Saturday, Feb. 7, 2009

Einstein's Daydreams

By David Luhrssen
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With his wild halo of hair and sad penetrating eyes, Albert Einstein became an instantly recognizable star in the 1920s. His face shone as brightly as anyone in Hollywood and unlike most movie stars, his light hasn’t faded. When he visited America for the first time, a crowd of 15,000 greeted him on the Manhattan pier. After laboring for years in obscurity, Einstein’s fame resulted from intense media attention. Everybody started talking about him even if hardly anyone understood a word he wrote.

The History Channel documentary “Einstein,” out now on DVD, provides a well-composed, informative overview of the first half of his career. The story ends well before the physicist, by then a refugee from Nazi Germany, settled in Princeton and warned Franklin D. Roosevelt of a terrible possibility his theories had unleashed, the atom bomb. Alerting the U.S. to its potential was bad enough for Einstein, who once derided technical progress as an “ax in the hands of a mad man.” But if the enemies of freedom unlocked the atom’s secrets first, the world could have gone dark.

While the bomb may yet be the death of us all, “Einstein” focuses instead on the physicist’s contributions to telecommunications, laser beams, black holes, neutron stars and the Big Bang Theory. Specifically, the documentary examines a set of five pathfinding theories Einstein derived from mathematical equations—four of them in a single year of blinding inspiration, 1905. The General Theory of Relativity, acclaimed by some as his greatest accomplishment, evolved through trial and error from 1908-1916.

The story is especially compelling because his schoolmasters dismissed the man who overthrew Newton’s mechanical cosmos and opened the scientific imagination to infinity as a goof-off. Unable to find permanent employment in his native Germany, he worked for several years as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office. The work was undemanding, allowing him many hours for staring out of the window in contemplation. His daydreams were not a waste of time. Einstein did his best thinking while daydreaming or playing violin. Mozart, he felt, had discovered the harmony of the universe.

As said by one of the experts interviewed for “Einstein,” a professorial chair early in life might have stunted his imagination through the usual academic mind games. With plenty of time to dream, Einstein was able to pursue his goal of understanding the unity underlying reality. “I want to know God’s thoughts,” he once said.

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