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APPROACHING EINSTEIN: THE WONDER OF NATURE
SCIENCE RARELY MAKES the headlines in British news- papers. But in 1919, a year after the end of the Great War, that changed decisively. On Friday, November 7, the London Times printed a headline above a report on a dramatic new development: "Revolution in Science. New Theory of the Universe. Newtonian Ideas Overthrown." Like much scientific journalism, this headline was sensationalist, suggesting that, just as in the then-recent political and social revolutions in China in 1911 and Russia in 1917, an old order had been swept away. Sir Isaac Newton — widely regarded as the greatest British scientist — had been dethroned, his ideas now discredited, lying in tatters. And who was the cause of this revolution in science? An obscure German physicist, hitherto unknown to the readership of the Times — Albert Einstein.
The Times headline propelled Einstein to international celebrity. It was an extraordinary moment. Britain and Germany had only just emerged from the most destructive and traumatic total war yet known, which had created distrust and hatred between the two nations on an unprecedented scale. Yet almost exactly one year after the end of the First World War, Britain's scientific elite had embraced Einstein, a German national and former enemy, in the common human search for an understanding of our universe. It seemed to be a symbol of hope in the bleak postwar era. Might international scientific cooperation hold the key to new understandings of our world and ourselves? Einstein found himself propelled into the limelight. A disillusioned and restless postwar generation seized on him as someone who could finally make sense of our perplexing world and our place within it.
By the early 1920s, Einstein had become a cult figure, an international icon of genius, helped to no small extent by the award of the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics — and perhaps also by his distinctive appearance. Einstein made fuzzy hair a hallmark of intelligence. (At a Hollywood dinner party in the winter of 1931–32, the movie actress Marion Davies ruffled Einstein's notoriously unruly hair and quipped, "Why don't you get your hair cut?") And everyone knew the equation E = mc2, even if they didn't quite grasp what it meant. Einstein became hugely popular with the American press corps and gained an avid — and growing — popular readership. In 1930, security staff at New York's American Museum of Natural History had to deal with a near riot when four thousand people tried to see a film offering to "demystify" Einstein's ideas. In 1929, Sir Arthur Eddington — who was instrumental in confirming Einstein's theory of general relativity a decade earlier — gleefully wrote to Einstein, telling him that one of London's busiest shopping streets had been brought to a near standstill. Why? Because Selfridges, London's most prestigious department store, had displayed the text of one of Einstein's recent scientific papers in its windows, and Oxford Street was jampacked with people trying to read it. Eddington himself went on to write what remains one of the most perceptive explanations of relativity, offering a clear and reliable account of the scientific significance of these radical new ideas.
Einstein's influence continues to this day. In 2016, a team of scientists reported they had recorded two black holes colliding. This sound of a "fleeting chirp" from over a billion light-years away fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Everything points to Einstein's scientific theories being here to stay and profoundly affecting the thinking of the next generation.
But beyond his scientific discoveries, what I have come to find really interesting is Einstein's spiritual significance. I write this book as someone who both encountered Einstein's ideas and discovered the intellectual and spiritual riches of the Christian faith at Oxford University. Although I will be aiming to give as reliable and accessible an account of Einstein's views on science as possible, I will also explore his ideas on religion and how he weaves these together. Yet perhaps more importantly, from my own personal perspective, I will also consider how his approach can be used by someone who, like me, wants to hold science and faith together, respecting their distinct identities yet finding a way of allowing them to enrich each other. My views are not the same as Einstein's, yet he has been an important influence in helping me navigate my way towards what I consider a workable and meaningful account of how this strange universe works and what it — and we — might mean. Einstein opens the way to trying to develop a theory of everything that matters.
I fell in love with science at about the age of ten. My great-uncle, who was head of pathology at one of Ireland's leading teaching hospitals, gave me his old brass microscope when he retired. It turned out to be the gateway to a new world. I happily explored the small plants and cells I found in pond water through its lens. Then, having read some books about astronomy, I built myself a little telescope. On a cold, crisp winter's evening long ago, I turned it to look at the Milky Way and was overwhelmed by the number of stars I could now see. I was hooked and developed a love of nature that remains with me to this day. Einstein spoke of a sense of "rapturous amazement" at the beauty of nature. I had not read Einstein at that stage, but I would have recognized what he was talking about immediately.
My first encounter with Einstein's scientific ideas dates from about 1966. In my enthusiasm to study science, I eagerly tried to absorb scientific works that I now realize were far too advanced for me. At the age of thirteen I plucked up the courage to ask one of my teachers to explain Einstein's theory of relativity to me. He loaned me one of his books to read. As I tried to take in Einstein's thought experiment about riding beams of light — to which we shall return later — I found myself struggling to grasp the points he was making. I realized that my mind needed to expand before I could make sense of Einstein. My problem as a thirteen-year-old was that I ended up reducing reality to what I could then cope with.
Happily, I was able to study Einstein in greater depth when I went to Oxford University in 1971 to study chemistry. The Oxford chemistry curriculum required students to specialize in one of a number of advanced subjects in our first year. I decided to focus on quantum theory, a field in which Einstein had made groundbreaking theoretical contributions while also asking some awkward questions. It was intellectually exhilarating. The lectures and seminars I attended opened my eyes to new ways of seeing our world. My research interests subsequently shifted to the biological sciences (my first Oxford doctorate was in molecular biophysics), yet I never lost interest in Einstein, whom I gradually came to see as a scientist whose interests extended beyond the natural sciences to embrace the fields of ethics, politics, and religion. As we shall see, Einstein is a role model for anyone trying to develop a "big picture" of reality that holds together multiple aspects of meaningful human existence.
Although I had no interest in religion as a younger person, seeing the natural sciences as the enemies of what I regarded as irrational superstition, I reconsidered this position during my first year at Oxford. I was aware that science had a wonderful capacity to explain the complexity of our universe — something Einstein explored in a series of groundbreaking scientific articles published during his annus mirabilis ("wonderful year") of 1905, to which we shall return later. Yet although I was thrilled at science's capacity to explain how things worked, it did not seem to be able to address deeper human longings and questions about meaning and purpose.
Many philosophers have explored this important point. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, spoke of "ultimate questions" dealing with value and meaning. These are important questions, affecting the lives of most human beings. Yet science cannot, by using its legitimate methods, provide answers to them. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset puts his finger on the issue neatly: "Scientific truth is exact, but it is incomplete." If we want to have a "big picture" of life, we are going to have to find some way of bringing together — and holding together — questions about how things work and what they mean.
Science has an important role to play in helping each of us construct our personal "big picture" or worldview. It can fill in part of that picture — but only part. As Einstein himself made clear, the sciences have their limits. They are not equipped to answer questions of value or meaning, and they are not meant to. If we are to make sense of our complex world, we need to use several ways of depicting it to help us appreciate its various aspects or components. Taken on their own, these aspects are like brushstrokes on a canvas. Yet when they are put together, they disclose a picture.
As a teenager, I assumed that my love for science required me to be an atheist. After all, science and religion were meant to be at war with each other — at least, according to the popular atheist tracts I had read. Yet it soon became clear to me that my teenage atheism was not adequately grounded in the evidence. It was a mere opinion on my part, which I had mistakenly assumed was a necessary outcome of reason and science. There were other options available. If I might borrow some words from the novelist Salman Rushdie, I discovered that "the idea of God" is both "a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence."
Yet perhaps more importantly, I began to realize that Christianity, which I had dismissed as an outdated moral system with at best tenuous intellectual foundations, offered a way of seeing things — a "big picture" — that seemed to bring everything into a gratifyingly sharp focus. In developing my personal understanding of how science and faith could be held together in a productive and constructive manner, I found myself drawn to the approach of Charles A. Coulson, Oxford University's first professor of theoretical chemistry, who saw science and religious faith as offering complementary perspectives on our world. Coulson set out what I found to be a deeply satisfying vision of reality that offered insights into the scientific process and its successes. At the same time he proposed a greater vision that allowed engagement with questions that were raised by science yet which lay beyond its capacity to answer.
I was interested to note that Coulson regularly cited Einstein in his exploration of the relation of science and faith. It was easy to see what Coulson had found in Einstein — a serious, reflective, and generous thinker, who sought to hold together what the philosopher John Dewey described as our "thoughts about the world" and our thoughts about "value and purpose." Although my work at Oxford had focused on Einstein and quantum theory, it was not difficult to extend it to his other ideas. It is understandable that so many have focused on Einstein's scientific works. Yet Einstein was a remarkable human being, who tried to hold together his science, ethics, and religion in a coherent and meaningful way.
This book aims to explore these multiple aspects of Einstein's life and reflect on how he integrated them into a whole — a theory of everything that really matters. Einstein was an outstanding scientist who epitomized genius. Yet he was also a reflective human being who found himself caught up in the rise of Nazism in Germany and dragged into political and social debates that were not of his own making and not to his liking. The rise of Nazism seems to have caused Einstein to give careful thought to deeper issues of human meaning and values, which he believed might well be enriched by science but were nevertheless not disclosed or established by science.
As we shall see, one of Einstein's core ideas is that science is able to engage only part of our world. Physics is able to achieve a precise and accurate account of some aspects of our universe. Yet so much that is important cannot be expressed or formulated in this way. "How small a part of nature can thus be comprehended and expressed in an exact formulation, while all that is subtle and complex has to be excluded." So much of what really matters to human beings seems to lie beyond the scope of the scientific method.
In this short work, I try to give a reliable account of both Einstein's scientific breakthroughs and his wider quest for a unified theory of everything. I do my best to explain his scientific breakthroughs as simply as possible, while referring readers to more advanced studies if they wish to consider these ideas further. Some readers may be surprised to find Einstein's religious views taken seriously, not least because they are so often dismissed and misunderstood. Yet they were an integral aspect of Einstein's identity, and he repeatedly emphasized the importance of holding science and religion together. Whether we agree with Einstein or not on these matters, he merits a respectful hearing on these points. Not only is he interesting; he also helps us work out how we can develop our own frameworks of meaning.
Einstein was a complex and nuanced thinker, making him vulnerable to ideologues who want to shoehorn his ideas into their own ways of thinking. Perhaps the most ridiculous of these distortions is the suggestion that Einstein's theory of relativity provides scientific justification for rejecting moral absolutes and adopting relativism. Sadly, this remains an influential — yet quite mistaken — interpretation of Einstein. Many novelists of the 1920s mistakenly saw Einstein as confirming their moral relativism and weird ideas about time travel. Virginia Woolf, a leading member of London's smart Bloomsbury Group, concluded that, if Einstein was right, "we shall be able to foretell our own lives."
Yet these popular misunderstandings of Einstein must not Be allowed to prejudice his scientific achievement, nor do they invalidate informed attempts to open up deeper questions of meaning and value through engaging with him. Let's be clear about this from the outset: Einstein's theory of relativity does not endorse relativism but affirms a regular universe governed by laws. "My God created laws.... His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws." In a letter of 1921, noting some cultural misunderstandings of the scientific term relativity, Einstein suggested his approach was better described as a "Theory of Invariance" rather than a "Theory of Relativity." We'll come back to this point later.
Einstein has also been conscripted by some propagandists as a mascot for their scientific atheism. Richard Dawkins's populist manifesto The God Delusion (2006) presents Einstein as a closet atheist who was "repeatedly indignant at the suggestion he was a theist." Dawkins does not substantiate this incorrect assertion, offering instead a rather selective reading of some quotes from Einstein drawn from a secondary source. What really annoyed Einstein, according to his own writings — which merit reading in their totality, rather than in selective snippets — was the repeated suggestion that he was an atheist, or being quoted by certain kinds of atheist writers as if he shared their views, particularly those he termed "fanatical atheists" with a "grudge against" traditional religion.
It is easy to see how a hasty or superficial reading of Einstein — or an unwise dependence on secondary sources about Einstein — could lead someone to the view that he was an atheist. Einstein made it clear that he did not believe in a "personal God." Atheist apologists regularly interpret this to mean that he did not believe in God at all, overlooking Einstein's statements to the contrary. As Max Jammer, a personal friend of Einstein and professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, points out in the most thorough and reliable examination of Einstein's religious views to date, Einstein "never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God" and was puzzled why anyone would even make this suggestion. Einstein's ideas about God and religion don't fit our regular categories, and we need to listen to what he himself had to say about them, rather than forcing him into predetermined categories through selective quotation.
Yet before we begin to look at Einstein's careful calibration of the relation of science and religious faith, we need to consider his scientific theories and the difference that they have made to the way in which we — or at least, those in the know — think about our world. Since Einstein is so often said to have "overthrown" the views of Isaac Newton, it makes sense to begin our assessment of Einstein's significance by considering Newton's approach — often, though not entirely accurately, described as a "mechanical universe."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Theory of Everything (That Matters)"
Copyright © 2019 Alister McGrath.
Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContentsIntroduction: Albert Einstein: The World’s Favorite GeniusChapter 1 Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of NaturePart 1 A Revolution in ScienceChapter 2 The Old World: Newton’s Clockwork UniverseChapter 3 A Scientific Revolutionary: Einstein’s Four Papers of 1905Chapter 4 The Theory of General Relativity: Final Formulation and ConfirmationPart 2 A Theory of Everything (That Matters)Chapter 5 Einstein and the Bigger Picture: Weaving Things TogetherChapter 6 A “Firm Belief in a Superior Mind”: Einstein on ReligionChapter 7 God and a Scientific Universe: Towards a Christian Reading of EinsteinNotesWorks ConsultedAbout the Author