What Einstein means to me

Having read Walter Isaacson’s excellent books on Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs, I assigned myself his Einstein. Even though, of course, I already knew all about the man and his work. Doesn’t everybody? Actually, some of what everybody knows isn’t true.

One false myth is that he “failed math in school.” This was even featured in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” What is true is that Einstein’s talking was a little delayed, worrying his parents. But in school he did brilliantly, was a precocious mathematical star. Reading about his childhood intensity with math, science, and philosophy, contrasted against my own sleepwalking early life, I could see why he was a genius and I am not.

Secondly, religious believers love to claim Einstein was a believer too, a perfect validation for them. He did give them a lot of fodder, in delphic pronouncements (like the famous “God does not play dice with the Universe”), using “God” in a somewhat metaphorical rather than literal sense. I do that myself; Einstein was no more a believer than I am. He had a spasm of religiosity in childhood, but snapped out of it at age 12 and never looked back. Whatever his quasi-mystical thoughts about the nature of nature, they certainly included nothing like the God of the Bible – a book he loathed as full of lies.

In fact, Einstein’s early liberation from religion was central to his intellectual development. It gave him a deep suspicion toward all received opinion, authority, and dogma. If so many people could be so wrong about something so fundamental, what else could they be wrong about? This empowered Einstein to look at the cosmos from a fresh perspective.

(I won’t expound here the theory of relativity (but see the appendix); however, it doesn’t mean “everything is relative” – the stance of postmodernist relativism, that nothing truly is true. Such nonsense has nothing to do with Einstein.)

Here is what Einstein does mean to me.

Humanity’s quest for understanding uplifts me. At last – a being on this Earth not at nature’s mercy but capable of mastery. Some people actually hate this, calling it hubris, even wicked. I find that sad. To me our quest for knowledge, and the power it brings, could not be more noble.

Nobility lies in challenge. Ancient man, looking at his world, had so much to wonder about, with hardly a clue for finding answers. But undaunted we searched, through thousands of years, and the efforts of thousands of heroic seekers, giving us finally more understanding than anyone at the start could have dreamt of.

You must crawl before walking, and walk before you run, and that’s the history of science. Most of it was to explain what we saw. But gradually we grasped there is a deeper reality unseen. Einstein’s work, more than any other, ended our stages of crawling and walking, and took us into that deeper reality – a depth that those who commenced the great quest could not even have imagined was there to be plumbed.

The hard slog of science through the ages has been all about gathering evidence and decoding what it tells us. Evidence can come from experimentation, or (as in Darwin’s case, or all of astronomy,) observation. Yet Einstein stands out because he performed no experiments, and gathered no observations. It was all done between his own ears, by thinking. That’s what gave us a new and deeper understanding.

And so, in the end, he represents for me not just (just!) our achievement of understanding, but the wonder of our tool for gaining it: the human mind. It’s a gift we all have. I may not be an Einstein, nor you, but we are human, we are part of this great enterprise, and those brains of ours give us a richness of experience beyond measure. Be thankful and use it well.



Two things puzzle me. We see light traveling from a star to one’s eye. But it’s not just one light beam. Light from a star a billion light years away would reach anyone that distant. Envision a sphere with a billion light year radius – its surface area would be 12.56 times a billion light years squared – a very very BIG area. Every spot on that area would receive the light. How can a star emit that much light? As light spreads out from its source, the photons should get farther apart; at a billion light years, they should be so spread out that seeing even one would be statistically improbable.

Secondly, Einstein’s famous equation E = mc 2 posits the equivalency between matter and energy; the “c” is the speed of light. But why is that part of the equation (let alone squared)? I admit I’m not privy to the math behind this; but what does light speed even have to do with it? The relationship applies regardless of motion. Newton’s law that gravity diminishes proportionally with the square of the distance intuitively makes sense to me, but I can’t say that about the matter/energy proportionality with light speed squared.


3 Responses to “What Einstein means to me”

  1. Lee Says:

    If I asked you which was farther, a mile or an hour, you would say “what?” Only by specifying that I am talking about a walker going 3 miles per hour can you conclude that an hour gives that walker more distance than a mile. Something similar is why the speed of light squared appears in the relationship between energy and mass.

  2. Lee Says:

    A billion light years is indeed very far away and you will not see photons from a single star with the naked eye. Our galaxy is about 10^5 (100,000) lightyears in diameter. So, we could ask about a star that is that far away.

    A lightyear is about 10^18 (1 billion billion) centimeters. A typical sun-like star emits approximately 10^45 (1 billion billion billion billion billion) photons every second. Thus we can compute that there would be approximately 10^45 / (4 * pi * (10^5 * 10^18)^2) = 1/120 photons per second. That is, we’d see a photon from that star about once every two minutes passing into an eye that is 1 centimeter square in area. This too is too faint to see, which is why the Milky Way in the sky has its billions of more distant stars combining to look like a pale haze rather than distinct points of light.

  3. Bumba Says:

    As for the first question. Our eyes have been evolved that finely – to pick up photons, like plants do. And radio, X-ray, gammaray receptors can pick up radiation of other wavelengths too. As for second question, that c2 is a constant that describes the relationship between energy and mass, and I don’t get that part either. A circle’s area is a square of radius. The presence of the square in the denominator of both Maxwell’s and Newtons Laws was what got Einstein a thinking.

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