#ThanksEinstein: Jürgen Renn on popularizing Einstein

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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.

einstein old lettersThis 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 Prineinstein old letterceton 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.

relativity 100 yearsWorking 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.

#ThanksEinstein: Jimena Canales on the ideal figure of Einstein

Thanks Einstein meme 2

Me, Myself and Einstein

By Jimena Canales

Jimena Canales is the author of The Physicist and the Philosopher, which tells the remarkable story of how an explosive debate between two intellectual giants transformed our understanding of time and drove a rift between science and the humanities that persists today. This is the story of how she came to study the iconic physicist when she initially had no interest in “such a great man, or any great men.”

I arrived at Einstein after following a winding, circuitous road. Like so many others, I was acquainted with his life and works since my college years. I majored in Engineering Physics, taking the required relativity lessons as part of my Modern Physics courses. Like so many others, I struggled to understand the philosophical significance of the theory’s paradoxes (particularly those pertaining to simultaneity and time and length dilation). Comprehending that was a lot harder than the comparatively simple number-crunching that led me to the right answers in the final exam.

But as a historian of science, I was initially not interested in such a great man or in any great men, for that matter. In fact, early on in my career I was more interested in understanding broader social and historical transformations than those that could ever be brought about by single individuals, no matter how brilliant they were. No one person created modernity, and I was interested in understanding how it came about.

Yet once I came to know Einstein, my career and my views about the history of science changed dramatically. It all started when I found the transcript of a meeting at the Société française de philosophie that took place in April 6, 1922. I had been looking for that particular document because I was trying to find out everything I could about Henri Bergson, one of the most important philosophers of the century widely renowned for his insightful views about time. Bergson’s conception of time had been more famous than Einstein’s — it was only natural that I would focus on him. But what I found out upon reading the transcript shocked me beyond belief. I read about Henri Bergson debating, face-to-face, with Albert Einstein himself.

I tried to read as much as I could about this day, and—surprisingly—found almost nothing in the existing Einstein scholarship. But it seemed to me that everywhere else I looked I found references to that particular meeting. What is more, I found an astounding number of prominent intellectuals and scientists all discussing Einstein and Bergson together, and asking which of the two men was correct when it came to the prickly question of time.

Given my interest in Bergson, I was invariably led to study Einstein. I had thought that everything interesting about Einstein must have already been worked on to death by historians. I thought I would have nothing new to contribute. But the Einstein I was starting to get to know was quite different from the one I had read about.

I was at first a reluctant Einstein scholar, but as I read more and more I was hooked. My encounter with his work affected me in the most unexpected and wonderful ways imaginable. I was reminded how in even the most treaded upon topics there remain elements of surprise. Truth be told, the Einstein I got to know through my sources was not the mythical figure we all know—he is of this world. In my book, we find him saving a small piece of soap to give to his wife because he cannot afford to buy it; we find him desperately trying to combat the objections of Bergson to defend his theory; we see him speaking on the radio and reenacting for television some of the most important moments of his life; and, finally, we encounter him reflecting about Bergson in melancholic and personal letters written to his best friend in the years before his death. By reading his private correspondence, I got to know his sense of humor as much as his callousness; his sectarianism as much as his noble internationalist ideals; his pacifism as much as his uncompromising politics (I was surprised, for example, to see him take such a strong stance against the League of Nations). I was able to see his brilliance as well as his limitations (in almost everything that involved knowing the language and culture of France).

Einstein slowly appeared to me as much more than a great man—he became an ideal figure through which we could explore broader questions, such as the division between the science and the humanities, the role of expert knowledge versus lay wisdom, the relation of science to the media and to other areas of culture (including art). We could learn how cosmological and universal conceptions of time (in theory) are related to our use of time (in practice). We could explore processes that lead to the formation of our own subjectivities and psychological make-up and, most importantly, analyze our ever-changing place amongst things, machines and new technologies.

Years after my first scholarly encounter with Einstein, I cannot but be more than grateful to that great physicist, who a century after creating his General Theory of Relativity, continues to teach us so much.

Jimena Canales holds the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and was previously associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University. She is the author of The Physicist and the Philosopher, and A Tenth of a Second: A History.

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