Posted tagged ‘Einstein’

For Good Times in Brookline And Cambridge

November 11, 2015

A few events tomorrow and Friday for your infotainment pleasure.

First, I’ll be doing a reading/book talk on The Hunt for Vulcan at Brookline Booksmith, a fine indy bookstore in scenic Coolidge Corner.  (279 Harvard St., to be precise). That would be tomorrow, Thursday November 12 at 7 p.m.  Books to be signed, of course.

I have to add that Tikka’s grown tired of waiting for his:

Tikka and HUnt

For some background on the book and the events that drove me to it, here’s a Boston Globe piece I published a few weeks ago on Einstein’s general relativity at 100; here’s a piece that went up yesterday at The Atlantic‘s joint that gives a taste of the story the book tells; and here’s a similar piece at Gizmodo that adds a little background into how and why I actually got off my ass and wrote the damn thing. (Spoiler alert:  I blame someone often discussed on this site.

Next, in semi-direct competition with my gig at the bookstore…(See! I can rise above shameless self-promotion on rare occasions) my department at MIT is putting on what looks to be a really interesting event:  an MIT Communication Forum presentation on “Women in Politics: Representation and Reality”


Think Veep comes to Washington.  That’ll take place at 5 p.m., tomorrow, November 12, so I guess if you were a glutton for punishment you could take that one in, dash across the river, and still get in on some planet Vulcan action.  Shameless I am.  The forum is free and open to the public, and will take place in MIT Building 3, room 270. (That link takes you to the MIT interactive map. Basically Building 3 is the second hallway on your right off the long (Infinite!) corridor that starts at the main entrance to campus at 77 Massachusetts Ave. Go upstairs and wander down — towards the river —  till you find room number 270.

Finally, on Friday, November 13, the MIT Program in Science Technology and Society and the Physics Department are hosting a sneak preview of the NOVA film “Inside Einstein’s Mind.”


The screening will be followed by a panel discussion on the film and on the centennial of the discovery of the General Theory of Relativity.

That part of the evening’s festivities will be moderated by your humble blogger and will feature my colleague, physicist and historian of science David Kaiser, joined by two of David’s physics colleagues, Tracy Slayter and Scott Hughes, science writer Amanda Gefter, and NOVA’s Chris Schmidt.  It all happens between 7 and 9 p.m., in room 32-123 — which is the big auditorium on the ground floor of the Stata Center, the great big honker of a Gehry building at the intersection of Vasser and Main Streets.  Interactive map advice here.

Come to some, come to all, and if you can’t (or won’t) you can still get your hands on the book, online* and/or at the local bookstore I thoroughly encourage you to support — and then watch the film on Wednesday, November 25th at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

Images: Tikka, of course, photographed by yours truly.

Henry Gillard Glindoni, John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I, by 1913.

Thomas Bartholin, Head transect from Anatome ex omnium veterum recentiorumque observationibus, 1673.

Barnes and Noble/Nook here; iBooks here.


Albert Einstein was a Friend of Mine, and I Can Tell You, Representative: You Are No Albert Einstein*

April 15, 2011

From Think Progress (h/t Daily Kos) we learn that in the midst of yet another creationist eructation, a Tennessee state representative invokes the ghost of the good Dr. Einstein to defend the teaching of woo to the unwary:

Rep. FRANK NICELEY (R-Strawberry Fields): I think that if there’s one thing that everyone in this room could agree on, that would be that Albert Einstein was a critical thinker. He was a scientist. I think that we probably could agree that Albert Enstein was smarter than any of our science teachers in our high schools or colleges. And Albert Einstein said that a little knowledge would turn your head toward atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head toward Christianity.

I don’t have much truck with the argument from authority, but just this once, let me let it rip.

Dude:  I wrote the book here.**  Well, not the book, but one more in the seemingly limitless pile of Einsteiniana that has chased the poor man through the years.

So, a couple of things.  First:  Einstein himself was high school and college science teacher.  He taught secondary school briefly during the years between his graduation from Zurich’s ETH (1900) and the start of his job at the Swiss Patent Office (1902), tutoring a private student or two as well.  He became a university professor in 1908, and taught at that level until his move to Berlin in 1914.  He’s part of the set that the Representative — perhaps stunned by a too-prolonged exposure to tangerine skies — would seek to diss.

But the real howler, the grotesque lie, comes with the claim that Albert Einstein, famously Jewish and equally so an atheist by most senses of the word, would suggest that deep learning and understanding would make a person a Christian.

This is, of course, nonsense, and worse that that — a willful deception and one more example of the urge to invent a comforting falsehood when reality bites too hard.  Which sums up the whole modern GOP world view, sadly. (Cue the Rogers (kfMonkey) post in 3…2…1)

But for the record:  Albert Einstein disdained the notion of a personal god.  He was dismissive of god-talk in public affairs.  He saw nothing in the acquisition of knowledge that would tend one towards organized faith; quite the reverse.  He located the source of knowledge to be material experience, whose signals were to be processed by the 1200cc or so of very intricately organized meat we (most of us) keep in a round-ish vessel above our necks.

And just so we all get our fill of Einsteiniana, here are some supporting quotations:

In an autobiographical essay published in 1949, Einstein told of his loss of faith as a child:

“…through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.” (in Paul Schilpp, ed. Albert Einstein,  Philosopher-Scientist, Open Court, 1949, p. 5)

Of the demand for a personal god, Einstein wrote in a letter to a banker in Colorado that

“I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals….” [taken from Alice Calaprice’s collection The Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press, 1996 p. 146]

Of the presence of a god intervening in history, he wrote, famously and bluntly to a correspondent calling down divine wrath on the British during World War I:

“I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible…only His nonexistence can excuse him.” [AE to E. Mayer 2 January 1915 Collected Papers of AE vol VIII doc. 44]

Of the independence from divine fetters of human knowledge, he wrote,

“No idea is conceived in our mind independent of our five senses.” [From Quotable Einstein p. 154]

And on the claims to authority of religion in general and his own Jewish heritage in particular, the year before his death  he wrote this:

… The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Enough.  As you all know, no doubt, I’m of the John Foster Dulles school of blogging, but I think the point is clear. Rep. Niceley (R-Delusional) is an ignorant and/or deceitful man defending the indefensible by stealing the mantle of someone way too dead to respond for his own part.  Niceley does so to support exactly what Einstein would have both loathed and ridiculed.  The desire to live in the world one wishes for is human enough — pretty childish, I’d say, following my man Al here.  But the indulgence we give children does not extend to granting them power over anything that matters…

…which is why the current Republican Party must be not merely defeated, but destroyed and replaced.

Factio Grandaeva delenda est.

*Here I butcher what is still my favorite political debate moment of all time:

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**I kinda made the movie too — writing and jointly producing  this two hour NOVA biography.  Just sayin:  I bin around the Einstein block once or twice, you know.


Professor Einstein’s Visit to the United States“, The Scientific Monthly 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on p. 483.

A better class of spam

July 30, 2009

Just got hit with someone promoting an article they’ve just written in an area about which I know passing little, and which may be total bollocks — though its so far out of my area of interest right now I’m not even going to dig deep enough to check.

This happens quite a bit — probably to anyone hanging in the blogosphere (certainly the science end of it).  Everyone who pops their prairie-dog head even a little bit above the surface of public conversation gets these.

For me, having made films and written about Einstein — a true lightening rod  — most of what I receive are fundamental theories of the universe (or the universe-and-spirit) that somehow have failed to gain traction in the hidebound and corruptly closed world of professional physics.

Back at the dawn of time, when I still used a chisel and slate whilst workign at NOVA, we used to put the most wackily wonderful of the then-snail-mail delivered breakthroughs up in a special corner of the hall bulletin board.

Now it’s all email, of course, complete with links to websites or pdfs.  Not all of it is crazy stuff, though most is.  Sometimes its just someone trying to get traction, blasting out news of something or other — not much different, I suppose, than putting up stuff on a blog…except for the distinction between  pull and push media.

The one curiousity that comes from this new email mode of shouting in the middle of the stage “attention must be paid!” is you get to see who else your sender thinks belongs in the crowd of those who could help him or her.  And this latest is nice company, if a rather — make that “very” — odd mix.  I didn’t recognize many of the fifty odd receipients listed, but Jared Diamond was there, and so was Frances Fukuyama, (see what I mean about an odd combo?), Jerry Coyne and Jeffrey Sachs and a bunch of other hugely disparate notables.  How I got on such a list I have no idea, but if one is to be distracted, even for a moment, by such random blasts from the cosmos, the frisson of synchronicity with all those grand pooh-bahs provides a chuckle.

Image:  A fused quartz gyroscope for the Gravity Probe B experiment which differs from a perfect sphere by no more than a mere 40 atoms of thickness as it refracts the image of Albert Einstein in the background.

Quote for the Day: Stephen Pinker/Albert Einstein edition

November 20, 2008

It could be just me, but I ain’t so sure about this:

Some people raise an eyebrow at linguists’ practice of treating their own sentence judgments as objecitve empirical data.  The danger is that linguist’s pet theory could unconsiously warp his or her judgments.  It’s a legiimtate worry, but in practice linguistic judgments can go a long way.  One of the perquisites of research on basic cognitive processes is that you always have easy access to a specimin of the species you study, namely, yourself.  When I was a student in a perception lab I asked my advisor when we sould stop generting tones to listen to and start doing the research. He correcte me:  listening to the tones was research, as far as he was concerned, since he wasconfident that if a sequence sounded a certain way to him, it would sound that way to every other normal member of the species.  As a sanity check (and to satisfy journal referees) we would eventualy pay students to listen to the sounds and press buttons according to what they heard, but the results always ratified what we could hear with our own ears.  I’ve followed the same strategy in psycholinguistics, and in dozens of studies I’ve found that the average ratings from volunteers have alsways lined up with the original subjective judgments of the linguists.  (Stephen Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2007, p. 34)

I know (or I think I do) what Pinker is trying to say here.  You can’t even begin to formulate an idea without having some idea of what you’re looking at or for.  Professional experience and a depth of knowledge of other work in the field do count.  One’s own perceptions are real, and can (must) guide experimental design and interpretation.

But at the same time, I fear Pinker’s diminishment of the possibility of observer bias, of the fact that people have commitments both conscious and unconscious to a given idea or expected outcome.

That such expectations can deeply affect one’s ability to understand what your measurements actually are saying to you is a matter of historical fact — and this kind of observer bias can strike even the brightest of investigators, even in fields seemingly safely far removed from the subjectivity and noise that accompanies any attempt to penetrate human mental life.  Peter Galison has dissected the famous (among a certain crowd) case of Albert Einstein’s misplaced confidence in the interpretation of his collaboration with W. de Haas on an experiment to explore properties of what became known as the Einstein-de Haas effect.

The experiments the two conducted did advance the understanding of the magnetic behavior of electrons, though a proper interpretation of what was going on had to wait (in a familiar trope for early 20th century physics) for quantum mechanical intervention.  But the point here is that Einstein had made a theoretical calculation to determine the expected value of the ratio of the magnetic moment to the angular momentum of electrons travelling in their closed orbits around atomic nuclei.  In his calculation, he derived a value of one.

Then he and de Haas performed the measurement, using a delicate and complicated experimental set up. Sure enough, they were able to extract data that produced a value for the quantity to be confirmed of 1.02.   Einstein was aware that this looked almost too sweet — he wrote that the “good agreement may be due to chance” — but the coincidence of expectation and result was too much for him to ignore.

Unfortunately, subsequent experiments, and then the theoretical description in quantum mechanical terms showed the correct value to be two.

The moral?  Pace Pinker, while judgments by practitioners immersed in their fields do and should go a long way, past (and future) performance is no guarantee that observer bias ain’t about to bite you in the ass right now.   (Say I, ex cathedra — that is, someone whose last lab experience involved hideous acts performed on a frog — see E. M. Fogarty, “Anatomy of a Frog,” Journal of Irreproducable Results, 1963, 11, 65.)

That said — I’m well stuck into The Stuff of Thought and am enjoying it greatly.  I just got stuck for a moment on what might be the scientist-popularizer’s equivalent of an episode of irrational exuberance.

John McCain’s reality problem: Guantanamo, State Power, and Theoretical Physics

June 17, 2008

You have to be quick to be good. Today, via Atrios, George Will (George Will!) is actually saying the right thing about John McCain’s latest, almost tragic, self negation.

The back story: The Supreme Court rules 5-4 that prisoners held by the US, on territory the US wholly controls, actually have some baseline of essential rights, in particular the right to make a habeas corpus claim, requesting a hearing (requesting! not automatically receiving) in which the government must demonstrate that it has due cause to hold the complainant, or else release him or her.

So what happened next? Joy amongst those who think the Constitution has some life in it yet, visions of the apocalypse for those who feel the rule of law is for other people.

John McCain, sadly — and I mean that — lined up with the latter, declaring the ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.”

It is sad: I’m no John McCain fan (dog-bites-man…ed.), but he is someone who once seemed to have a sense of who he was, and now he doesn’t. On everything from torture (agin it, except when the proper Americans do it) to energy polict, (even Cheney thinks he’s gone wacky) he now seems willing to say whatever he thinks at that moment might help him out. It’s never a pretty sight to see someone turning themselves into a caricature in public.

But here McCain is worse than sad: he’s dangerous on two levels. The first is obvious, and it is the one Will nailed — with exactly the same serious of examples I was planning to provide. As he writes,

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

No; of course not. As Will points out, there are in fact some issues to argue here — but there is no way to say that this decision defies reason or legal basis.

Will goes on to have some fun with McCain — there’s a tone of real contempt in lines like “Did McCain’s extravagant condemnation of the court’s habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents?”

While I can enjoy such snark (and from such a source!) the real point of Will’s column, and the one that moves the whole incident into the realm of a blog concerned with what science can offer public life is the real risk of a McCain presidency exposed here. And it is not just that he’s revealed (once again) as a shoot from the hip reactive kind of guy (contrast his approach to this legal decision with former law professor Obama’s preparation here). Rather, it is that there is a real problem in electing Humpty Dumpty to any responsible office.

That is: the one constant across all the disciplines that call themselves science is a commitment to reality, to acknowledging the actual data that observation and experiment produce, however much they may conflict with worldview or desire. Here’s Albert Einstein, acknowledging in public, for as broad a lay audience as he could reach, explaining the significance of of the new discoveries of quantum mechanics:

There is no doubt that quantum physics explained a very rich variety of facts, achieving, for the most part, splendid agreement between theory and observation. The new quantum physics removes us still further from the old mechanical view, and a retreat to the former position seems, more than ever, unlikely….The qunatum theory again created new and essential features of our reality…”

Einstein never reconciled himself to critical aspects of the modern quantum theory; he spent three decades looking for a more general theory that would subsume it; and yet he nominated its first architects, Heisenberg and Schroedinger for the Nobel Prize, and he did not deny its obvious power or importance. He hated it, but he knew it meant something very, very significant.

Contrast that with McCain in action here. It is a fact that this decision falls within the mainstream of American jurisprudence — one may not like the outcome, and there are meaningful arguments to support that dislike, but this is a perfectly conventional bit of Constitutional reasoning. To say that this is “one of the worst” Supreme Court actions is simply to ignore example after example, fact after fact, that gives the lie to McCain’s pique.

This post is long enough. I’d just say that we’ve had enough of people asserting facts not in evidence for their own, temporary advantage. If there were a ever a single disqualifying attribute in a potential President, it is this truly anti-science willingness to ignore what they do, or should, know to be essential features of the reality we inhabit.

Image:  Jade Record, Chinese, 19th Century.  Depiction of sinners being tortured in the sixth court of hell.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday Science and Religion Kaffeeklatch: Albert Einstein edition

June 6, 2008

Cross posted at Cosmic Variance — which allows me to repeat my thanks to that erudite and friendly community, and to the generous host who invited me in, Sean Carroll.

I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I hear that there was a bit of a media and blog hullabaloo about a letter by Albert Einstein that was auctioned last month for 170,000 pounds. That doubles the previous record for an Einstein letter, and at least part of the reason for its record price seems to have been its content — what seemed to some a startlingly blunt assessment of religion in general. He wrote:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

To get down to cases close to home:

“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

To be sure, he acknowledged, he was happy to identify himself as one of “the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity…” But clearly belonging to a community did not make him blind, deaf or dumb.

The reason I ignored this at first is that after fifteen years in the Einstein game I’m pretty tired of WWED appeals to authority, all that pouring through the great man’s quotations to find something to support whatever view one may have had in the first place.

The reason I’m picking it up now is that the letter raises a question that allows us with only a little leap of the imagination to begin to gather the intense pressure of the experience of being Jewish in Europe in the first few decades of the last century – especially if you were smart, prominent, public.

Just to get it out of the way: there is nothing surprising about this letter. Just five years earlier Einstein wrote that, when he was young he had experienced a bout of real piety, until:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

That revelation remained with him throughout his life, and he never made a secret of it. He refused to claim a religious affiliation in the papers he filed with the Austro-Hungarian government to take up a professorship in Prague. Told he had to claim something, he declared he was of the “Mosaic” faith – a construction that conveyed his disdain for the whole notion pretty well, IMHO.

And so it went. In 1915, he told one correspondent that, “I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible,” …. “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”

Those who followed this malign, non-existent deity were fools. When he visited Palestine in 1921, Einstein was much impressed by the sight of Jews constructing cities and a way of life out of raw dirt and effort. But the sight of traditional Jews praying at the Wailing Wall seemed to him the “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe.” They made such spectacles of themselves, “praying aloud, their faces turned to the wall, their bodies swaying to and fro,” that to Einstein, it was “a pathetic sight of men with a past but without a present.”

That’s enough: the point is that Einstein made it clear in public, and even more so in private communications that have been in the public record for decades now, that revealed religion in general and orthodox Judaism in particular had no hold on him at all. When he used the term God, it was mostly just an off-hand short-hand: “God does not play dice” was another way of saying, as he did in the EPR paper, that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” the excesses of modern quantum theory.

But all this begs the question why Einstein bothered to claim Jewishness, if Judaism itself as a practice and a body of belief had no hold on him.

Einstein himself gave two answers. The first was he saw in Judaism a framework and a fair amount of thought about how to live ethically with others. His take on the tradition pulled out of Judaism “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” and a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.” This is religion as heuristic – and specifically, Judaism as a sustained body of inquiry into certain problems that interested him.

The second, of course, was that he had no choice. Whatever he may have believed, others defined him: “When I came to Germany,” he wrote some years later as part of an explanation for his conversion to Zionism, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to Gentiles than to Jews.”

It was more than the casual anti-Semitism that he experienced or perceived, dating back to his failure to get an academic job after finishing his college degree. Rather, Einstein’s strong identification not just as a person of Jewish background, but as a highly public member of both the Berlin Jewish community and the nationalist Zionist movement, is one measure of just how rapidly the nature of German anti-Semitism changed in the immediate aftermath of defeat in World War I.

I go into this at some length in this tome – from which most of the above comes, in one form or another. See chapter ten if you’re interested. In this venue, I want to make just two points abstracted out of that much longer story.

First: as I suggested at the beginning of the post, any Captain Reynault response to this latest “revelation” of Einstein’s disdain for traditional faith is misplaced. Rather, it is just one more demonstration of the foolishness of the argument from authority for pretty much anything.

Second: the fact of Einstein’s Jewishness in the context of his blunt rejection of traditional Judaism offers one more reminder of contingency of the practice of science.

You can see that in this last anecdote:

On August 24, 1920 the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science — held a public meeting to denounce Einstein’s new physics. Nobel laureate Philip Lenard soon made the reason for such doubt explicitly, denouncing of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory.’”

Lenard could not make good on the (barely) implied threat then, but he (and others) did in 1933. Of course, nothing then or later could alter the significance of relativity; but German science suffered enormously, even if that abstraction “science” did not.

I don’t think, of course, that any such bald “it makes me feel bad so this science must be wrong” claims could have much pull these days.

Except of course, they do.

I began by chiding the What Would Einstein Do cult that invokes the great man in lieu of argument. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what Einstein did.

His resolute self-identification as Jew emerged out of his reaction to the anti-Semitism he witnessed directly. The expression of that viciousness included a direct demand to reject reason: physics could be rendered invalid by the origins of its discoverer. Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason, and in his Jewishness he laid claim to a complementary style of thought to that of the fundamental physics he investigated.

Despite the snark above about contemporary battles, matters are different now. For me, the real value of the letter sold for such a ridiculous sum is that it reminds me of both the malevolent nearness in historical time, and (I hope, as well as think) the genuine distance we have moved from the time and place in which a public meeting could convene to denounce the religion/ethnicity of a few pages of mathematical physics.

That is: It’s not the God stuff in that letter that should catch your eye, that is, but the history to be plumbed in that little phrase, “with whose mentality I have a deep affinity.”

With that – I’m out of here.

Again, my thanks to all who read this here and at Cosmic Variance, even more to those who commented, and most of all to Sean Carroll physicist and public intellectual extraordinaire.

Image: Portrait of Einstein painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, (nephew of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), Wiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

John Archibald Wheeler, RIP

April 14, 2008

There is plenty to read about John Wheeler around the web today. Start with Dennis Overbye’s obituary in Times, read Daniel Holz’s moving remembrance over at Cosmic Variance, and then browse at will through what will be an increasingly overwhelming tide of tributes, all deserved.

Everything I’ve heard from people who knew him much better than I confirms the initial impression you will get from even a cursory look at the reaction to his passing. He was a man in love with learning new stuff; he was happy when he could do it himself; he was Cheshire Cat satisfied if he could catalyze the desired outcome in students.

I’m not a physicist of course, and I only met Wheeler once — so I can’t add anything meaningful to what has come to me second hand. But I do have one story, coming from that single meeting, that captures a little bit of the man.

It was back in 1995, when he was a mere 83 years old. I and a colleague had gone down to Princeton to talk to Wheeler about the film we were getting ready to shoot — a new and hopefully more complete portrait of Einstein than had made it to PBS at the time. We hoped Wheeler might work as an interviewee for the film, but he was already slowing down a little, and we instead sought as much of a sense of the Einstein he knew as possible, in the hopes that his memory would inform our movie.

So, 83 and all, he led us up Princeton’s campus and down. His secretary asked us to try to make sure he took it easy, but no amount of attempting by stealth to slow our pace worked. He just charged along. He took us what had once been called Fine Hall, home of the Princeton math department, and temporary quarters from 1933-39 for the Institute of Advanced Study. Wheeler, who became friends with Einstein after the older man arrived in Princeton in 1933, was also close to Niels Bohr, an occasional visitor.

As he was taking us through the old building (complete with Einstein’s quip “Raffiniert ist der Herr Gott, aber Boshaft ist Er nicht — Subtle is the Lord, but not malicious — engraved over the fireplace in the lounge), he started to tell us a tale. Einstein, he said, was unbothered by his apostacy, his disinterest and disinclination for quantum mechanics. Rather, his insouciant unconcern for what seemed to almost every other physicst still breathing to be the vital center of the subject bothered Niels Bohr much more.

Eventually, Einstein would cease his once impressively persistant effort to poke logical holes in quantum theory. (See his and Leopold Infeld’s Evolution of Physics for a graceful acknowledgment of the theory’s success — aimed at a broad audience, no less.) But at the point of Wheeler’s memory, Bohr and Einstein were still at it, and Einstein could still make his friend nervous.

So, Wheeler tells us, this one day, he encounters Einstein in the hall. They walk together. Einstein has left something in Bohr’s office, maybe a pouch of pipe tobacco. As they get closer to the door, they hear Bohr muttering (when did he do anything else but mutter?): “Einstein…Einstein……Einstein, Einstein….Einstein.”

Albert grinned. He held his finger up to his mouth — be quiet Wheeler! — and waited behind the jam as Bohr paced the length of his office. When he turned –“Einstein…Einstein” — the real thing snuck in behind him, and stood next to the table, picking up the tobacco and waiting.

Bohr completed the circuit, still whispering “Einstein,” turned…and then leaped out of his skin at the sight Albert in the flesh, conjured, as it were, out of his torment.

Wheeler was then a young scientist, keeping company with legends. He laughed at the time, he said, but a little awkwardly. Not now. He could still see Bohr in shock almost six decades on, and the sight in his mind’s eye delighted him.

John Wheeler. A great physicist, perhaps a better teacher, a very generous man. My only other contact with him was in a nice letter that he wrote to my editor saying how much he liked my Einstein book — unsolicited, unexpected, an enormous balm to this writer’s heart. And he loved a good joke, told a good story.

Another one to be missed.

Update: Link added for Einstein/Infeld, minor grammar edits.

Image: Spitzer Space Telescope image of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Among Wheeler’s gifts was a genius for naming stuff. We owe him the term “black hole,” a substantial example of which is located in the center of our galaxy, somewhere out of sight but not of mind in the photograph above.