Albert Einstein’s Faith: Was the Great Physicist Spiritual?
by Krista Tippett, host
Albert Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, remains difficult for me to grasp fully. But I feel I have come to understand something of the man — his expansive spirit, his relentless curiosity, and his reverence for the beauty and order of nature and thought. I was daunted as I began, but delving into Einstein was a delight.
And there is a logic of sorts to that, as humor was an aspect of Einstein’s genius. Freeman Dyson suggests that his ability to make light and to laugh, even at himself, was one key to the magnitude of his scientific accomplishment. Science is often about failure. Einstein himself proposed that he made so many discoveries because he was not afraid to be proven wrong, repeatedly, on his way to all of them. But Einstein also employed humor to philosophical and ethical effect, weighing in trenchantly on mankind’s foibles.
Einstein held a deep and nuanced, if not a traditional, faith. I did not assume this at the outset. I’ve always been suspicious of the way Einstein’s famous line, “God does not play dice with the universe,” gets quoted for vastly different purposes. I wanted to understand what Einstein meant as a physicist when he said that. As it turns out, that particular quip had more to do with physics than with God, as Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies illuminate.
Einstein did, however, leave behind a rich body of reflection on the “mind” and the “superior spirit” behind the cosmos that has never made its way into popular consciousness. He didn’t believe in a personal God who would interfere with the laws of physics. But he was fascinated with the ingenuity of those laws and expressed awe at the very fact of their existence. Throughout his life, he thrilled to all he could not yet understand. He was more than content with what he called a “cosmic religious sense” — animated by “inklings” and “wondering,” rather than by answers and conclusions. Here is a passage that comes close, I think, to a concise description by Einstein of his quintessential “faith”:
“A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty — it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves … Enough for me the mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality, together with the single-hearted endeavor to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.”
With Paul Davies, I was able to pursue how Einstein changed our view of space and especially time, a subject that has always intrigued me. Before Einstein, as Davies describes it, human beings thought of space and time as fixed and immutable, the backdrop to the great show of life. But we now know they are elastic and intertwined, part of the show themselves. Einstein described our perception of time as an arrow — traversing linear and compartmentalized past, present, and future — as a “stubbornly persistent illusion.” Such language is evocative from a religious standpoint. As Davies discusses, it echoes insights that run throughout Eastern and Western religions and ancient indigenous cultures. Davies finds an affinity between Einstein’s view of time and the religious notion of a reality “beyond time,” and of “the eternal.” And because he speaks as a person conversant in current advancements of Einstein’s science — cosmology and the Big Bang, black holes, even the search for life beyond this galaxy — his insights carry for me a special weight of authority and, yes, wonder.
I came across many wise and touching pieces of writing by the spiritual Einstein while preparing for these conversations. Einstein was a passionate letter writer. He wrote to fellow scientists, friends, and strangers. He loved responding to the letters of schoolchildren. One of his correspondents for a time was Queen Elisabeth of Belgium. He had struck up a warm friendship with her and her husband, King Albert, just before World War II. In one tragic season in the midst of already tumultuous political times, her husband died suddenly, as did her daughter-in-law. Einstein wrote to her:
“Mrs. Barjansky wrote to me how gravely living in itself causes you suffering and how numbed you are by the indescribably painful blows that have befallen you. And yet we should not grieve for those who have gone from us in the primes of their lives after happy and fruitful years of activity, and who have been privileged to accomplish in full measure their task in life.
Something there is that can refresh and revivify older people: joy in the activities of the younger generation — a joy, to be sure, that is clouded by dark forebodings in these unsettled times. And yet, as always, the springtime sun brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding; and Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions. And such eternals lie closer to an older person than to a younger one oscillating between fear and hope. For us, there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms.”
I emerged from these discussions with a new sense of Albert Einstein — not just as a great mind, but as a wise man. He was fully human and flawed, certainly in his intimate relationships. But he was undeniably an original, and not just as a scientist. If past, present, and future are an illusion, as he said, none of us ever really disappear. We all leave our imprint on what is now. I have a profound sense of Einstein’s imprint, and it comforts me. I suspect that if he heard he was the subject of a program called Speaking of Faith more than 50 years after his death, he would make a funny, kindly, self-deprecating joke. But if he could listen with twenty-first-century ears, he might be intrigued by how his generous, questioning, “cosmic” religious sense is deeply kindred with the religious and spiritual yearnings of our age.
Images: top, an inset of a page from one of three existing Einstein manuscripts on special relativity (1912). No known original manuscripts exist from the year of publication in 1905. (courtesy of The Jewish National & University Library, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
bottom, Albert Einstein sailing his boat on Saranac Lake. (courtesy of The Fantova Collection, Princeton University)
Religion and Science: Finding Their Kindred Spirits
by Krista Tippett, host
The science-religion “debate” is an abstraction, and a distraction. It isn’t true to the deep nature of science, or of religion, or to the history of interplay between them. These are convictions I’m left with after a cumulative conversation that began a decade ago. And after spending the spring traveling around the country talking about this in theaters packed with scientists and citizens, atheist to devout, I know that others share my sense that our sound-bite friendly, politically-fueled narrative of animosity has outlived its usefulness. There is a science-religion divide — these are two distinct and separate spheres of endeavor. But in the 21st century, we can’t help but hear echoes passing back and forth across that divide and changing the way we understand our humanity, our relationship to each other and the natural world, the contours of the cosmos.
It’s not just the passion and frequency with which mathematicians talk about beauty and physicists talk about mystery that intrigues me. It is also that every time the rest of us log on to our computers in the morning, or every time we eat a meal, we are steeped in the fruits of science. We may not be fluent in the language of science — mathematics — which Galileo called “the language in which the universe is written.” But in the most ordinary moments in our doctors’ offices, certainly in near-ordinary experiences like birth, illness, and death, we receive crash courses in science of many kinds. And we turn simultaneously, without time for debate, to inner territory of morality and meaning, which science has no language for addressing.
Einstein put it this way, helpfully: science is good at describing what is, but it does not describe what should be. That is one way to talk about the role that religious and spiritual practice, our sense of what is right and sacred, plays in human life. And for the record, I don’t believe that spiritual and moral life ceases in the absence of belief in God. Einstein didn’t believe in the personal God of traditional religion. But he did profess a “cosmic religious sense” driven by “inklings” and “wonderings” rather than answers and certainties. Its hallmarks were a reverence for beauty and a sense of wonder that, he acknowledged, he shared with lovers of art and religion.
And it’s worth remembering that, in Einstein’s day, zealous religion appeared less a threat to the future of humanity than science on the loose. He watched chemists and physicists become purveyors of weapons of unprecedented destructive power. He declared, chillingly, that science in his generation was like a razor blade in the hands of a three-year-old. Against this backdrop, he called his contemporary Gandhi — and other figures such as Jesus, Moses, St. Francis of Assisi, and Buddha — “spiritual geniuses.” Einstein soberly observed that these kinds of “geniuses in the art of living” are “more necessary to the sustenance of global human dignity, security and joy than the discovers of objective knowledge.”
It seems clearer and clearer to me that, in the 21st century, genius in the art of living must draw on the best insights of both science and religion, not as argued but as lived. Or, as the Anglican quantum physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne puts it, we come ever more vividly to see how science and religion are both necessary to interpret the “rich, varied and surprising way the world actually is.” I think that the surge of spiritual energy and curiosity of our time is precisely a response to the complexity we know by way of science and technology — not a flight from that, but a turn to sources of discernment to sort, prioritize, make sense.
I was especially intrigued by how the subject of climate change came up when I discussed Einstein’s God in a packed theater in Washington D.C. There the room included scientists from across government agencies — some of them personally religious, some of them not, but all open to engaging the moral aspects of human life that science touches but does not resolve. I heard from people who are working on frontiers of climate change research, including deliberation of how, in a worst-case scenario, we might intervene to change climate, change the weather. This is a cosmos-altering idea on the magnitude of those contemporaries of Einstein who split the atom. But they are deliberating now about the ethical ramifications of this burgeoning possibility, and they are aware of their need of all the resources humanity has to offer for thinking this through.
So what if, as a first step moving forward, we focused less on the competing answers of science and religion, and more on their kindred questions? The question of what it means to be human animates each of these vast fields of endeavor, though they approach and take it up in very different ways. If we just start seeing that, how much more cohesively might we be able to take in the best insights of science and religion, honoring more of the fullness of our humanity, living more gracefully and productively with all that we can know?
In the photo above, physicist Albert Einstein (left, standing behind girl) and theologian Paul Tillich (right, standing in front wearing glasses) at a conference in Davos, Switzerland on March 18, 1928. (Courtesy of Image Archive ETH-Bibliothek, Zurich)
Being Comfortable with the Presence of Mystery
Krista Tippett, host
I am so happy to be back in the studio making radio, though these last few months of public conversations about Einstein’s God have been fascinating and energizing. And we continue to build on our cumulative conversation with and about science and the human spirit. I picked up Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician, sometime last year, and knew I wanted to speak with him.
Given that title, it is perhaps surprising to learn that Mario Livio is not himself a religious man. But in his science, he is working on frontiers of discovery where questions far outpace answers — exploring the nature of neutron stars, white dwarfs, dark energy, the search for intelligent life in other galaxies.
In vivid detail and with passionate articulation, he reinforces a sense that has come through in many of my conversations with scientists these past years. That is, in contrast to the 19th- and 20th-century Western cultural confidence that science was on the verge of explaining most everything, our cutting-edge 21st-century discoveries are yielding ever more fantastic mysteries. The real science of the present, Mario Livio says, is far more interesting than science fiction could ever be.
For example, the fact that the universe is expanding rather than contracting is new knowledge. That has led to the discovery of what is called, for lack of precise understanding, “dark energy,” which is accelerating this expansion. And this utterly unexplained substance is now thought to comprise something like 70 percent of the universe. Likewise, the Hubble telescope has helped humanity gain intricate new detail on the unimaginable vastness of the cosmos and the relative insignificance of the space we take up in it. At the same time — and this is one of Livio’s intriguing mysteries — this new knowledge and perspective also shine a new kind of light on the inordinate power of the human mind.
Livio’s question, “Is God a mathematician?,” is actually an ancient and unfolding question about the uncanny “omnipotence and omnipotent power” of mathematics as experienced by science and philosophy across the ages. The question itself, as Livio says, is as rich to ponder as any of its possible answers. And so is the fact, behind it, that our minds give rise to mathematical principles, which are then found to have what one great physicist called “an unreasonable effectiveness” in describing the universe.
Livio also picks up on an intriguing theme left dangling in my lovely Easter conversation with Vatican astronomers Guy Consolmagno and George Coyne — the enduring question of whether mathematical truths, laws of nature, are discovered or invented. He unapologetically offers his conclusion that there is no either/or answer possible here — that mathematics is both invented and discovered. That is to say, as he tells it, scientists habitually “invent” formulations and theories with no practical application, which generations or centuries later are found to describe fundamental aspects of reality. Even mathematical ideas that are at first invented yield real discoveries that are relevant, true, and wholly unexpected.
I was also interested, as I went into this conversation, that when Mario Livio is not doing science he is a lover of art. “Beauty” is a word that recurs across my cumulative conversation with scientists, and Mario Livio infuses that word with his own evident passion. He is not quite sure, when I press, what that might have to do with his simultaneous passion for art. And yet there is something intriguing — mysterious even — about his description of how echoing allusions from science and art come to him effortlessly in his writing.
And in the backdrop of our conversation, images from the Hubble Space Telescope have brought a lavish beauty of the cosmos into ordinary modern eyes and imaginations. One senses that of all the accomplishments in which he has played a part, Mario Livio is most proud of this one. For him, science is a part of culture — like literature, like the arts. And he wants the rest of us, whether we speak his mother tongue of mathematics or not, to experience it that way too. This conversation (listen above) brings me farther forward on this path.
And I kept thinking, as I spoke with Mario Livio, of Einstein’s references to the reverence for beauty and open sense of wonder that Einstein saw as a common root experience of true science, true religion, and true art. His use of the word “God,” Mario Livio tells me, is similar to Einstein’s grasp for the word “God” as a synonym for the workings of the cosmos. I am struck once again with the capacity of modern scientists to be more comfortable with the presence of mystery, and bolder in articulating its reality than many who are traditionally religious.
How Would You Crop Einstein?
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The photos that LIFE magazine recently released reminded me of a learning experiment I passed around to staff not long ago. Take a look at the photo above and note your immediate impressions:
What did you first notice when you first saw this photo?
What went through your mind?
What drew you in? What did you wonder?
What is Einstein wearing?
What sense of Einstein do you get from this image?
I rifled through hundreds of photos of Einstein trying to find a marquee image for our two-part series on Einstein and the mind of god. I wanted photos that were fresh and not overused. Portraits that presented the more human, contemplative side of Einstein — the “inner being,” if you will.
Then, one of those Proustian moments: slipping on a jean jacket with a banded collar — a memory of a portrait of Einstein seated in a chair bathed in natural light. Ahhh, Lotte Jacobi! — whose photographs I had seen in 2004 at the National Museum of Women in Washington, D.C. And, of course, the exhibit’s title? “Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi.”
Her work is intimate and often goes unnoticed. Her portraits are not the default portraits of Einstein commonly chosen for newspaper articles, blog entries, magazine spreads. I still can’t understand why. We’re fortunate to have set our eyes upon them.
Now, back to our experiment. Look at the following image. This is the original version of Jacobi’s print, without cropping.
Ask yourself the same questions as above and a few more:
Perhaps you have other observations?
What would you crop? How would you crop it?
What do you gain; what do you lose?
I have some fairly strong opinions, but I’ll table them so I can hear yours and ponder my own.
Photos of the Day Einstein Died
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
LIFE magazine recently released a series of photographs by Ralph Morse that it had been holding since the day of Albert Einstein’s death in April 1955:
“At the request of Einstein’s son, who asked that the family’s privacy be respected while they mourned, LIFE decided not to run the full story, and for 55 years Morse’s photographs lay unseen and forgotten.”
The photo above, one of my favorites, reminds me of his many papers Colleen and I sifted through at Princeton University while first producing our two-part series on “Einstein and the Mind of God” in 2007. The setting is rather cluttered, disheveled but contained. Messy but not sloppy. And that’s the way I think of Einstein’s mind: quiet and active, mischievous and driven.
Einstein on Race
» download (mp3, 13:46)
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
“But after I accepted that…he actually said such things, the next puzzle for me was why? Because…prior to Martin Luther King, I don’t know of any other Nobel Laureate who spoke so forcefully for the rights of African Americans.”
— S. James Gates, Jr., string theorist
“My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause. There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”
— Albert Einstein, speaking at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1946
Albert Einstein’s spiritual sensibility is the center of this week’s program, “Einstein’s God,” but I want to highlight a section from our companion show, “Einstein’s Ethics,” that explores the nature of his humanitarian passions and public ethics, including his views on race. It contains one of my favorite interviews: Krista’s conversation with S. James Gates, Jr, a professor of physics whose work focuses on string theory and supersymmetry — things I don’t fully comprehend.
Originally, he was not on our radar for this program, but when we heard him speak at a conference on Einstein’s legacy, we were impressed not only by his scientific insight, but also by his reflection on Einstein the person. In this excerpt from our program, Gates speaks eloquently and thoughtfully about how he discovered Einstein’s passion for the problem of racism, and his “capacity for ethical engagement and his scientific creativity” — something Gates himself embodies. You’ll hear the beautiful voice of the legendary opera singer Marian Anderson, whom Einstein invited to stay at his home after she was denied a room at Princeton’s best “whites only” hotel.
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
I stumbled upon a perplexing puzzle as we were fine-tuning our upcoming show with Buddhist teacher and author Matthieu Ricard. Krista had included a quote in the script by Albert Einstein that needed to be fact checked. This seemed pretty straightforward…at first.
Albert Einstein is one of those famous people who gets quoted a lot, sometimes inaccurately. My colleagues at SOF were already familiar with this from producing two companion programs about Einstein back in 2007.
Following is the quote from Einstein as it appears in The Quantum and the Lotus, a book Matthieu Ricard wrote together with astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Plug this quote into Google and you get hits galore, including references to this 1972 New York Times article. But if you look at the typed version at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice some differences — specifically the last two sentences. So where did the quote come from exactly, and in what context did Einstein originally write or say these words?
My search led me to Dear Professor Einstein, a collection of Einstein’s correspondence that features a version of the quote in question, which closely matches the copy we obtained from the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Through Facebook, I contacted the book’s editor, Alice Calaprice, who explained that Einstein had penned his famous words in 1950 to Robert S. Marcus, a man who was distraught over the death of his young son from polio. Calaprice concurred that people often misquote Einstein — and that primary sources are the key to setting the record straight. “When we don’t have originals to prove otherwise,” wrote Calaprice, “falsehoods are sometimes inadvertently repeated even by scholars.”
To that end, Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives, sent us the actual image of the handwritten versions of Einstein’s letter in German and English below. I wonder about who translated Einstein’s words and whether some meaning may have gotten lost.
As I’ve resurfaced from all this Einstein sleuthing, I’ve been pondering my responsibility as producer to verify the quote’s accuracy. But, as I look at Einstein’s handwritten letter with its scrawls and cross outs, I’m reminded that language and ideas are not fixed like cement. Still, it’s my job to get it right.
What’s funny is that after all this effort, we debated ditching the quote altogether. Matthieu Ricard is such a rich voice, did we really need to bring Einstein into the conversation? In the end though, we corrected the quote, and kept Einstein, “sounding more than a little bit Buddhist,” as Krista put it, in the final script read.
Special thanks to Barbara Wolff and the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, which holds copyright for these archival materials.