Getting one right

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted January 3, 2000

Paul Johnson's massive history of the past 80 years, "Modern Times," begins with a memorable passage:

"The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken off the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe. It had been apparent for half a century that the Newtonian cosmology, based upon the straight lines of Euclidean geometry and Galileo's notions of absolute time, was in need of serious modification. ... Increasingly powerful telescopes were revealing anomalies. In particular, the motions of the planet Mercury deviated by forty-three second of arc a century from its predictable behaviour under Newtonian laws of physics. Why?

"In 1905, a twenty-six-year-old German Jew, Albert Einstein, then working in the Swiss patent officer in Berne, had published a paper, 'On the electrodynamics of moving bodies', which became known as the Special Theory of Relativity. Einstein's observations on the way in which, in certain circumstances, lengths appeared to contract and clocks to slow down, are analogous to the effect of perspective in painting. In fact the discovery that space and time are relative rather than absolute terms of measurement is comparable, in its effect on our perception of the world, to the first use of perspective in art, which occurred in Greece in the two decades c. 500-480 B.C."

Even the elegance of Einstein's line of argument was described by his colleagues as a kind of art. In 1907 he followed up by demonstrating that mass and energy are interrelated and therefore convertible, encapsulated in the equation E=mc squared. Throughout the next decade -- undeterred even by the outbreak of the disastrous World War -- scientists around the world struggled to propose a more General Theory of Relativity, which would also embrace gravitational fields, until in 1918 Arthur Eddington, secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society, revealed that the monumental goal had been achieved in a paper smuggled into England through the Netherlands in 1916.

The author of the second paper was ... Albert Einstein. But such was the essence of Einstein's methodology that he insisted his equations be verified by empirical observation, devising three specific tests for this purpose, including the measurement of the extent to which light would be bent around the sun -- then measurable only during a solar eclipse.

"What impressed me most," the philosopher Karl Popper of Vienna University was later to write, "was Einstein's own clear statement that he would regard his theory as untenable if it should fail certain tests. ... Here was an attitude utterly different from the dogmatism of Marx, Freud, Adler and even more so of their followers. ... This, I felt, was the true scientific attitude."

The final proof demanded by Einstein was confirmation of the "red shift" -- a shift in the spectrum of light-emitting objects depending on whether they move toward or away from the viewer, similar to the way the pitch of a train whistle undergoes a perceived drop to a lower frequency as the train passes a listener.

The "red shift" was finally confirmed by the Mount Wilson observatory in 1923, after which "Einstein was a global hero, mobbed wherever he went," Johnson reports.

As his discoveries led eventually to the atomic bomb and even to our modern epidemic of moral relativism, there were times, Einstein sighed near the end of his life, when he wished he had instead become a simple watchmaker.

But "the emergence of Einstein as a world figure in 1919 is a striking illustration of the dual impact of great scientific innovators on mankind," the historian Johnson concludes. "They change our perception of the physical world and increase our mastery of it. But they also change our ideas. The second effect is often more radical than the first. The scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord. Galileo's empiricism created the ferment of natural philosophy in the seventeenth century which adumbrated the scientific and industrial revolutions. Newtonian physics formed the framework of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, and so helped to bring modern nationalism and revolutionary politics to birth. ...

"So, too, the public response to relativity was one of the principal formative influences on the course of twentieth-century history. It formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture."

It would be as foolish to pretend that was entirely a good thing, as it would be to try and wish away all that has come to pass in the past 80 years.

Einstein and his discoveries changed our world unalterably. Which is why the editors of Time magazine are to be congratulated for setting aside the inevitable bickering about whether Lenin or Hitler "changed our world" more than Churchill or Roosevelt, instead announcing their selection as Man of the Century of Albert Einstein -- the kindly, absent-minded professor who wrote to FDR in 1939 to warn that the Nazis might be able to construct an atomic bomb, and therefore urge that America do so first.

As for the selection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (along with the deserving Mohandas Gandhi) as the magazine's runner-up "Person of the Century," it will remain for history to decide whether the editors here acquiesce too eagerly in a judgment widely promulgated in today's government schools, that this bullying politician -- never regarded as much of a bright light by his own family; the secret invalid who went to Tehran and green-lighted a 50-year Stalinist slave state for half of Europe; the man who upon his election immediately abandoned the solemn 1932 Democratic platform pledge to "immediately and drastically reduce government expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus ... to accomplish a savings of not less than 25 percent in the cost of the federal government"; the man who set loose upon a suffering nation the cynical strategy of co-president James Aloysius Farley to "Tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect" -- should be acknowledged as anything greater than an opportunistic dilettante and bush league fascist.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

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