In his classic essay “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the man who helped bring Albert Einstein to the United States, describes a great paradox of scientific research. The search for answers to deep questions, motivated solely by curiosity and without concern for applications, often leads not only to the greatest scientific discoveries but also to the most revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In short, no quantum mechanics, no computer chips. This brief book includes Flexner’s timeless 1939 essay alongside a new companion essay by Robbert Dijkgraaf, the Institute’s current director, in which he shows that Flexner’s defense of the value of “the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge” may be even more relevant today than it was in the early twentieth century. Watch the trailer to learn more:
This week we have a special announcement from Sara Lewis:
Fireflies! Their silent summer fireworks fill us with wonder, yet so much about this fascinating creatures has been shrouded in mystery. But now a path-breaking scientific initiative promises to reveal the science behind the spectacle by unveiling the genetic blueprint of Photinus pyralis, the Big Dipper firefly. Last week the Firefly Genome Project was successfully funded through the crowd funding site Experiment. The popularity of Silent Sparks helped to spread the word, and more than 80 people from all over the world helped to fund this collaborative project. Scientists hope that sequencing the firefly genome will help to illuminate how firefly features like flashing and nuptial gifts have evolved, foster important advances in bioscience and medicine, and help guide future conservation efforts.
For centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.
The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.
A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.
Becoming an Einstein Author
By Alice Calaprice
Alice Calaprice is the editor of the hugely popular collection of Einstein quotations that has sold tens of thousands of copies worldwide and been translated into twenty-five languages. This is the story of how her knack for German and quest for full-time work in Princeton, New Jersey led her to a career she never imagined.
As a child I did not dream of someday becoming an author of books about Albert Einstein, nor did I contemplate the possibility even after graduating from UC Berkeley in the 1960s. Such an idea would not even have occurred to me. Along with my interest in science, languages, cultures, and history, it was eventually serendipity that took me there.
In the late 1970s, after my family had settled well into the routine of raising school-age children in Princeton, New Jersey, I assigned myself the task of finding full-time work. I had recently completed a course in the then relatively new field of computer technology, hoping it would help bolster a future career. One day in early 1978, a friend told me about a new venture being undertaken by Princeton University Press: the publication of the papers of Albert Einstein in a voluminous series that would span many years. An intriguing project, for sure, but I did not imagine myself being a part of it.
Soon after, however, the founding editor of the project, physicist John Stachel, and I met after he had started some preliminary work on the papers. It interested him that I was a native German speaker, had spent time around computers, and wasn’t averse to physics jargon and working with physicists, being married to one at the time. He had been looking for someone for a specialized task: helping him prepare three electronic indexes of the contents of the Einstein archive. He explained that the archive contained about 10,000 documents, consisting of Einstein’s writings, correspondence, and third-party materials. The indexes would give him an overview of the archive’s size and contents–information crucial to the planning stages of the enormous undertaking.
Although the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein would be administered and published by the university press, the archive and his office were located at the nearby Institute for Advanced Study, in the same building where Einstein himself had worked during the last two decades of his life. Stachel asked if I was interested in helping to jump-start this initial phase of the project. The timing turned out to be perfect, and I agreed. I had no inkling that I was about to jump-start a lifelong career as well.
This assignment, which required perusing and often carefully reading each document in the archive’s files, gave me the chance to familiarize myself with the details of Einstein’s legacy and life, with which I was not particularly familiar. It was also an opportunity to revive my long-neglected German-language aptitude, which had waned over the years. Einstein wrote almost exclusively in his native language, even after he came to America from Germany in 1933; his correspondence and papers were generally translated by his secretary or assistants. I was surprised by some of the particulars about his life. He was not so saintly, after all, and besides transforming scientific thinking he had also done ordinary things like play the violin and love animals.
My curiosity was piqued. I quickly became an autodidact, reading supplementary articles and books so I could put the archival material into context. Names of Einstein’s family, friends, and colleagues became familiar, as did the terms for concepts in physics used by him and his cohorts. The prewar and wartime venues and events in Germany became clearer, alive, and more personal. Berlin, the city of my wartime birth, took on new meaning: I discovered that the Einstein family had lived in the same neighborhood as my family, but, unlike them, we did not have to flee persecution. We did flee the city during the Allied bombings of 1945, long after the Einsteins had already departed for America. After short stints in various villages, we coincidentally ended up in Bad Cannstatt in southwestern Germany, which I later learned was also the ancestral home of Einstein’s mother. And, finally, both of us had found our way to Princeton, if at different times, by different routes, and for different reasons. After I had oriented myself to my new surroundings, I loved coming to work. I had found a stimulating job that suited me well. Not only was the timing of my employment in the archive ideal for me personally, but the times were exciting, too. The centennial of Einstein’s birth took place at the Institute—among other worldwide venues—in 1979. Some of Einstein’s assistants and collaborators were still alive and gave firsthand accounts of their recollections in a symposium on the campus. I was able to attend these talks.
Einstein’s Inner Circle
There and at other times, I met many people who had been associated with Einstein either directly or were now members of boards that were planning the eventual publication of his papers. Outstanding among these was Helen Dukas, Einstein’s longtime, modest, and intensely loyal secretary, who, after his death in 1955, had become the first archivist of his papers. Now in her early eighties, she still came to work almost daily. Her office was around the corner from mine on the third floor of Fuld Hall. She stopped by to chat every morning after exiting the elevator located across from my office, often inspecting the never-ending clutches of house finches nesting outside my window in spring and summer. She came to our house for dinner, and she invited my family to be her guests at the swimming pool in the Institute Woods.
At Helen’s crowded memorial service after her death in 1982, I heard her old friend Otto Nathan, the executor of Einstein’s estate, tearfully proclaim, “When Helen died, Einstein died a second time.” The Institute, a cosmopolitan place of world-renowned scholars, where foreign languages were heard more often than English, was a place where one could thrive professionally and personally.
We completed the indexes by the 1980 deadline. Because the 10,000 estimated documents had more than quadrupled to 42,000, we had hired a part-time assistant to help accomplish the task. I spent long hours working off-site in the evenings, when mainframe computers at the university’s Computer Center and, later, in my husband’s cyclotron laboratory in the physics department, were more readily available for use.
Herb Bailey, the well-regarded director of Princeton University Press who had long advocated for publication of the Collected Papers, was apparently pleased with my work. He now offered me a position in the editorial offices at the Press’s historic Scribner building on the university’s campus. My first day of work was on April Fool’s Day 1980, but I was assured my employment was not a joke. John Stachel continued his sole editorship of the papers at the Institute, and later at Scribner with a small staff. I was in touch with the group almost daily, grounding my interest in what came to be known as the Einstein Papers Project.
Fluent in Einstein
Five years later, after I had become a senior editor at PUP, I had the opportunity to again read the documents and letters that were about to be published in volume 1 of the Collected Papers. In 1985, the first manuscript in the series was turned over to the Press’s editorial office, and I was asked to take charge. I helped to set an editorial style for the series, copyedited the volumes as they arrived in-house, and became administrator and “principal investigator” of the concomitant National Science Foundation-funded English-translation project. Over a span of almost thirty years, I copyedited all fifteen of the volumes in the series—more recently as a freelancer—that have been published so far, including the translated volumes. Alas, so much reading, yet I never succeeded in understanding physics and relativity theory! Despite this shortfall, I became the liaison for nonscientific Einstein-related inquiries, book projects, film documentaries, and even the movie IQ in the early 1990s. I was a resource on matters dealing with Einstein, consistently learning something new in the process and having contact with an assortment of Einstein aficionados around the world. At the same time, I handled many other editing projects, mostly in the sciences. Surrounded by a group of wonderful, supportive, and good-humored colleagues and a continuously changing stream of engaging authors, I was having the time of my life. Those years set the stage for the twenty years ahead.
In 1995, I had an especially good year. First, it was the year I began mitigating my restlessness at home by taking annual trips to unlikely parts of the world, and I went to eastern Siberia with a small group of fellow nature lovers. Second, on my return, I received the news that I would receive the national Literary Market Place (LMP) Award for Individual Editorial Achievement in Scholarly Publishing, to be presented at the New York Public Library the following year. Third, Trevor Lipscombe, PUP’s acquisitions editor in physics at the time, discussed with me the prospect of publishing a book of quotations by Einstein. Like all those familiar with Einstein’s life, Trevor was aware that the physicist was multidimensional and fearless in expressing opinions on a variety of topics of interest to many: there was much more to him than relativity theory. Unbeknownst to Trevor, I had already collected many quotations while working on the indexes and copyediting the first few volumes of the Collected Papers—simply because they had struck a chord with me. When I showed him my blue box of index cards containing the quotations, he suggested I write the book myself rather than find someone else to do so. I was excited at the prospect of being on the other side of the author/editor relationship.
The Quotable Einstein is born
Soon after I returned from another adventure trip about a year later, this time into the Amazon Basin in northeastern Peru, the first edition of The Quotable Einstein was published. It contained four hundred quotations and their sources, arranged by topic, such as Einstein on religion, on his family, on Jews, on politics, on science and scientists, and so forth. The initial print run was modest, as there were doubts that the book would have wide appeal. The volume quickly sold out, however, and was reprinted six times. For a long time, it was at the top of PUP’s sales list, which I admired in disbelief and awe whenever one was posted on the bulletin board. Three more enlarged editions followed at approximately five-year intervals, and more than twenty-five foreign-language translations have been contracted, some in obscure languages I had never heard of. I believe these books were successful because they showed Einstein in all his guises, in his own uncensored words—a human being beyond the prevailing hagiographic and absent-minded-professor myths and falsely attributed quotations. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, containing about 1,600 documented quotations and published in 2008, was my fourth and final contribution to this series of quotation books.
Because of the success of these volumes, I was now, to my surprise, perceived as an authority. I was asked to give talks for nonacademic audiences and participate in television shows and documentaries. I was invited to the German embassy to celebrate the special relativity centennial in 2005, and sat next to the German ambassador for lunch. I had book signings. I appeared on Ira Flatow’s “Science Friday” at the NPR studio in New York, along with Dennis Overbye of the New York Times. I have to confess that I found these new challenges difficult. I felt more comfortable doing research and writing, so I agreed to write three more books for other publishers who approached me.
Now, well into retirement in California, I am back with PUP for my swan song in the Einstein genre. Having often felt the need for a concise Einstein reference guide while doing research, I had submitted to the publisher an informal proposal to write An Einstein Encyclopedia. My expertise on specialized topics relating to Einstein is limited, so two Einstein scholars with broad experience on the Einstein Papers Project, historian Robert Schulmann and physicist Dan Kennefick, fortunately agreed to join me in this project as co-authors. Our final proposal was accepted, the three of us had a productive long-distance collaboration, and, best of all, we managed to stay friends throughout the process. As our reward, we are now the proud authors of a reference book that we expect will be of use and interest to an eclectic readership.
Alice Calaprice is a renowned authority on Albert Einstein and the author of several popular books on Einstein, including The Ultimate Quotable Einstein (Princeton).
#ThanksEinstein image courtesy of the official Albert Einstein Facebook page.
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.
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.