Einstein: Brilliant Skeptic

by | November 19, 2019

By James Haught

James Haught is editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He is 87-years-old and would like to help secular causes more. This series is a way of giving back.

Everyone, everywhere knows of Albert Einstein as a worldwide symbol of scientific genius. Most remember that his famed 1905 equation, E=MC2 – showing that a small amount of matter can be transformed into a stupendous amount of energy – paved the way for nuclear power and bombs.

But otherwise, even well-educated folks often are vague about all that Einstein did to become the planet’s most famous scientist. I just read a simplified 2006 book, “Essential Einstein,” and distilled this thumbnail reference for anyone who wants to keep track:

Between 1902 and 1909, while living in Bern, Switzerland, Einstein published 32 scientific papers – then wrote many others later in his life.  In 1905, his “miracle year,” he stunned the world with four revolutions plus another work:

—- Photoelectric effect – He confirmed quantum theory by showing that light is quantized, traveling in individual energy packets, photons, that cause electrons to pop randomly from metal.  For this, he got the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics.

—- Special Relativity – After the 1887 Michelson-Morley experiment showed that the speed of light is absolutely constant, Einstein deduced that everything else must vary as speed increases: time slows, mass increases, dimensions shorten in the direction of movement. This has deep philosophical implications because it shows that reality isn’t as fixed and tangible as we think it is. Many modern tests have confirmed the weird changes.

—- Interchangeability of matter and energy – by his renowned equation E=MC2 (which was proven horribly when a quantity of matter smaller than a dime turned into energy at Hiroshima in 1945).

—- Brownian motion – Einstein confirmed the theory of atoms by showing that gases and liquids consist of vast numbers of hyper-small invisible particles darting and ricocheting – and they kick pollen or smoke particles about frantically.

—- Dimensions of molecules – His doctoral dissertation, this paper showed how to calculate the size of molecules and Avogadro’s number, the tally of molecules in a quantity of gas called a mole.

1906 – A paper on heat radiation.

1907 – The Equivalence Principle — Einstein showed that gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable in effects they produce.

1908 – More on quantum electromagnetic radiation, the topic of his 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect.

1910 – A paper on opalescence, the scattering of blue in the daytime sky.

1911 – His famous theory that gravity bends light waves — which was confirmed during a 1919 eclipse when astronomers saw that stars behind the masked sun’s position appeared slightly out of place.

1913-14 – Papers on tensor calculus and differential geometry.

1915 – General Relativity – showing that gravity from matter warps space around it (which seems like voodoo to me).

1917 – Einstein mostly started the field of cosmology by applying General Relativity to the entire universe. This work contained predictions of black holes and the expanding universe — but the latter notion was so unimaginable in 1917 that he inserted an artificial “cosmological constant” to offset expansion forces. (He later called this insertion his worst blunder.)

1925 – Bose-Einstein condensate – He joined Indian physicist Satyendra Bose in hypothesizing a fifth state of matter (after solid, liquid, gas and plasma). If matter is cooled to near absolute zero, they predicted, quantum effects will take over, giving it weird behavior such as climbing out of its container. This was achieved in 1995 by three U.S. physicists who won the 2001 Nobel Prize for it.

1926 – Einstein patented a noiseless, leakproof refrigerator pump with Leo Szilard, his former student. Einstein also eventually patented a hearing aid, compasses and a light-intensity self-adjusting camera.

1932 – With astronomer Willem de Sitter, he removed the cosmological constant, thus correcting his 1917 cosmology theory.

1935 – With physicists Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, he attempted to discredit the snowballing field of quantum mechanics, which always seemed too vague and nonspecific for Einstein – but subsequent science proved him wrong.

1935 – Einstein-Rosen Bridge – The two hypothesized that matter sucked into a black hole could travel through a space-time passage (dubbed a “wormhole” by physicist John Wheeler in 1957) and emerge from a spewing “white hole.”

1936 – Gravitational lens – Einstein predicted that gravity from whole galaxies or clusters of galaxies would bend passing light so much that distant stars could appear in several places simultaneously. Now such “Einstein rings” and “Einstein crosses” are found in the sky.

Until his death in 1955, Einstein spent his remaining mental energy on a futile search for a grand unification theory (unified field theory) to explain all phenomena, causing some younger colleagues to worry that he wasted his mature genius on the impossible. Today, “string theory” pursues this quest, with no more success than Einstein achieved.

The shaggy genius – who wore proper suits when young, progressing to wild hair and sweatshirts – also is known for humanitarian pursuits such as crusades against war and attempts to establish world government. He’s further known for sailing, questioning religion, playing the violin, dallying with women and hiking in forests.

Despite his astounding intellect, Einstein had gentle humility and the ability to laugh at himself. He felt deep reverence for the mysterious order of nature, from the precise behavior of subatomic particles to the mammoth gyrations of galaxies.

When Einstein died, President Dwight Eisenhower eulogized:

“No other man contributed so much to the vast expansion of 20th century knowledge. Yet no other man was more modest in the possession of the power that is knowledge, more sure that power without wisdom is deadly.”

And The New York Times commented:

“Man stands on this diminutive Earth, gazes at the myriad stars and upon billowing oceans and tossing trees – and wonders: What does it all mean? How did it come about? The most thoughtful wonderer who appeared among us in three centuries has passed on in the person of Albert Einstein.”

He was a marvel, perhaps history’s greatest example of profound capability within the human mind.


Author footnote:  Einstein sometimes used the word “God” to mean the amazing laws of the universe – but he was a functional atheist.  For example, he wrote in The New York Times in 1930:  “I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a god, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty.  Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear and ridiculous egotism.”

This column appeared on his newspaper’s science page on July 6, 2008.

Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular AllianceCentre for Inquiry CanadaKelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.

Other National/Local Resources: Association humaniste du QuébecAtheist FreethinkersCentral Ontario Humanist AssociationComox Valley HumanistsGrey Bruce HumanistsHalton-Peel Humanist CommunityHamilton HumanistsHumanist Association of LondonHumanist Association of OttawaHumanist Association of TorontoHumanists, Atheists and Agnostics of ManitobaOntario Humanist SocietySecular Connextions SeculaireSecular Humanists in CalgarySociety of Free Thinkers (Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge/Guelph)Thunder Bay HumanistsToronto OasisVictoria Secular Humanist Association.

Other International/Outside Canada Resources: Allianz vun Humanisten, Atheisten an AgnostikerAmerican Atheists,American Humanist AssociationAssociação Brasileira de Ateus e Agnósticos/Brazilian Association of Atheists and AgnosticsAtheist Alliance InternationalAtheist Alliance of AmericaAtheist CentreAtheist Foundation of AustraliaThe Brights MovementCenter for Inquiry (including Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science), Atheist IrelandCamp Quest, Inc.Council for Secular HumanismDe Vrije GedachteEuropean Humanist FederationFederation of Indian Rationalist AssociationsFoundation Beyond BeliefFreedom From Religion FoundationHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist InternationalHumanist Association of GermanyHumanist Association of IrelandHumanist Society of ScotlandHumanists UKHumanisterna/Humanists SwedenInternet InfidelsInternational League of Non-Religious and AtheistsJames Randi Educational FoundationLeague of Militant AtheistsMilitary Association of Atheists and FreethinkersNational Secular SocietyRationalist InternationalRecovering From ReligionReligion News ServiceSecular Coalition for AmericaSecular Student AllianceThe Clergy ProjectThe Rational Response SquadThe Satanic TempleThe Sunday AssemblyUnited Coalition of ReasonUnion of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics.

Image Credit: James Haught.

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