On His 135th Birthday, Einstein is Still Full of Surprises

By Corey S. Powell | March 14, 2014 1:31 pm

Update: The breathtaking announcement that cosmologists may have found the gravitational fingerprint of the Big Bang adds a lot of support to the theory that the universe began with a runaway phase of expansion known as “inflation.” That theory builds on the idea that empty space is full of intense energy fields–an idea that in turn traces its roots back to a factor that Einstein called Lambda in his pioneering cosmological explorations from a century ago. It is one more illustration of Isaac Newton’s famous quote about standing “on the shoulders of giants.”

You would think by now we would have exhausted the mysteries of Albert Einstein. As perhaps the most famous scientist in history, nearly every idea he expressed and every thing he did has been studied, commented on, written about. Yet on his 135th birthday (born March 14, 1879) there are still new details coming out–details that offer insight both into the workings of Einstein’s mind, and into the biggest mysteries of the cosmos.

Albert Einstein in 1921, caught (as usual) in mid-thought. (Credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer)

Albert Einstein in 1921, caught (as usual) in mid-thought. (Credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer)

One big Einstein shocker was unearthed recently by Irish cosmologist Cormac O’Rafferty while digging through the Einstein Archives at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he found a completely overlooked manuscript–undated, but probably from 1931–that showed Einstein trying to create a model of the universe that satisfied both his scientific insights and his philosophical inclinations. The manuscript, entitled “About the Cosmological Problem,” envisioned a universe that expands but that (through a clever trick of physics) never really changes.

In 1917, Einstein made his first attempt at constructing a physical model of the universe. Actually, I should say that he made the first ever attempt at building a physical model of the universe; nobody before had the mathematical or conceptual tools to venture there. Einstein had just published his General Theory of Relativity, and wanted to see what would happen if he applied his new ideas about space and time to the cosmos as a whole.

He soon realized that his equations naturally predicted either an expanding or contracting universe, contrary to both to the astronomical understanding of the time and to his preferred view of the order of nature. So Einstein added an extra factor, which he called Lambda, that would counteract gravity and allow the whole system to stay beautifully in balance. Then in 1929, Edwin Hubble uncovered evidence that the universe is, in fact, expanding, and Einstein quickly abandoned Lambda.

This part of the story is well known. It just turns out to be wrong.

The Unknown Einstein

O’Rafferty discovered that, 14 years after his first cosmological paper, Einstein was still experimenting with Lambda and still trying to figure out how the universe could remain in some kind of perfect balance. Amir Aczel gives some excellent background to the story in his recent blog post.

Why Einstein thought that the universe should be in balance is significant. In keeping with his overall principle of relativity–that nature looks the same to all observers–Einstein believed in the “cosmological principle”: that the universe is homogeneous, overall, so that it appears the same from any location in space. But he was also drawn to a deeper version, the “perfect cosmological principle,” which holds that the universe should also look the same from any location in time. Obviously that cannot happen in an expanding universe…or can it?

How Einstein tried to solve the problem is also really interesting. He imagined that, as space expands, new matter appears out of nowhere to fill the new empty space. The two processes balance out, so that the average density of the cosmos never changes. The well known Steady State model of cosmology, proposed in 1949, is very similar to Einstein’s abandoned (and never-published) theory. Not until the 1960s, when the evidence for the Big Bang and the finite age of the universe became truly persuasive, was the Steady State model discredited.

Say, did you notice that I mentioned Einstein’s idea of matter appearing out of nowhere? That seems to contradict conservation of mass, doesn’t it? Yes, but remember that our modern understanding of dark energy is equally paradoxical. As space expands, it creates more energy, which causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate. Energy from nothing.

Since mass and energy are equivalent, the current accepted reality is no stranger than Einstein’s model. The answer may lie in a deeper understanding of the energy fields that permeate seemingly empty space (or, from a different perspective, in the relationship between the actual and potential energy of the cosmos).

Yesterday and Today

All of this is old history, except that it isn’t. It has important new lessons about how Einstein’s mind worked, and about how he can help guide the greatest thinkers of today.

In the familiar Einstein biographies, many writers claim that he called the creation of Lambda his “biggest blunder.” Recently, astrophysicist Mario Livio showed that Einstein probably never said that. The newfound cosmology manuscript backs up Livio’s argument. (See also my book, God in the Equation.) Far from disowning Lambda, Einstein kept experimenting with it.

Lambda can be interpreted as an energy field in space. Today it is regarded as an early formulation of dark energy, the enigmatic force causing the expansion of the universe to speed up. But Einstein showed that it could be interpreted as a matter-creation field as well.

The Einstein manuscript demonstrates how the great master, then in his 50s, kept asking questions and kept trying to go farther. It also exposes the limits of his abilities. Einstein’s true blunder was not invoking Lambda. His blunder was not going far enough in following his own instinct to question everything.

If Einstein had trusted fully in the equations of General Relativity, he could have seen that his theory predicted an expanding universe (even with Lambda) way back in 1917, a full decade before the first observational evidence. Later, he could have seen that Lambda also allowed for the possibility of an accelerating universe, six decades before astronomers confirmed that.

The same story turns up in many other places as well. Einstein could not embrace the full weirdness of the quantum theory that he helped create. He could not believe in the physical reality of black holes, even though the idea emerges directly from General Relativity.

None of this is to belittle Einstein. Very much the opposite: The wide array of scientific concepts he launched are testimony to his prodigious ability to ask fundamental questions and follow them to their logical conclusions. It would do us all well to be so curious, so searching, so relentless. But even Einstein had his limits. Even he could not always transcend his doubts and preconceptions.

It’s good for us to keep that in mind on Einstein’s 135th birthday. We are only human and, like Einstein, will all have our blind paths and failures of nerve. What we can do in response is the same thing he did: Stay open to new ideas. Seek out deeper explanations. And go as far as your imagination will take you.

Follow me on Twitter: @coreyspowell

  • technoboi10

    Poor, forgotten Fred Hoyle, whose formulation of the steady state universe and continuous creation of matter was ridiculed and belittled by fellow cosmologists. Now we see how similar his ideas and Einstein’s were.

    • coreyspowell

      During the 1950s the Steady State cosmology of Hoyle, Gold, and Bondi was a valid and much-discussed alternative to the Big Bang — and it was Hoyle, in fact, who coined the term Big Bang as a somewhat derisive term for his rival theory.

      During the 1960s, the observational evidence turned strongly against the Steady State but some proponents kept trying to adjust it to make it fit. That is when the theory’s reputation began to suffer.

      It is a shame that most people today remember the Steady State (if they remember it at all) as a desperate, failed alternative to the Big Bang. The science behind it was fascinating and, for a while, seemed perfectly plausible.

      • GregR

        Hoyle still gets great credit for discovering and articulating nuclear synthesis, and thus explaining how the sun works and how where virtually everything comes from. Not too shabby that.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

    Light in reality is an emanation of energy through space, its nature is to expand spherically yet is effected by other fields and its own reversing which is where the action is. when light is directed at a flat plane it either passes thru it in a circular pattern or is redirected back into its own emanation. When it is reflected it takes the form of fluid tubes becoming spherical with distance. The mystery of the dual-slit experiment is only this while the leading edge makes it thru the slit the remaining light is redirected and expands as it can, leaving a bell shaped void behind the center entry point where the redirected emanation expands more freely to.The leading edge of the redirected emanation surrounding the void accelerates rapidly enough and is deflected enough by the passing light that the geometry of space hyper extends which causes the immediate area to condense thus becoming a particle which is immediately displaced by the emanating energy from the source and assumes its velocity. The fluid nature of this only gives rise to the phenomenon randomly. Once it is a particle it becomes subject to other forces especially gravitational fields which deflect the path of the particle to the sensor. This could easily be proven true by changing the geometry of the flat plane to one of a parabolic cone and placing the slits on the leading edge of it and if the reversing emanation has sufficient space to expand no particle will form. Interesting things occur as you change the shape of the plane and that of the holes the light passes thru as well.

    • cre8iveman@aol.com

      A laser does not expand spherically through space.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

        Because it is directed. Its acts as a tube that would eventually become spherically With sufficient distance besides the leading edge is convex. If you directed a laser thru a nanotube with sufficient elasticity and length you could measure the expansion rate.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Longmire

        You can also see a laser beam, of course the current explanation is that it is diffracted, which some of it is but in a vacuum one could always detect energy parallel to the laser, proving it is emanating energy.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Barham Jamal

    one of the great scientific essays ,beside the others, i have ever read it…Bravo for the essay writer and great master Einstein …

  • John Paily

    Einstein was right when he searched for anti-gravity and spoke of need to replace constants of equations with ratio. But failed to observe nature and include life and our role in it. Had he blown the spider in place globe and put himself in its place, he would have discovered the root of anti-gravity and human ego that is shrinking the world to collapsing point.


  • deepak gupta

    What is most important criteria for discover or invention?

  • Thony Christie

    “Then in 1929, Edwin Hubble uncovered evidence that the universe is, in fact, expanding…”

    Hubble wasn’t the discoverer. Georges Lemaître published the so-called Hubble’s Law in 1927 two years before Hubble. It’s not my period but I do know there is a hot debate going on amongst historians of twentieth century astronomy that Lemaître was not even the first, I’m not sure if the jury is in yet.

    What Hubble did was to provide the best and most accurate evidence for the red shift. Especially interesting in this context is the fact that Hubble rejected the expanding universe hypothesis and insisted that there must be another explanation for the observed red shift.

    • coreyspowell

      There is an interesting discussion of the controversy (and Mario Livio’s role in investigating it) here:


      The story is complicated. Lemaitre did not pursue credit for the discovery. As you note, Hubble never fully embraced the idea that his redshift law proved the expansion of the universe. Both Hubble and Lemaitre made use of earlier data from an impressive and chronically overlooked observer, Vesto Slipher.

      The deeper you dig into history, the richer it becomes!

      • Thony Christie

        I knew that Slipher’s name is at the centre of the current discussion but wasn’t sure what exactly his role in the story is.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Amir D Aczel

    Hi Corey,
    Great article! And thanks for the reference to my blog post on Einstein and Cormac’s paper. And you raise a very interesting issue. Maybe Mario Livio is right about Einstein never saying “My greatest blunder,” although Einstein had many friends with whom he discussed his work: Ehrenfest, Lorentz, Frank, Planck,…hundreds of people, mostly scientists, but also his mother, for example. It’s really hard to know what he said more than 80 years ago, even if one looks at all his WRITTEN papers in Jerusalem (and there are over 50,000 of them–did Livio really see all of them? And I wonder if he would know the word “blunder” in German: there are a few synonyms; would he be able to scan 50,000 papers for these words, in Einstein’s peculiar and not very intelligible handwriting in German?). If I had to bet, I would probably bet that Einstein didn’t say it, just knowing his style–he was never good at self-deprecation. But I think that maybe he did make the statement: “…then away with the cosmological term!”–and that’s what’s important to me here. The term “greatest blunder” was brought to wide attention in 1995 through Donald Goldsmith’s superb book on this topic, “Einstein’s Greatest Blunder?” (Harvard University Press, 1995), which made much of the cosmological constant 3 years BEFORE it became so relevant through the 1998 discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe! Your article did incite my curiosity about “greatest blunder,” however, and I’ll ask John Stachel at Boston University, who would probably know more than most people, having spent a career studying everything knowable about Einstein. So, in the meantime, Happy Einstein’s birthday to all of us! And thanks again for a wonderful piece.
    All best,

    • coreyspowell

      Thank you for this additional information. Mario Livio spells out his argument in detail in his new book, but you can find a very nice summary by Rebecca Rosen here:


      Clearly Einstein did eventually abandon Lambda. But it is strange that the “blunder” statement–typically put in quotes and attributed directly to Einstein himself–appears only in a paper and book by George Gamow.

      The realization that Einstein was still experimenting with the theoretical implications of Lambda in 1931 or so casts even further doubt on Gamow’s version of the story.

  • marija markovic

    I would ask of him the parallel time tracks.They really exist?

  • http://www.facebook.com/howtogetmylifeback Stephen Jones

    Thanks Corey – every time I read another article about Einstein, it reminds me of college, and the intrigue and fascination that enveloped me during the lectures in Physics 195, 196, 197 – one of those we (all 50 students) vigorously wrote notes on the mathematical proof of E=mC^2 – and the subsequent epiphany I felt when I really understood it’s true meaning. A genuine monumental turning point in human evolution and ingenuity, was the understanding of relativity and quantum mechanics. I don’t get those tingles on my spine any longer, 40-plus years later, but the meaning and significance is even clearer.
    Always ask the questions – might that be the meaning of our lives?

  • Chad Helm

    Who does this Writer think he is? Why is he talking about “Einsteins Limits” and “Einsteins Blunders”. This guy is an ARTICLE WRITER, and an Average and Pretentious one at that. “Follow me on Twitter”…for WHAT?

  • seescaper

    I have a perfect analogy: As our national debt expands, new money appears out of nowhere to keep our economy from collapsing. Maybe God runs the universal FED…

  • AlSetalokin
  • bugler1

    Einstein theories have been already debunked as junk.
    But an stablished lie is very difficult to kill.
    Let’s hope sooner than later science is corrected cause right now is full of garbage.

    • GregR

      You know, if you’re going to assert something that virtually NO ONE believes, it behooves you to offer some citations, history, and independent testimony to even begin to expect your supercilious
      replies to have even a semblance of credibility.

  • CarbonFooledYa

    The red shift is only “evidence” for an expanding universe if the Doppler Effect interpretation is considered settled science. There are quasars that do not show an adequate amount of red shift despite a large distance. The red shift could be due to light relaxation with distance. Best to stay open minded, and to not misinterpret theory as “evidence”.

    • coreyspowell

      For those who are curious, cosmologist Ned Wright has a fabulous FAQ about the evidence behind the current understanding of the universe (there is much, much more than red shifts!):


      • CarbonFooledYa

        The main reason for the Big Bang is that the only presently accepted celestial scale force, Newton’s gravity, is only attractive. With acceptance of attractive and repulsive forces, e.g. electrical and magnetic forces, the door is opened to explaining the stability of galaxies and the universe without the need for expansion.

        Olber’s Paradox is not yet resolved — it’s another non-proof for the Big Bang. We must stay open minded until we know.

    • Yank

      Bravo! Ever play with a laser pointer and a cat? What if…just what if….there is a Supreme Being…..playing with us! Just for laughs!

      • CarbonFooledYa

        Heh, occasionally wonder if aliens are keeping us isolated as some kind of sick experiment. Like Cartman in South Park and his “sea ciety” of little intelligent creatures that build a civilization.

  • redtroika

    Einstein worked in a patent office. Maybe long enough to plagiarize documents that he would have reviewed. http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/esp_einstein.htm
    This could explain why he always appeared as some bumbling fool and could never elaborate on his theories???

  • Pat Bradshaw

    Great article. The last paragraph is my manta. Thank you for the informative article.

  • CarolynKay1

    What if the expansion is happening at the tiniest levels, driving the cosmic level expansion? That would mean that no matter or energy has to be created, and yet the relationships would remain the same, despite the expansion.


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About Corey S. Powell

Corey S. Powell is DISCOVER's Editor at Large and former Editor in Chief. Previously he has sat on the board of editors of Scientific American, taught science journalism at NYU, and been fired from NASA. Corey is the author of "20 Ways the World Could End," one of the first doomsday manuals, and "God in the Equation," an examination of the spiritual impulse in modern cosmology. He lives in Brooklyn, under nearly starless skies.


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