Thursday, 6 January 2005

100 years of Einstein

George Will has a good column on the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s publication of his articles that changed physics (and the world):

Einstein’s theism, such as it was, was his faith that God does not play dice with the universe—that there are elegant, eventually discoverable laws, not randomness, at work. Saying “I’m not an atheist,” he explained:

“We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is.”

Seems like a pretty good way of looking at the universe.The Economist has a more in-depth treatment of the subject (I believe it's a free link):
For this reason, physicists postulated the existence of the aether—a substance, otherwise undetectable, through which light travelled. But if the Earth was orbiting the sun, and so moving through space, it must be moving through the aether, too. Measure the speed of light in the direction of the Earth's motion, and perpendicular to it, and you would get different answers, the line of reasoning went. This is what Michelson and Morley did. But they found that the two speeds were, in fact, precisely the same.

The experiment was explained by Henrich Lorentz, a Dutch physicist, who came up with the mathematics required for the answer—that there was a contraction in the direction of the Earth’s movement, just enough to make the two speeds seem the same. Lorentz could not explain how this contraction occurred, though. He speculated that perhaps forces were at work inside molecules, which were, at the time, still hypothetical entities.

What Einstein realised, without adding any new mathematics, but in a profoundly new way nonetheless, was that there was no seem about it. Space really was contracting, and time was slowing down. It is just this that Pais was referring to when he said that Einstein was good at picking invariance principles. Everyone had thought that time was invariant. It is not. No one thought the speed of light was. It is.



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What a lovely metaphor – it really catches hold of the imagination. That one will stay with me for a long time.

Thank you – you manage to find the most wonderful things.


I don’t recall reading Einstein’s “I’m not an atheist”, but I’ve read a number of his assertions of disbelief in a personal god, too. If he wasn’t an atheist, he most assuredly wasn’t a theist, either. At best, maybe he was a pantheist.



He could have been a deist also. Based on a quick search of the net, pantheists are naturalists of some sort, seeing the earth as sacred and the cosmos as divine. Not sure what that means, but it could apply as well.


I’d classify Einstein as “at best” a pantheist based on his famous comment, “I believe in Spinoza’s God…” (see linked page for the the complete quote and the source citation), and I tend to agree with those who classify Spinoza as a pantheist (see, e.g., here).

Pantheism is basically the view that God and the universe are identical:

Pantheism, literally, means “God is All” and “All is God”. It is the view that everything is of an all-encompassing immanent God; or that the universe, or nature, and God are equivalent

Pantheism could be either naturalistic or supernaturalistic depending on the pantheist’s belief concerning the nature of the relation between God and the universe. If one categorizes Einstein as a pantheist, it’s clear that he’s a naturalistic one (FWIW, many Spinoza scholars classify him as a naturalistic pantheist, too.)

Deism tends towards the view that God is a separate entity from the universe, but is in “agreement” with pantheism in the sense that in both views God is not an entity that intercedes in events in the universe or in any way concerns itself with human beings and activities.

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