Physics Through a Jewish Lens?

Einstein's Jewish Science CoverEinstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion
by Steven Gimbel
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

How was Albert Einstein’s approach to science inflected by his Judaism? Steven Gimbel’s provocative new book takes on the chief accusation of Einstein’s Nazi opponents: the claim that relativity somehow expresses a Jewish sensibility.

Gimbel, the chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College, decries the anti-Semitism associated with the Nazis’ attempt to frame Einstein’s theories as “Jewish science,” but he simultaneously identifies a grain of truth in the claim, citing parallels between practices of talmudic interpretation and Einstein’s approach to science.

To understand Gimbel’s argument about the Jewish quality of Einstein’s approach—and to perceive the boldness of Gimbel’s decision to re-examine twentieth-century, anti-Semitic ideas about “Jewish science”—it’s necessary first to understand the historical moment out of which the theory of relativity emerged.

A Counter-Manifesto and a High-Stakes Eclipse

In 1919, British astronomers’ observations of stars seen near the sun at the time of a solar eclipse made Einstein the world’s most famous scientist by confirming his general theory of relativity. Photographs from the eclipse showed slight deviations in the positions of these stars, compared with times when the sun was nowhere in their vicinity. These deviations matched Einstein’s prediction of how much the sun’s gravity would bend space, and thus alter the trajectories of starlight passing close to the sun.

Among physicists, Einstein was already famous, predominantly for his special theory of relativity, published in 1905, which asserted that apparently constant entities such as mass, length, and the flow of time depend on the relationship between observer and observed. These counterintuitive results, not confirmed by direct experiment for a decade or more, had nevertheless succeeded in providing a unified view of electricity and magnetism and thus gained widespread acceptance among scientists. The theory also provided the basis for Einstein’s most famous equation, which describes the relationship between a particle’s “rest mass” and its energy content. Max Planck, the dean of Germany’s physics community, had quickly grasped the importance of Einstein’s work; his support played a role in leading others to study and to understand it—as best they could.

The success of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (“special” because it deals with unaccelerated motion) catapulted him from the Swiss patent office to academic appointments in Zurich, Prague, Zurich again, and then Berlin, the center of German research and government, where he arrived in April of the pivotal year 1914. Einstein’s dislike for authority, especially the kind visible in Germany, soon manifested itself. As his recent biographer Walter Isaacson said, “Einstein … often displayed a natural inclination not to go along.”

In October 1914, two months after World War I began, ninety-three German intellectuals signed a manifesto declaring that “were it not for German militarism, German culture would have been wiped off the face of the earth,” and that “we shall wage this fight to the very end as a cultured nation, a nation that holds the legacy of Goethe, Beethoven, and Kant no less sacred than hearth and home.” Conservative scientists such as Phillip Lenard (a physics Nobel prize-winner in 1905 and a future rabid opponent of Einstein) signed this document, but so too did luminaries such as Max Planck, Max Reinhardt, Gerhart Hauptmann, Paul Ehrlich, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Ernst Haeckel, not known for their militaristic sympathies. In opposition, Einstein and a doctor friend circulated “Manifesto to the Europeans,” a counter-manifesto that attacked the hostile spirit of the “Manifesto of 93” while appealing for a transnationalistic attitude.
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