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Posts Tagged ‘Albert Einstein’

06 JANUARY, 2015

Albert Einstein’s Little-Known Correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Racial Justice

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“Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance… and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”

Albert Einstein endures as “the quintessential modern genius” for his seminal contributions to science, but he was also a great champion of human rights. In fact, despite having taken a backseat to his scientific legacy, Einstein’s strong humanistic and political convictions are no less notable and revolutionary amid the assumptions of his era. Nowhere do they shine more brilliantly than in his lesser-known exchanges with people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs, always deeply thoughtful, irrepressibly respectful, and driven by an earnest desire for mutual understanding and encouragement — including his conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore about science and spirituality, his correspondence with Freud about violence, peace, and human nature, and his letter to a little girl in South Africa on why her gender shouldn’t hold her back from pursuing science.

Some might assume that Einstein’s compassionate outlook and unflinching commitment to equality were shaped by his own experience of being on the receiving end of history’s deadliest anti-Semitism. When Hitler took over Germany on January 30, 1933 — twelve years after Einstein earned the Nobel Prize, which had already exposed him to anti-Semitism — he had just left Berlin with his wife Elsa to spend their third winter at CalTech, where Einstein had been invited as visiting faculty. The trip may well have saved his life — mere months later, the situation in Germany became inhumane, then gruesomely lethal, for Jews.

Finding himself a reluctant refugee, Einstein — whom the great author and physicist C.P. Snow declared “Hitler’s greatest public enemy” — proclaimed in the press:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

But Einstein’s stance was deeper than the particularities of his own experience and predated that. In 1930, the legendary American author, sociologist, historian, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois reached out to Einstein for a contribution to The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois had co-founded NAACP in 1909, two decades after becoming the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, where he had studied under and been greatly influenced by the pioneering philosopher and psychologist William James.

Dr. Du Bois’s correspondence with Einstein, included in Einstein on Race and Racism (public library), begins with this magnificently courteous invitation from October 14, 1931 — a sublime manifestation of why Virginia Woolf considered letter writing “the humane art,” and a wistful reminder of how different modern life would be if we corresponded with each other in this way — originally written in German and sent while the scientist was still living in Berlin, where Du Bois had studied on a fellowship during his graduate work:

Sir:

I am taking the liberty of sending you herewith some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes and in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you of 500 to 1,000 words on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom.

With regard to myself, you will find something about me in “Who’s Who in America.” I was formerly a student of Wagner and Schmoller in the University of Berlin.

I should greatly appreciate word from you.

Very sincerely yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois

Two weeks later, 51-year-old Einstein replied, with equal courtesy, in the affirmative:

My Dear Sir!

Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper. Because of my excessive workload I could not send a longer explanation.

With Distinguished respect,

Albert Einstein

Du Bois translated Einstein’s essay himself and introduced it in The Crisis with the following laudatory “Note from the Editor”:

The author, Albert Einstein, is a Jew of German nationality. He was born in Wurttemburg in 1879 and educated in Switzerland. He has been Professor of Physics at Zurich and Prague and is at present director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Physical Institute at Berlin. He is a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science and of the British Royal Society. He received the Nobel Prize in 1921 and the Copley Medal in 1925.

Einstein is a genius in higher physics and ranks with Copernicus, Newton and Kepler. His famous theory of Relativity, advanced first in 1905, is revolutionizing our explanation of physical phenomenon and our conception of Motion, Time and Space.

But Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance. He is a brilliant advocate of disarmament and world Peace and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is. At our request, he has sent this word to THE CRISIS with “Ausgezeichneter Hochachtung” (“Distinguished respect”).

Einstein's original essay for 'The Crisis' (W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)

Although titled “To the American Negro” — a phrase confined to both specific geography and, by virtue of its dated language, a bygone era — Einstein’s short essay bears enduring resonance for all varieties of oppression, discrimination, and the woeful pathology of in-group/out-group polarization to which humanity is so easily susceptible. (Another duo of humanists, Tolstoy and Gandhi, explored that lamentable tendency of ours in their own little-known correspondence.) In a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s poignant 19th-century remarks about minority-majority dynamics, Einstein writes:

It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class. The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantage suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudiced estimate because of the suggestive influence of the majority, and come to regard people like themselves as inferior. This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained.

The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.

Albert Einstein

Einstein on Race and Racism goes on to undo the “historical amnesia” about the iconic scientist’s passionate commitment on antiracism, both public and private, including the forgotten history of his friendship with the African-American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Complement it with Margaret Mead, writing thirty years later, on the root of racism and how to counter it, then revisit Einstein on the fickleness of fame, the secret of learning anything, and why we’re alive.

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09 DECEMBER, 2014

Albert Einstein on the Fickle Nature of Fame, the Real Rewards of Work, and the “Whole Buffoonery” of the Cultural Establishment

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“Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom—God knows why—the bored public has taken possession of.”

Albert Einstein was a master of articulating his convictions with mesmerizing precision in his letters — he counseled his son on the secret to learning anything, explained to a colleague the secret of his genius, wisely answered a little girl’s question about whether scientists pray, assured another who feared that her gender would hold her back, and corresponded with Freud about the deepest truths of violence, peace, and human nature.

Now, thanks to Princeton University’s newly released archive of Einstein papers, one of Einstein’s most perceptive, prescient opinions comes to light.

In 1922, Einstein decided to join the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, even though he indicated in his letters — not without snark — that he wasn’t entirely certain of its purpose. Meanwhile, his Swiss friend Heinrich Zangger, a professor of forensic medicine at the University of Zurich, had written to express his vexation over the petty politics of the scientific world. In a June 18, 1922, letter to his friend, Einstein addresses the general posturing of the establishment and the fickle nature of fame — a sentiment that resonates at even higher frequencies of truth in the context of today’s conveyor belt of celebrity and the sandcastles that pass for the ivory towers of contemporary culture:

Dear friend Zangger,

You wrote me affectionately and at length, and some of it I was even — able to read. Don’t take any heed, if [anyone] is placing obstacles in your path. You always have pleasure in doing your thing well; it must give you independence from the whole buffoonery into which we have been born. I have largely attained this independence. Worshipped today, scorned or even crucified tomorrow, that is the fate of people whom — God* knows why — the bored public has taken possession of.

Decades later, the great Richard Feynman — the scientist-sage of a new generation — would come to echo this in his spirited opprobrium of honors. And yet Einstein was both right and wrong — as disposable as most objects of hero-worship may be, here we are admiring a great mind a century after his heyday. One can’t help but wonder, then, who the Einsteins of today are and whether, in a culture that increasingly confuses being noticed for being notable, any of our present idols will stand the test of time to have their emails quoted by future generations.

Complement the wholly absorbing Princeton archive with Einstein on fairy tales and education, why we are alive, and his soul-stretching conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

Photograph of Albert Einstein colorized by Mads Madsen

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14 MARCH, 2014

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1958*. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes further transforms Einstein’s alleged aphorism in into a charming short fable in the introduction to his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

“Fairy Tales,” Einstein responded without hesitation.

“Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?” the mother asked.

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated.

“And after that?”

“Even more fairy tales,” replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library | IndieBound) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

UPDATE: Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick has now dug deeper into the origin of Einstein’s alleged aphorism.

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