a mathematical construction for physics, but the truly creative principle resides in mathematics. In a certain sense, therefore, I hold it to be true that pure thought is competent to comprehend the real, as the ancients dreamed.

Undoubtedly, Einstein left a pleasant impression on the students (fellows) of Christ Church. The classicist Dundas—in whose rooms Einstein lived in 1931—was tickled to find a poem by Einstein written in German in his visitor’s book when he returned from his world tour, including the verse:

Grumble: Why’s this creature staying

With his pipe and piano playing?

Why should this barbarian roam?

Could he not have stopped at home?

While the economist Roy Harrod wrote in his biography of Lindemann that Einstein “was a charming person, and we entered into relations of easy intimacy with him.” Harrod recalled vividly that Einstein

divided his time between his mathematics and playing the violin; as one crossed the quad, one was privileged to hear the strains coming from his rooms. In our Governing Body I sat next to him; we had a green baize table-cloth; under cover of this he held a wad of paper on his knee, and I observed that all through our meetings his pencil was in incessant progress, covering sheet after sheet with equations.

On one occasion, Einstein turned up at the college’s entrance gate in a pony cart driven by a girl he had met over lunch at the house of some friends of Lindemann. Some of his admirers were waiting to help him out of the cart, but a big button from his Ulster had caught in the cart’s basket-work. His lady driver wanted to disentangle it and give it to Einstein, but the college porter said: ‘I wouldn’t worry, Miss. The gentleman will never miss it. He has one odd button on his coat already.” “Oh, in that case I shall keep it,” said the girl. “I shall probably never drive anyone so famous again!”

Robinson jacketAndrew Robinson will give a talk on “Einstein in Oxford” at Christ Church, Oxford on 3 December 2015. He is the author of Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity, published by Princeton University Press in 2015, and Genius: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

Happy 100th Anniversary to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity!

relativity jacketToday is the final day of our popular #ThanksEinstein series, in which an array of prominent scholars and scientists have shared their insights and reflections on relativity, Einstein, and how his work inspired their own careers. Scroll through this week’s blog posts to read pieces by Daniel Kennefick, Katherine Freese, Hanoch Gutfreund, Jürgen Renn, Alice Calaprice, Jimena Canales, J.P. Ostriker, and many more special features, including this piece on Einstein’s final days.

Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity celebrates its 100 year anniversary today. November 25, 1915, during a particularly strenuous time in his life, is when Einstein submitted his final version of the general theory of relativity to the Prussian Royal Academy, complete with the field equations that define how the force of gravity arises from the curvature of space and time by matter and energy. The theory, which is the current theory of gravitation in modern physics, has implications for everything from black holes to the idea of universe expansion. It gained rapid popularity after its conception in 1915, and in the early 1920s alone, it was translated into ten languages. Fifteen editions in the original German appeared over the course of Einstein’s lifetime.

Princeton University Press has released a special edition of Relativity: The Special and the General Theory to commemorate the anniversary, including commentary from Hanoch Gutfreund and Jürgen Renn, Einstein experts, as well as additional content such as title pages from several language translations. You can browse through them in the slideshow below. Happy 100th to the general theory of relativity! Science wouldn’t be the same without you.

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Relativity Title Page, English Edition

Relativity Title Page, Chinese Edition

Relativity Cover, Chinese 1921 Edition

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Relativity Cover, German Edition

Relativity Title Page, Japanese Edition

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Was Einstein the First to Discover General Relativity?

Today the world celebrates the day 100 years ago that Albert Einstein submitted his final version of the general theory of relativity to the Prussian Royal Academy. A theory of gravitation with critical consequences, it completely transformed the field of theoretical physics and astronomy. Einstein has long been celebrated and popularized for his contribution, but some have continued to ask whether he was, in fact, the first to discover general relativity. Daniel Kennefick, co-author of An Einstein Encyclopedia, looks at the debate:

Einstein’s Race

By Daniel Kennefick

On November 25, 1915 Einstein submitted one of the most remarkable scientific papers of the twentieth century to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin. The paper presented the final form of what are called the Einstein Equations, the field equations of gravity which underpin Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Thus this year marks the centenary of that theory. Within a few years this paper had supplanted Newton’s Universal Theory of Gravitation as our explanation of the phenomenon of gravitation, as well as overthrown Newton’s understanding of such fundamental concepts as space, time and motion. As a result Einstein became, and has remained, the most famous and celebrated scientist since Newton himself.

EinsteinBut what if Einstein was not the first scientist to publish these famous equations? Should they be called, not the Einstein equations, but the Einstein-Hilbert equations, honoring also the German mathematician David Hilbert? In 1915, Einstein visited Hilbert in Gottingen, and Hilbert convinced him that the goal of a fully general relativistic theory was achievable, something Einstein had nearly convinced himself could not be done. Einstein returned to work, and by November, he had found the field equations which give General Relativity its final form. However, Hilbert also worked on the ideas Einstein had discussed with him and published a paper discussing how Einstein’s theory fitted in with his own ideas on the role of mathematics in physics.

The argument for honoring Hilbert lies in a paper written by him which included the Einstein equations, derived from fundamental principles. This paper, while appearing several months after Einstein’s, was submitted on November 20, and Hilbert even sent Einstein a copy which probably reached Einstein before he submitted his own paper. In fact, a few people have even gone so far as to propose that Einstein might have stolen the final form of his equations from Hilbert.

Of course even if that were true, we are talking only about one final term in the equations (Einstein had published a close to correct version earlier in the month) and to Einstein would still belong sole credit for the enormous amount of work which went into the argument by which equations with these unique properties were singled out in the first place. We would still recognize Einstein for the critical physical thinking, while acknowledging Hilbert’s superior mathematical ability in more quickly finding the final correct form of the equations. Still, perhaps Hilbert would deserve a share of the credit for that final step. Why then do the centenary celebrations mention Einstein only and omit Hilbert almost completely?

One reason is that in the late 1990s a historian working on Hilbert named Leo Corry made a remarkable discovery. He found a copy of the proofs of Hilbert’s paper, with a printers stamp dating it to December 6, 1915. These proofs show that Hilbert made significant changes to the paper after this date. In addition, the proofs do not contain the Einstein equations. The proofs have been cut up here and there (probably by the printers themselves as they worked), so it is possible that the equations would be there if we had the missing pieces. But it is also quite possible that amidst the changes Hilbert made to the paper, he took the opportunity to include the final form of the equations from Einstein’s paper. Indeed some of the changes he made after December 6 were to update his argument from earlier versions of Einstein’s theory to the later version.

Certainly it was Einstein who felt himself to be the injured party in this short-lived priority dispute (arguably the only occasion in his life when Einstein found himself in such a dispute). He complained to a friend that Hilbert was trying to “nostrify” his theory, to claim a share of the credit. Einstein complained to Hilbert himself indeed, and some of the changes made in proofs by Hilbert included the addition of remarks giving credit for the basic ideas behind the theory to Einstein. At any rate, Einstein tried not to let proprietary feelings color his feelings of gratitude for Hilbert. He recalled well that Hilbert had played an important role in encouraging Einstein to return to his theory at a time when Einstein had, to some extent, given up on his original goals. On December 20, 1915, he wrote to Hilbert:

“There has been a certain resentment between us, the cause of which I do not want analyze any further. I have fought against the feeling of bitterness associated with it, and with complete success. I again think of you with undiminished kindness and I ask you to attempt the same with me. It is objectively a pity if two guys that have somewhat liberated themselves from this shabby world are not giving pleasure to each other.” (translated and quoted in Corry, Renn and Stachel, 1997).

So if Einstein was becoming the new Newton, as the man who solved the riddle of gravity, he was far from being a new Newton in another sense; of being the sort of man who carries on scientific grudges to the detriment of his friendship with the other great thinkers of his day.

Daniel Kennefick is associate professor of physics at the University of Arkansas, an editor of the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, and the author of An Einstein Encyclopedia and Traveling at the Speed of Thought: Einstein and the Quest for Gravitational Waves (Princeton).

For more on Einstein’s field equations, check out this article by Dennis Lehmkuhl at Caltech.

The Final Days of Albert Einstein


Albert Einstein’s time on earth ended on April 18, 1955, at the Princeton Hospital.

In April of 1955, shortly after Einstein’s death, a pathologist removed his brain without the permission of his family, and stored it in formaldehyde until around 2007, shortly before dying himself. In that time, the brain of the man who has been credited with the some of the most beautiful and imaginative ideas in all of science was photographed, fragmented —small sections parceled to various researchers. His eyes were given to his ophthalmologist.

These indignities in the name of science netted several so-called findings—that the inferior parietal lobe, the part said to be responsible for mathematical reasoning was wider, that the unique makeup of the Sulvian fissure could have allowed more neurons to make connections. And yet, there remains the sense that no differences can truly account for the cognitive abilities that made his genius so striking.

Along with an exhaustive amount of information on  the personal, scientific, and public spheres of Einstein’s life, An Einstein Encyclopedia includes this well-known if macabre “brain in a jar” story. But there is a quieter one that is far more revealing of the man himself: The story in which Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime secretary and companion, recounts his last days. Dukas, the encyclopedia notes, was “well known for being intelligent, modest, shy, and passionately loyal to Einstein.” Her account is at once unsensational and unadorned.

One might expect a story of encroaching death, however restrained, to chronicle confusion and fear. Medically supported death was a regular occurrence by the middle of the 20th century, and Einstein died in his local hospital. But what is immediately striking from the account is the simplicity and calmness with which Einstein met his own passing, which he regarded as a natural event. The telling of this chapter is matter of fact, from his collapse at home, to his diagnosis with a hemorrhage, to his reluctant trip to the hospital and refusal of a famous heart surgeon. Dukas writes that he endured the pain from an internal hemorrhage (“the worst pain one can have”) with a smile, occasionally taking morphine. On his final day, during a respite from pain, he read the paper and talked about politics and scientific matters.

“You’re really hysterical—I have to pass on sometime, and it doesn’t really matter when.” he tells Dukas, when she rises in the night to check on him.

As Mary Talbot  writes in Aeon, “Apprehending the truth that all things arise and pass away might be the ultimate groundwork for dying.” And certainly, it would be difficult to dispute Einstein’s wholehearted dedication to the truth throughout his life and work. His manifesto, referenced here by Hanoch Gutfreund on the occasion of the opening of the Hebrew University, asserts, “Science and investigation recognize as their aim the truth only.” From passionate debates on the nature of reality with Bohr, to his historic clash on the nature of time with Bergson, Einstein’s quest for the truth was a constant in his life.  It would seem that it was equally so at the time of his death. What, then, did he believe at the end? We can’t know, but An Einstein Encyclopedia opens with his own words,

Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose….To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Read a sample chapter of An Einstein Encyclopedia, by Alice Calaprice, Daniel Kennefick, & Robert Schulmann here.

Presenting the new video trailer for AFFORDABLE HOUSING IN NEW YORK

New York City, as expensive as it is progressive, has long had the need for high-quality affordable housing. Affordable Housing in New York, edited by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner, is a richly illustrated, dynamic portrait of an evolving city and the pioneering efforts to make it livable for lower and middle income residents. The book and its photos by David Schalliol was subject of this fabulous New York Times feature this past Sunday. We’re excited to offer you a peek inside, here:


#ThanksEinstein: J.P. Ostriker on Einstein and the wonder of pure thought

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Questions with No Reply

J. P. Ostriker

J.P. Ostriker is an astrophysicist and the co-author of Heart of Darkness, which tells the saga of humankind’s quest to unravel the deepest secrets of the universe: dark matter and dark energy. Here is his story about how an Einstein thought experiment he encountered as a teenager changed his life.

When I was a high school student I drove my teachers crazy with incessant and insatiable curiosity about the natural world. Next to our pictures in the yearbook, one of the teachers had added a line for each student and for me it was “I thought of questions that have no reply.”

And for the questions that I had that my teachers could not or would not answer, I went to books. Einstein wrote several of these that were accessible to high school students, and they fascinated me. I remember a “thought experiment” presented in one of them: A scientist sets up an exquisite laboratory on a train and tests both Newton’s laws of mechanics and Maxwell’s laws of electricity and magnetism. And, hypothetically, one finds that both are correct to arbitrary precision.

train image, copyright: phildaintThen the train begins to move and E shows that, since the laws transform differently with the velocity of the observer, they can no longer both be true! Therefore one (or both) theories must be false.

This amazed me. No experiment was necessary. Pure thought was all that was needed and any high school student who thought about it could have come to the same conclusion as Einstein, and could have invented special relativity to solve the problem! I thought that this was wonderful, truly wonderful. I resolved that I would pursue physics and think about simple and fundamental matters. It looked easy.

Well, needless to say it was not always easy, but it has always been fun. I’m thankful I had access to Einstein’s popular books when I was a teenager with more questions than answers.

Jeremiah P. Ostriker is professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University. He is author, with Simon Mitton, of Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe. His books include Formation of Structure in the Universe and Unsolved Problems in Astrophysics (Princeton).


Train tracks image from Shutterstock, copyright: phildaint

#ThanksEinstein: Katherine Freese on how relativity rejuvenated her career

Thanks Einstein Meme 3Under the Spell of Relativity

By Katherine Freese

Katherine Freese is director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Stockholm, and author of The Cosmic Cocktail, which tells of the epic quest to solve one of the most compelling enigmas of modern science—what is the universe made of? This is the story of how one of today’s foremost pioneers in the study of dark matter came back from the brink of burnout because of Relativity.

My career choice was hugely influenced by the work of Albert Einstein. I chose a career in physics precisely because I was inspired by his theories of relativity. My first exposure to physics was at Exeter Summer School in New Hampshire when I was fifteen years old. I went there after my junior year in high school because, frankly, I enjoyed learning and would otherwise have been bored over the long summer. I took an introductory course in physics and have to admit that, at first, I was a bit intimidated. But I got into it quickly and was gratified to discover that I did really well. The course was inspiring, and my teacher Mr. Dudley probably has no idea what an impact he had on me.

It was when the summer course turned to Special Relativity that I became really excited. What a bizarre and fascinating subject! To begin with, the idea that there is no absolute reference frame was an eye-opener. I later tried to explain this to friends, but they persisted in arguing that the Earth really does provide a special reference frame, world freeseat least for humans, so we should just compute everything from our own point of view.

Strange paradoxes arise when one makes one simple postulate, that the speed of light is the same in every reference frame. Two observers moving with relativistic speeds (relative to one another) measure completely different things. Clocks measure different times, and rulers measure different lengths. The shortest time is measured in the reference frame where the event takes place, and in every other frame time appears dilated. So an astronaut, who goes off into space and eventually returns, ages more slowly than the rest of us. There can be time travel! In the sense that the astronaut can come back to the Earth at an arbitrarily distant point in the future…if she can tolerate traveling at those speeds. Recently I met quite a few astronauts in Stockholm at the Congress of the Association of Space Explorers. They are amazing people. I was invited to give a 20 minute talk on “What we know about the Universe today.” A tall order in front of these folks. Can you guess what I talked about? Cosmology, beginning with Einstein’s relativity, of course.

These exciting things I learned when I was 15 made me determined to learn more physics, and I ended up majoring in physics in college. I went very young, at 16, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Princeton University at the age of 20. It was really hard, I was burning out quickly, and at that point I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue. Chapter One of The Cosmic Cocktail, the book that was published by Princeton University Press just over a year ago, describes what happened next. I decided to take some time off from school. With my best friend, I went off to Tokyo to teach English and ended up serving drinks in bars for a giant salary. (I finally surpassed it a few years ago as a Full Professor.) A year and a half later, I went to Korea to renew my visa. While I was traveling around Pusang, my stomach, or so I thought, started to hurt. When I returned to Tokyo I was walking around doubled over with pain. Indeed it turned out to be appendicitis. I went to the Catholic Hospital, run by English nuns, and had my appendix removed.

While I was lying in the hospital bed, I read the only book I had brought with me, Spacetime Physics by Taylor and Wheeler. It is a book about Einstein’s special relativity. The book is beautifully written and only requires simple knowledge of forces, energy, and so on, and I loved it. The minute I got out of the hospital, I flew back to the US, reinvigorated by the desire to study physics. I contacted Columbia University, which had previously accepted me, and they let me in at a moment’s notice. I was lucky they did.

Einstein’s influence persisted. Two years into my graduate program at Columbia University, I went to Fermilab, the particle physics accelerator outside of Chicago, to work in experimental high energy physics. However, I also took a class in cosmology at the University of Chicago twice a week, out of curiosity. Plus, it took me into the city of Chicago. Fermilab is on a farm an hour west and has buffalo roaming around. The professor who taught the course, David Schramm, was a giant both physically and mentally, and one of the founders of the field of astroparticle physics, where the smallest particles explain the properties of the largest galaxies. We nicknamed him “Schrammbo.” (If you want to know more about him, you’ll have to read my book.) In that course, Einstein’s equations were applied to the Universe as a whole. Wow. I stopped showing up in the lab and instead sat in my housing at Fermilab and read about general relativity, this time at a graduate level framed by far deeper mathematics. Again, it was a turning point. I transferred to the University of Chicago to get my PhD with David Schramm in the field of cosmology.

In human history, every culture has had creation myths. In the past 100 years we have developed our own, the Big Bang. The difference is that the Hot Big Bang is right! The achievements over the past century in the field of cosmology are breakthroughs for all of mankind. We understand everything about our observable Universe all the way out to the farthest distant that light could have traveled to us in the age of the Universe (anything farther out could not have impacted us because the information could not travel in excess of the speed of light).

Now I’m a professional. I work with Einstein’s equations or their immediate consequences every day. I’m a theorist. I invent things and hope they turn out to match reality. All my work lies within the framework of modern cosmology, which began with Einstein’s work in relativity in 1915. What a brilliant man he was! Ever since I learned about relativity I’ve been under its spell, and I still am.

Katherine Freese is director of Nordita, the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Stockholm, and professor of physics at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Cosmic Cocktail.

#ThanksEinstein image courtesy of the official Albert Einstein Facebook page.

Of Law and Love: Jon D. Levenson on THE LOVE OF GOD

The Love of God jacket

The love of God is perhaps the most essential element in Judaism—but also one of the most confounding. In biblical and rabbinic literature, the obligation to love God appears as a formal commandment. Yet most people today think of love as a feeling. How can an emotion be commanded? Jon D. Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, recently took the time to answer questions about his new book, The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism.

How did you first get the idea of writing a book on the love of God in Judaism?

JL:  To love God is actually taken as a formal commandment in the rabbinic sources, and the passages in Deuteronomy that mandate it appear in texts that Talmudic law requires to be recited every day of the year. So, for anyone who aspires to be a practicing Jew, the subject comes up rather obviously and regularly—even if many people in that category don’t give it much thought. But one of my professors in my doctoral program many moons ago was the distinguished Assyriologist and Biblicist William L. Moran, whose classic article on “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly in 1963, had a huge effect on me when I read it my first year in graduate school.

In brief, Professor Moran shows that the idiom of the love of God (that is, the people Israel’s love for God) originates in ancient treaties, or covenants, and has to do with the lesser party’s exclusive and undivided service of the greater party. In an earlier book, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, I dealt with this same transposition (as I put it) from the realm of politics and international relations to the realm of theology and national identity. In the first chapter of The Love of God, I try to draw out a number of further implications of Professor Moran’s argument but also to make some refinements on it and to enter respectful dissents from it.

What kind of refinements and dissents do you have in mind?

JL: For one thing, although I totally agree that “love” has a technical, legal meaning in Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), I also agree with those who insist that the technical usage doesn’t preclude the emotional or affective connotations that the word has for most people. To put it differently, sometimes loving may simply mean loyal service and faithful obedience, but we need to guard against over-generalizing from such passages, just as we need to guard against interpreting “love” in this context as a purely subjective, emotional state without normative behavioral correlates. I try to show that in Deuteronomy God falls in love with Israel—I don’t think the language is exclusively technical but rather it connotes passion—and demands a response that has its own affective character. In other words, we have to reckon with both an outward and an inward dimension, though recognizing that the inward-outward dichotomy is not itself native to ancient Near Eastern culture and can lead interpreters of the Bible astray. In fact, the movement is in both directions. Actions awaken and deepen emotions, and emotions generate and make sense of actions.

I also stress more than Moran did the connection of the two meanings of “the love of God”—the love God receives and the love he gives. Both are found in Deuteronomy, though the rhetorical situation of that book leads it to emphasize the love the people Israel must give to God. An important part of the covenantal idea is that the greater party (in this case, God) has endowed the lesser party with gifts—like all true gifts, they are undeserved—and this should motivate the recipient to respond not only with gratitude and humility but also with acts of service. There is something in a gift that provokes reciprocity, and that reciprocity deepens the relationship of the two parties. This is what I mean by the words in the subtitle, “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.” Simply to treat the norms of the Torah—the mitzvot as they are called in Hebrew—as impersonal injunctions divorced from that living relationship with that very personal God is to misunderstand them profoundly. In my experience, doing so makes the Torah itself seem incoherent and antique. It is a huge blunder to try to force the biblical commandments altogether into the Procrustean bed of ethics, morals, folkways, or whatever. In this book, I try to lay out the alternatives that the classical biblical and rabbinic sources offer to these very modern, and in my opinion not very successful, strategies.

I noticed that in your second chapter, “Heart, Soul, and Might,” you deal at length with suffering and martyrdom. Why?

JL: That chapter focuses on the ancient rabbinic interpretations of the famous commandment to “love the LORD [which is actually a proper name] your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The rabbis stress the unconditionality and supremacy of such love and consider ways in which a person might be tempted to prefer something else to that arduous commandment. So long as one puts self-interest above grateful and loving service, he or she has fallen short of the ideal. Part of the problem is that the biblical sources themselves (especially Deuteronomy again) promise all manner of good things to one who loves God, observing his commandments, and the opposite to one who fails to do so, breaking faith and breaching covenant. So, the rabbis are eager to stress that the hope for reward and the fear of punishment must not be the basis of the service. The Jew must persevere in his or her service; he or she must work at loving God even in the hardest and most frightful of situations. Here, the horrific martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva around 135 CE serves as a key object lesson.

One implication that I draw out from this is that the foundational narratives in which the God of Israel acts a generous benefactor establish the continuing norm. In other words, that situation overrides the immediate circumstances in which Jews find themselves—even circumstances of brutal persecution and death. The love that his gifts called forth was to remain firmly in place even when the gifts appear to have been withdrawn, replaced, in fact, by unspeakable hardship. This, in turn, leads me to reflect on the relationship of the unconditional to the conditional both in the love relationship of God and the Jewish people in these sources and in love relationships more generally.

It’s only in your third chapter that you develop the idea of a romance between God and the people Israel. Tell us why you didn’t do so earlier.

JL: The reason is simple: love in the ancient world—and really in the modern as well—isn’t exclusively or even primarily sexual in nature, even though sexual love commands disproportionate attention at the moment, especially in the fashions of academia. The Hebrew Bible has many metaphors for the God-Israel relationship: suzerain and vassal, king and subject, father and son, shepherd and flock, etc. In order to understand the marital metaphor—God as husband, Israel as wife—it is important to have dealt with some of these others, especially the suzerain-vassal metaphor, beforehand. Otherwise, we’re likely to read all kinds of contemporary assumptions about sexuality and gender into literature that operates on completely different understandings. In particular, if we don’t grasp the dynamics of covenant, we’ll find God’s actions in that marriage to be bizarre and patently indefensible.

For example, in our modern American world, if the wife gives her affections and her body to other men, a common solution lies in divorce: the two parties just go their separate ways, hoping to end up with partners more to their liking. But that is exactly what doesn’t happen in the marital metaphor as the biblical prophets develop it! Here again, the element of unconditionality is crucial. God doesn’t walk away from the relationship, even if Israel has done so. He doesn’t replace her or even take a second wife (remember, ancient Israel had no legal or moral problem with polygamy). He punishes her, even harshly, but this turns out to be a preparation for a restoration of the marriage. The punishment is a consequence of his passionate love for her and faithfulness to her. Ultimately, it evinces a renewal of her love for him, in turn. All this, of course, is foreign to us and doesn’t comport with how we think human husbands ought to act. But that doesn’t authorize us to miss the underlying theology, satisfying ourselves with a simple characterization of it as immoral or whatever.

Later, in the case of the rabbis, the speakers in the great biblical love poem, the Song of Songs, come to be seen as God and Israel, again in their ideal state of mutual fidelity. That’s not the plain sense of the book taken as a stand-alone composition, but within the context of the rest of biblical literature, it is a very natural—and very productive and very moving—way to read it. Nowhere does one see the power of the love of God more dramatically than in the rabbinic interpretations of the Song of Songs. That biblical book enabled the rabbis to interpret the whole history of the God-Israel relationship as a romance—an extremely important move in the history of Jewish thought.

In your last two chapters, you deal with medieval and modern materials. What changes in the Middle Ages and modernity?

JL: The medieval thinkers continue the rabbinic legacy but also add to it. For example, they sometimes interpret the female speaker of the Song of Songs as the individual soul. They also provide practical guidance about how to attain the love of God. For them again, that’s something to work on; it doesn’t just happen to you. It’s also in the Middle Ages that we first see the sustained interaction of the rabbinic legacy with philosophy. In one case, that of Maimonides, the philosopher waxes passionate about humans’ love for God but has problems with the idea that God loves humans, or anything else. That’s because he believes all human language to describe God is akin to idolatry; a God who’s susceptible to love seems imperfect to Maimonides. But I show that other medieval Jewish philosophers develop sophisticated arguments against him on this. To them, to love is a sign of perfection, not imperfection, and God’s love—even his passionate, unpredictable love—is a sign of his greatness.

In modern times, momentous changes appear with emancipation and secularization. Now one can leave the Jewish community without having to convert to Christianity or anything else. This makes observance of the mitzvot (commandments) just one lifestyle option among many; it’s no longer a social necessity or an obvious response to a divine will. Martin Buber, one of the two thinkers I examine in my last chapter, believes deeply in a personal God, but he also argues that whether the commandments in the Torah really reflect his will has to be determined by each individual on a case-by-case basis. So, ultimately and perhaps also unwittingly, Buber opts for the disconnected, autonomous self of modern liberalism. But his friend and collaborator Franz Rosenzweig comes to see God’s love as something that transforms and enlarges the self and impels it towards acceptance of the mitzvot—though without the support of old and now discredited historical claims.

Will the reader find surprises in The Love of God? Do you say things that contradict what people are likely to expect?

JL: Yes, I think so. For one, most people have an image of law as cold, confining, and impersonal, and, in the case of Judaism, two millennia of Christian polemicizing about “Pharisaism” and the like continue to take their toll, even among people who don’t identify as Christian. The notion that God’s gift of the Torah and the Jews’ careful observance of it are both acts of intense love will surprise those who instinctively see law and love as necessarily in opposition or tension.

In my previous Princeton University Press book, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, I tried to shed new light on the vexing question of the chosenness, or election, of the Jews, and I’ve continued that, but with a somewhat different tack, in the new book. When chosenness is put into a framework of justice, the lack of objective merit of the chosen becomes a huge obstacle. But love isn’t based on objective assessments of merit. It has an unpredictable or irrational dimension, what today people call the “chemistry” the two parties experience. And love, because it’s relational, is necessarily particular. There’s room in Judaism for the idea that God loves all humanity, but his love for the people Israel cannot be identified with his love for everybody.

Actually, in speaking about this subject around the country, I’ve found that many people are unaware that the idea of a personal relationship with a loving God is part of Judaism at all. Partly, this is because of the legacy of the Christian caricature of the Old Testament as a book of harsh legalisms enforced by an angry, judgmental God (though there have long been many, many Christians who don’t subscribe to that notion). Partly, it’s because modern Judaism has tended to stress the mitzvot as manifested in ethics and social action over than the traditional theological claim that the mitzvot make a connection with the personal, loving God.

Finally, I think many readers will be surprised by the stress in medieval sources on solitary devotion and contemplation and on abstinence as key elements in Jewish spirituality. Almost all versions of modern Judaism have long been propounding a view of Judaism as communal, active, and world-affirming, but that is a gross over-simplification of the older tradition. As for abstinence or asceticism, one must always ask what the positive gain is that the renunciation or self-control at issue delivers. In the case of Baḥya ibn Paquda, one of the medieval thinkers examined in chapter 4, the asceticism serves the interest of increasing one’s love of God, which for Baḥya is the “consummation of the spiritual life,” as I entitle that chapter.

There may be other surprises, but to find out what they are, people will just have to read the book!

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University. His many books include The Love of God, as well as Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel, which won the National Jewish Book Award, and Inheriting Abraham and Creation and the Persistence of Evil (both Princeton).













University Press Week Blog Tour Day 5: Author Conversations

thanks to authorsThe final day of the University Press Week blog tour focuses on presses in conversation with their authors. Here at Princeton we would like to take a moment to thank all of our wonderful authors across many disciplines, without whom our esteemed publishing program could not exist. In the past year, PUP has been fortunate enough to publish multiple Nobel Prize winners, up-and-coming stars, renowned scholars and cultural critics. Our authors range from game theorists to astrophysicists, from art historians to professional ornithologists.

Each week on the PUP blog, we feature conversations with our authors about our books. These conversations, such as this one with n+1 co-founder Mark Greif, this one with classics professor Josiah Ober, or this one with biologists and bee experts Olivia Messinger Carril and Joseph Wilson, always provide wonderful behind-the-scenes glimpses of the writing process the origins of our authors’ research.

Today, these university presses share conversations with their own authors:

Temple University Press
Columbia University Press
University of Virginia Press
Beacon Press
University of Illinois Press
Southern Illinois University Press
University Press of Kansas
Oregon State University Press
Liverpool University Press
University of Toronto Press

University Press Week Blog Tour day 4: #TBT

UpWeekThe University Press Week blog tour continues with day four, aptly themed Throwback Thursday. Delve into the fascinating past of university press publishing with new featured posts from these presses:

Project Muse celebrates their 20th anniversary by offering some highlights from their 20 years of university press content.

University of Minnesota Press shares infographics highlighting their 90th birthday this year.

University of Chicago Press offers a TBT written as a letter from the past…from the year the PDF was introduced in 1991.

University of Manitoba Press shares books, catalogs, and book launch photos from the 48 years UMP has been publishing.

University of Washington Press celebrates their centennial by featuring highlights and photos from 100 years of UW Press history.

Duke University Press brings us a special throwback to all of their surprising journal covers.

University of Texas Press offers a look back on the street style of 1970s Pennsylvania through the lens of seminal street photographer Mark Cohen.

University of Michigan Press describes the evolution of their book, “Michigan Trees” through the more than 100 years the publication has been maintained and edited, with a screen shot of the original cover.

University Press of Kansas takes a trip through their list via a “Today in History” theme.

Minnesota Historical Society Press shares Mike Evangelist’s Downtown: Minneapolis in the 1970s, which captures a memorable time and place in the past.

University of California Press remembers their Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 publication in 2010: A media cause célèbre.

University of Toronto Press highlights the various cover designs their journals have had over the years (some journals have been publishing for hundreds of years, so expect some interesting ones!)

Fordham University Press features What Might Have Been… A trip through New York City’s Unbuilt Subway System.

University Press Week Blog Tour: What’s Surprising? #ReadUp

UpWeekThis week, Princeton University Press will be participating in the University Press Week blog tour. Stay tuned for our featured post on Wednesday from our Design department on the launch of an exciting new social media initiative.

Today, in keeping with the online gallery theme, check out posts from other university presses on what projects they’ve found particularly surprising. Our own biggest surprise of the year is a foray into children’s literature with the 150th anniversary edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, including illustrations by Salvador Dalí. You can read more about that at the online gallery, and on the PUP blog later this week.

So, what’s surprising in university press publishing this year? #ReadUp!

  • University Press of Florida blogs recipes and photos from recent UPF cookbooks that have changed how people view the Sunshine State, highlighting a thriving food scene that has often gone unnoticed amid the state’s highly-publicized beaches and theme parks.
  • University Press of New England reflects on the unusual success of a book from their trade imprint, ForeEdge. The book is titled Winning Marriage by Marc Solomon, and traces the years-long, state-by-state legal battle for marriage equality in America. Surprises came in many forms: from the serendipitous timing of the book’s publication with the Supreme Court ruling to the book’s ability to resonate with general readers and legal scholars alike—and many others surprises in between.
  • University Press of Mississippi, Steve Yates, marketing director, describes how the Press has partnered with Lemuria Books in Jackson and writers across the state to create the Mississippi Books page at the Clarion Ledger.
  • University Press of Kentucky features a pop quiz of some surprising facts about AAUP Member Presses.
  • University of California Press will discuss their Luminos and Collabra OA publishing platforms.
  • University of Wisconsin Press writes about how mystery fiction is a surprise hit, and a surprisingly good fit for their publishing program. Their sleuths in several series include a duo of globe-trotting art history experts, a Wisconsin sheriff in a favorite tourist destination, a gay literature professor, and a tough detective who quotes Shakespeare and Melville.
  • The University of Nebraska Press is more than their books! Find out about the UNP staff and who they are.
  • And check out surprise posts from University of Michigan and University Press of Kansas as well.


New video trailer for THE SECRET OF OUR SUCCESS by Joe Henrich

Henrich jacketThe premise of Survivor, in which 16 previously unacquainted humans were routinely abandoned in forbidding locations to brave the elements, was no doubt wildly popular because of the simple fact that we humans, on our own, are virtually helpless. We aren’t particularly adept at building shelter, fending off predatory animals, and the thought of having to procure a meal with nothing but our bare hands and our wits is enough to make many of us run for our nearest Whole Foods. How on earth have we managed to dominate the globe when we can’t survive in the wild? As Joseph Henrich points out, human groups are far less hopeless than lone individuals, and our collective brains have produced ingenious technologies, sophisticated languages, and complex institutions that have not only allowed us to inhabit diverse environments, but have actually shaped biology. Check out the trailer for his new book, The Secret of our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating our Species, and Making Us Smarter.