Smolin on Einstein in The New York Review of Books

By Mark Trodden | May 27, 2007 10:15 am

My copy of The New York Review of Books just arrived, and I spent an entertaining twenty minutes reading Lee Smolin’s lengthy review of two new Einstein books (subscription required unfortunately). You can read the article for yourself and decide what you think about the content, but I was struck as always by Lee’s talent for writing itself – his words are a pleasure to read.

Perhaps what I enjoyed best about the article is Lee’s insistence that it is important for biographers and writers in general to try to understand what kind of people their subjects actually were, as opposed to buying into the public personae that they and other interested parties have created. In Einstein’s case this is particularly true. As the best-known scientist of all time, there exists an elaborate construction of what the man was like and, for most people, the image they have is of the eccentric, kindly, noble, gentle genius, detached from the tedium and minutiae of everyday life. This is the kind of image that gets in the way of understanding the complexities, subtleties, and, frankly, the most interesting details of most people’s lives. It also perpetuates a cartoonish version of scientists, as people to whom real-world concerns, passions, involvements and ambiguities are alien. As Lee writes, regarding Einstein

This possibility challenges the stereotype that scientists and mathematicians tend to be nerds, out of touch with their bodies. […] Some would prefer the myth of Stephen Hawking, who may seem to be a man with no body to speak of, in touch only with the universe (with his necessary support from a team of nurses and students hardly mentioned), than to think too much about Einstein seducing Berlin socialites in his sailboat, or Erwin Schrodinger inventing quantum mechanics during an erotic weekend with a lover and later showing up in Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize with both his wife and his mistress.

Here Lee is focused on why an honest representation of a scientist’s life is crucial to understanding his or her scientific legacy, and the insights that provides into the nature of creativity. But there is another reason to support unembellished, warts-and-all scientific biographies. This myth of the scientist as a strange, detached creature is one of the reasons that more people don’t see science as a viable career path from an early age. After all, not only is the stereotype a rather unattractive one, but it is so starkly different from the way most people (even extremely smart and creative ones) conduct themselves, that many must find it impossible to see themselves as scientists.

The more young people realize that scientists are real people – yes, ones with specific talents and skill sets, but real, three-dimensional people nevertheless – the deeper the talent pool from which the next generation of scientist will arise.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society, Words
  • Dylab

    I am just inquiring here, what kind of evidence is there (on perception of scientists). My totally non-evidence based view is that the stereotype is largely based on giants in the field and not your everyday scientist type. At least as someone is going to graduate school to get his PhD I haven’t experienced that view.

  • Mark

    Hi Dylab. The stereotype is everywhere. I’ve noticed it even among faculty members at universities in non-science disciplines. As an individual, it is pretty easy to dispel once someone gets to know you, but in general I think many people (and lots of kids in particular) hold this caricatured picture of scientists.

    One of my co-bloggers (and I can’t remember which one right now) had a post some time ago about kids touring Fermilab and being asked to draw a scientist before the tour and afterwards, and how their ideas changed. It didn’t address quite the point I was making, but a very closely related one.

  • hmmm

    If we’re being completely honest here, we will say that many physicists are regular everyday fun people…BUT…we do have a disproportionately large number of colleagues who are ‘strange detached creatures’

    Speaking of the devil…..I can remember Lee Smolin himself wondering the halls staring at the floor mumbling to himself. I’ve done this numerous times, as I’m sure most serious physicists have……’This may be the definition of strange detached creature’

  • Sean

    Here and here. People really do have these stereotypes.

  • Haelfix

    One often repeated myth about Einstein, is how detached he was from modern physics after say 1925.

    That’s not true, and he kept up and understood the work of many theorists at the time.

    His failed attempts at unified field theory were often overblown and discarded too hastily as historical artifacts. What’s not often said was that they were interesting in their own right as mathematical models and show up today in various (altered) forms.

    Even a few years before his death, he was amongst the few in the room who approved and endorsed say Feynmans work on path integrals (all the old physicists were very much in favor of Schwingers methods) at the Pocano conference.

    Also (having talked with a physicist who knew him personally) whenever you were in a room with Einstein debating something, you were instantly struck by how intellectually powerful his arguments were. This was the same man who years earlier could effortlessly find the solution to a problem that was stumping entire workgroups of physicists.

  • nigel

    Professor Smolin has written some funny things about Einstein. His description in The Trouble with Physics of how he went to the Institute for Advanced Study to meet Freeman Dyson and find out what Einstein was like, was hilarious. (Dyson himself went there to meet Einstein in the late 40s but never did meet him, because the evening before his meeting he read a lot of Einstein’s recent research papers and decided they were rubbish, and skipped the meeting to avoid an embarrassing confrontation.) In an earlier article on Einstein, Smolin writes:

    ‘Special relativity was the result of 10 years of intellectual struggle, yet Einstein had convinced himself it was wrong within two years of publishing it. He rejected his theory, even before most physicists had come to accept it, for reasons that only he cared about. For another 10 years, as the world of physics slowly absorbed special relativity, Einstein pursued a lonely path away from it.’

    – Einstein’s Legacy – Where are the “Einsteinians?”, by Lee Smolin,

    This definitely isn’t what’s required by school physics teachers and string theorists, who both emphasise that special relativity is 100% correct because it’s self-consistent and has masses of experimental evidence. Their argument is that general relativity is built on special relativity, and they ignore Einstein’s own contrary statements like

    ‘The special theory of relativity … does not extend to non-uniform motion … The laws of physics must be of such a nature that they apply to systems of reference in any kind of motion. … The general laws of nature are to be expressed by equations which hold good for all systems of co-ordinates, that is, are co-variant with respect to any substitutions whatever (generally co-variant).‘ — Albert Einstein, ‘The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity’, Annalen der Physik, v49, 1916 (italics are Einstein’s own).

    Einstein does actually admit, therefore, that special relativity is wrong as stated in his earlier paper in Ann. d. Phys., vol. 17 (1905), p. 891, where he falsely claims:

    ‘Thence [i.e., from the SR theory which takes no account of accelerations or gravitation] we conclude that a balance-clock at the equator must go more slowly, by a very small amount, than a precisely similar clock situated at one of the poles under otherwise identical conditions.’

    This is by consensus held to be the one error of special relativity, see for example

    When clocks were flown around the validate ‘relativity’ they actually validated the absolute coordinate system based general relativity (the gravitational field is the reference frame). G. Builder (1958) is an article called ‘Ether and Relativity’ in the Australian Journal of Physics, v11 (1958), p279, writes:

    ‘… we conclude that the relative retardation of clocks … does indeed compel us to recognise the causal significance of absolute velocities.’

    The famous paper on the atomic clocks being flown around the world to validate ‘relativity’ is J.C. Hafele in Science, vol. 177 (1972) pp 166-8, which cites uses ‘G. Builder (1958)’ for analysis of the atomic clock results. Hence the time-dilation validates the absolute velocities in Builder’s ether paper!

    In In 1995, physicist Professor Paul Davies – who won the Templeton Prize for religion (I think it was $1,000,000), wrote on pp. 54-57 of his book About Time:

    ‘Whenever I read dissenting views of time, I cannot help thinking of Herbert Dingle… who wrote … Relativity for All, published in 1922. He became Professor … at University College London… In his later years, Dingle began seriously to doubt Einstein’s concept … Dingle … wrote papers for journals pointing out Einstein’s errors and had them rejected … In October 1971, J.C. Hafele [used atomic clocks to defend Einstein] … You can’t get much closer to Dingle’s ‘everyday’ language than that.’

    Dingle wrote in the Introduction to his book Science at the Crossroads, Martin Brian & O’Keefe, London, 1972, c2:

    ‘… you have two exactly similar clocks … one is moving … they must work at different rates … But the [SR] theory also requires that you cannot distinguish which clock … moves. The question therefore arises … which clock works the more slowly?’

    This question really kills special relativity and makes you accept that general relativity is essential, even for clocks in uniform motion. I don’t think Dingle wrote the question very well. He should have asked clearly how anyone is supposed to determine which clock is moving, in order to calculate the time-dilation.

    If there is no absolute motion, you can’t determine which clock runs the more slowly. In chapter 2 of Science at the Crossroads, Dingle discusses Einstein’s error in calculating time-dilation with special relativity in 1905 and comments:

    ‘Applied to this example, the question is: what entitled Einstein to conclude from his theory that the equatorial, and not the polar, clock worked more slowly?’

    Einstein admitted even in popular books that wherever you have a gravitational field, velocities depend upon absolute coordinate systems:

    ‘But … the general theory of relativity cannot retain this [SR] law. On the contrary, we arrived at the result according to this latter theory, the velocity of light must always depend on the coordinates when a gravitational field is present.’ – Albert Einstein, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, Henry Holt and Co., 1920, p111.

    The real brilliance of Einstein is that he corrected his own ideas when they were too speculative (e.g. his ‘biggest blunder’, the large positive CC to cancel out gravity at the mean intergalactic distance, keeping the universe from expanding). What a contrast to string theory.

  • Not Mike Duff

    Is this the same Lee Smolin who wrote

    “How many leading theoretical physicists were once insecure, small, pimply boys who got their revenge besting the jocks (who got the girls) in the one place they could—math class?”


  • citrine

    In the effort to portray scientists (or luminaries in any field) as fallible humans, I think that we need to take into the account the socio-cultural mores of their times. In early 20th c. Europe people were much more accepting of a lot of behaviors and beliefs currently frowned upon at best – racism, patriarchal attitudes, adultery, having relationships with minors, etc. Because of this, and also because of different attitudes regarding the divide between one’s behavior in the personal and public domains, the perception of the human qualities of Einstein et al would have been different when they started gaining wider recognition.

  • Count Iblis
  • PK

    LOL! Great find, Count Iblis!

  • Yvette

    I always have fun going into pubs and telling people I study physics. I have collected a nice sample of comments ranging on the lines of “you don’t look it,” “I didn’t think people like that go out much,” and, of course, “but you’re a girl!” I suppose it’s better then the sizable fraction that starts to look funny, nods once, and disappears… I’ve always been tempted to say I was an English major once and confess to physics later, just to see what happens. :)

    Einstein’s legacy, I think, suffers from the same thing that people like the Founding Fathers suffer from: we are much too keen to make them mythical figures, and as such they are not connected to the reality of “normal” people. I find this terrible because removing the incredible fact that George Washington and Albert Einstein and all the rest were people, who had strengths and follies just like the rest of us, is really what makes them incredible. Giving them demigod status is an injustice.

  • Scott

    cool blog

  • todd.

    It’s interesting that the two examples of “what scientists are really like” involved sex. A friend of mine who was for a time interested in history & philosophy of science believes that everyone just loves to talk about famous scientists’ sex lives, and use as an excuse the idea that we’re “understanding them as people.”

  • Quasar9

    Physicists & Physicians
    Every nation highly prices nuclear physicists & nuclear power
    but even kings, presidents & senators must bow to the physician
    literally put their life in the surgeon’s hands when they go for by-pass surgery or any other ‘surgical’ treatment

    And of course physicists can talk about gravity & quantum gravity
    but the plastic surgeon who promises to reverse its effects (even if only temporarily), with a sligt of hand, gets the bird, the adulation and the dosh.

    However I think in modern times we’ve all seen those working at NASA and the cars they drive, and we know how much the ‘nerds’ at Microsoft or Apple earn. After all Bill Gates has consistently beaten the top earning ‘financiers’ from Wall St despite their pin stripe, Italian suits or shirts & ties.

    Plus most ‘industrialisists’ and ‘manufacturing’ millionaires in Germany & Japan had a good idea of what they wanted their products (applied physics) to deliver.

  • Nic

    If there are French speakers around, have a look at this portrait of Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. An interesting piece of life of a great scientist showing that a contemporary genius scientist is quite a normal guy living a busy life.

  • fh

    todd, listen to what “real” people talk about: Their jobs and their relationship/sex live. Not terribly interesting for the most part.

    To some degree I wonder what this aspiration with appearing normal is. We are far more interesting then that!

    More to the point of the thread, just yesterday I was dancing in a mosh pit that to roughly 10% consisted of people doing a PhD in mathematics/theoretical physics. I conclude that Science is Punk. Disproportionally so at least.

    Beyond that I wonder whether how stereotypes differ between say England and Germany or France. Or of course to the US. I’m curious: What are peoples experiences with that?
    Personally speaking I find that the reactions to “I study theoretical physics” I get in Germany and the UK are quite different (except for the most common: “I never understood physics in school”).

  • Mark

    Hi fh,

    The post is not about an aspiration to appear normal, it is more about the fact that the lives of most scientists are, in most aspects, similar to those of most of the population. They fall in love; they worry about what others think; they have children; they worry about their education; they make some smart choices about their lives; they make other choices that end up as disasters, sometimes in their personal lives; some like sport, some don’t; they are baudy; some have stable marriages, others divorce multiply, or have affairs, or both.

    I often think that precisely the opposite of “aspiring to be normal” is true of many academic scientists – they work hard to create the illusion of a life without the concerns of non-academics.

    The point I’m making in the post is that the idea of scientists as very different from most people in ways other than merely their scientific abilities and inclinations acts as a barrier to people entering the field. If this was what scientists were really like, then I’d say “so be it” and have no interest in us “appearing to be normal”. But I think the truth is that most scientists are quite normal in most respects, and that we are shooting ourselves in the foot by perpetuating this illusion of the ethereal geek.

    Concerning your other point; In my own experience I’ve found that the stereotypes in the UK and the US are pretty much the same.

  • fh

    I see your point. It’s not that we are fully normal, it’s that besides the super hero powers that come with the job, we are also normal. Agreed.

    Still, science is not a job like every other. Every working scientist has made choices that put acquiring knowledge over acquiring money. There are few other fields where you find people so passionate about what they do.

    I would like to think that these are the strongest and most honest selling points. To emphasize that this awesome occupation is being filled by human beings certainly can’t hurt though.

  • Michael Williams

    Robert Oppenheimer’s 1966 piece, also for NYRB, is also worth reading. On Einstein, “As always, the myth has its charms; but the truth is far more beautiful.”

  • citrine

    Re. post #15.


    One doesn’t need to understand French to see that it *is* possible to be an acclaimed Physicist who looks like a “normal” working person. De Gennes is quite the antithesis of the stereotypical poorly groomed Physicist!
    In a jacket sans those tell-tale academic elbow patches, one could easily mistake him for a lawyer or businessman.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    I’m all for realistic portrayals of scientists and everybody else, but I’m far from convinced that that would be a useful recruiting tool. Theoretical physicists are indeed members of the human race, but the fact is, the good ones spend most of their time living in their heads, thinking about things that most people don’t understand. To many people that sounds excruciatingly boring or forbidding, or both.

    Scientists who become rich or famous often indulge the luxuries and vices available to the rich and famous. Does that make them more attactive role models? Maybe.

  • B

    sure there are stereotypes around, but that’s nothing specific to theoretical physicists, one finds it in many other fields as well. Psychologists analyze you all the time, people in advertisement drive flashy cabriolets, models have eating disorders, car salesmen are liars, politicians are cheaters, doctors of medicine are the gods in white, nurses are their angles, and all artists take drugs. OF COURSE the only thing relevant about my life is sex and science. To bad Einstein died before I was born.

  • Maynard Handley

    The Schrodinger example is well known (as is that of Einstein).
    Less well known than they deserve to be are that Schrodinger’s wife at the time was having an affair with Weyl and, my favorite example, that Max Born is Olivia Newton John’s grandfather.

    On the other hand there is probably a reason these cases are rare.
    Robert Lucky liked to repeat an anecdote that had him bumping into a hooker at Las Vegas who bemoaned whenever there was an engineering convention in town because they generated so much less business than other conventions. I suspect the hooker take from the annual APS convention is even more meager.

  • agm

    Ok, I just don’t feel like wading through the comments. But it’s worth noting that people have all sorts of outside interests. For example, Paul Kwiat is an avid swing dancer

  • agm

    And Jeff Drucker is a rock hound. Plus, there’s always Clifford’s photos…

  • Yvette

    As long as we’re bringing up examples of physicists who went off to do other things let’s not forget Brian May, who is to my knowledge the only physicist who has gone platinum. :) And there was a reason Bill Amend kept putting geek references into Foxtrot

  • fh

    Re #23:

    Conflicting anecdotes:

    “Flirt harder, I’m a physicist” (APS – Best Slogan contest)

    then again:

    “Physics is like sex, sure it might produce practical results sometimes, but that’s not why we do it.” (Feynman)
    “Love is a matter of chemistry, sex is a matter of physics.”

    Legend has it that Brown came up with his motion idea at a crowded Party and Pauli thought of his exclusion principle while watching the dancers in a Paris Nightclub.

    Apparently physicists truly only ever think of one thing:

    There is no escape:

  • Belizean

    I wouldn’t worry too much about unflattering stereotypes of physicists reducing the talent pool. Any young person deterred from entering physics for this reason is of exceedingly limited perspicacity and therefore unlikely to be talented in physics, where perceiving the truth of things is the name of the game. Any young person whose repulsion from physics based of such stereotypes exceeds her attraction based on the nature of the subject isn’t much interested in physics.

    If you want to create more interest in physics as a career choice among people are aren’t particularly interested in physics, you must connect it to the things that most people are interested in: money, power, and sex. Because of a perceived connection between these things and the legal profession, law schools have a surplus of applicants despite lawyers being generally regarded as lying scum.

  • TBB

    BTW, Mark, you are correct, that was a good review; interesting, lengthy, and written well. It makes me want to read all those Einstein books. (As if I don’t have 20 zillion other books to read!)

  • CapitalistImperialistPig


    Anyone who goes into physics for money or power is not likely to be bright enough for physics. And last time I checked, “I am a physicist” was roughly as effective a pick-up line as “I live with my mother,” though marginally more effective than “I’m on parole on child pornography charges” and clearly less effective than “I’m an escaped axe murderer.”

    The situation for women may be slightly different. As a female undergrad at Caltech wrote: “for a woman here, the odds are good but the goods are odd.”

  • Alex Nichols

    “As long as we’re bringing up examples of physicists who went off to do other things let’s not forget Brian May, who is to my knowledge the only physicist who has gone platinum.”

    ..and is currently finishing the PhD dissertation on Interplanetary Dust he interrupted 35 years ago, after he joined Queen.

    See Bri’s Soapbox

  • adam

    Actually, CIP, I have found that being a physicist always worked pretty well with the laydeez. Back when I was single, mind. Maybe it was my steely gaze, handsome face and witty repartee at work*.

    *Not likely, for almost all meanings of ‘not’.

  • John Farrell

    A nice little touch about Einstein that I discovered while researching my book on Lemaitre: when Lemaitre met him in the early 30s to discuss his GR model, Einstein’s wife had put a strict daily limit on how much tobacco he could smoke in his pipe; so Einstein would bum cigarettes off Lemaitre during their walks outside, open them and stuff the tobacco into his pipe.

    Again, very human, but not the kind of thing you’ll learn in standard bios.

  • CapitalistImperialistPig

    Oppenheimer on Einstein should not be missed.

  • Belizean

    CapitalistImperialistPig wrote:

    Anyone who goes into physics for money or power is not likely to be bright enough for physics.

    Dear CIP,

    That’s exactly my point. Physics is not currently linked to money and power. If it were somehow linked by, say, a crazy new law setting the minimum wage for physicists to be $400,000/year, being a physicist would suddenly become a cool thing to be.

  • Arun

    When I learned more about a missing daughter of Maric and Einstein, and Einstein’s late life affair in Princeton, I lost much sympathy for the man as any kind of human being to emulate. Einstein should be remembered for his scientific works and not for much else.

  • http://None Roger Brewis

    There are significant other problems with the Einstein myth than those you cite. For example, he is commonly referred to as an outstanding mathematical physicist, yet there is only one piece of evidence for this (the 1916 paper of GTR) and lots of evidence refuting it, including the comments of Minkowski and Einstein himself.
    There is also the problem that his claim not to have known of the Michelson -Morley result, or to have read other important papers, is simply not credible. Einstein wrote a total of 26 articles and letters for Annalen der Physik in 1905 alone, the majority designated as reviews of the physics literature. Biographers agree that he was passionately interested in esoteric physics. Reading round the subject is a key part of the job of a patent office, and this appears to be what attracted Einstein to it.
    Einstein is credited with E=mc squared, clock synchronisation and other elements that were well known for several years before 1905.
    Recently a BBC television programme, ‘Eddington and Einstein’, has clarifed his character, but muddied other aspects, by showing Einstein calculating the advance of perihelion himself, and apprently before 1916 GTR.
    I could go on.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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