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)
Astrophysicist Mario Livio: A Twitterscript
Shubha Bala, associate producer
For the past few interviews, we have been diligently tweeting away while Krista converses with our guests. We hope that this is a unique way for you to experience some of the highlights — and get the conversation started — before you experience the full edited (or unedited!) show.
After our interview with Mario Livio, we all sat down to discuss what constitutes a good tweet. So, this week, we ask you: seeing the entire tweeting transcript below, what tweets are helpful? Do links help? Is it too much to break information between tweets?
- For the next 90 minutes, we’ll be live-tweeting Krista’s ISDN interview with Mario Livio, a Romanian astrophysicist who grew up in Israel.
- Mario Livio’s latest book is “Is God a Mathematician?”
- Livio asks if mathematics discovered or is it an invention of the human mind. Picks up from Krista’s interview with two Vatican astronomers.
- “Mathematics turns out to be too powerful in describing all these things.” -Mario Livio
- Mario Livio: Newton takes observations that aren’t so accurate, + his mathematical equations are more accurate than the observations!
- Livio: the theory of knots are very important application for string theory even though it was initially thought to have no application.
- Livio: The conclusion I reached about math being discovered or invented is that the question is being posed wrong. It’s a mixture.
- Ex. of mixture: imaginary numbers like square root of -1. We invent the concept and then we discover the relationships among these concepts.
- Ancient Greeks invented concept of prime numbers. And then the discoveries were forced upon us.
- Livio: Roger Penrose, mathematical physicist: three worlds and three mysteries - physical world, consciousness, mathematical forms.
- Penrose’s 3 mysteries: 1) out of the physical word, consciousness 2) consciousness gives access to math forms 3) math explains phys. world
- Livio: Chomsky will tell you that there is more universality to languages than we think.
- Livio “The Microsoft Effect”: once a particular OS starts to dominate, all have to adapt it. Mathematical notation is a little bit of that.
- Mario Livio: “Our perception system is universal. This had to help in inventing natural numbers like 1,2,3,4,5…”
- “Like beauty in the arts, it is somewhat more vaguely defined [in mathematics] …but perhaps it is a little bit more defined.” -Mario Livio
- We try to formulate a few laws of physics + try to explain all phenomena. We do the same thing in mathematics - like in symmetry. -M. Livio
- “I have heard very few people think that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is not beautiful.” -Mario Livio, astrophysicist
- Mario Livio: You could argue that the principal behind Einstein’s general relativity is simpler than Newton’s gravity.
- M. Livio: Symmetry is a quantity that does not change. Mathematicians came up with a system to describe ALL these symmetries. Group Theory.
- Funny moment where Krista starts to ask Livio about his love of art and Mario Livio responds, “You seem to be well prepared.”
- Mario Livio, in response to Krista’s question: “I don’t have a good explanation for my passion for art.”
- Livio: “…it would be false to say that science + art have influenced each other. Or that science + religion have influenced each other.”M. Livio: “A person who feels a need for God does not want a God that created the universe and then left the universe to its own devices.”
- M. Livio, picking up on that last point: “Science has nothing to say about this. … People try to force the connection.”
- M.Livio-ppl who try to say Genesis is completely accurate scientifically does science & religion a disservice
- M.Livio-Is God a Mathematician? “I mean God as an Einsteinian God-synonym to the working of the cosmos.”
- M.Livio-Physics has changed over time but “Mathematics has evolved, but the math the ancient greeks did is still true today.” Eternal truth?
- M.Livio-As physics became more predictive, people went away from religion to talk about nature - talked about precise sciences
- M.Livio-cont. a development of 20th century-with quantum physics, things are no longer deterministic, can only calculate probabilities
- M.Livio-“Biology today is..at the state physics was…..-many of the major breakthroughs are yet to be made”
- Krista tells a funny story of Goedel, accompanied by Einstein, applying for US citizenship - http://www.ias.edu/people/godel/institute
- M. Livio - About math and life… well “in science, unless you have a well defined problem it is virtually impossible to try to answer it”
- Livio-“Things like life these are inherently complex situations where..often I don’t..know what question to pose, let alone find the answer”
- Livio-April 24 is Hubble 20 year anniversary. He talks about the importance of Hubble images - http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/
- Krista and M. Livio recall SOF interview about human & mathematical limits with Janna Levin - http://bit.ly/axpPBy
- M.Livio-pushing boundaries-we used to think the earth was the center of a universe, and now “200 galaxies like ours just in the observable”
- M.Livio - but each discovery we make, we find out there’s something “even more mysterious”
- M.Livio-In all this, our physical selves seem more&more minuscule, but our minds making the discoveries are more&more important & central
- Thank you Mario Livio! For more information on him and his book : http://www.mariolivio.com/
Who Ordered This Show Title?
by Colleen Scheck, senior producer
With each new program, we carefully consider the show’s title so that it reflects the tone and substance of Krista’s interview, but also so that it intrigues you, hopefully, and makes you want to listen. This week’s title, “Who Ordered This?,” comes directly from Krista’s interview with astrophysicist Mario Livio:
Krista Tippett: One of the places this takes me back to, and I don’t know what the future will be of the science/religion discussion, or interplay, or whatever that is, but part of where it came to in the 20th century was this idea that science was pushing religion farther and farther out of the picture because science ultimately was going to answer all the questions, right? But, as you’re saying, what’s happened in the 21st century, as we’ve built on these discoveries of the 20th century, is that in fact there’s just this exponential increase in questions and even in what you call mystery …
Mario Livio: Lord Kelvin, you know, has been claimed to have said that everything has actually been solved already and there are just two small problems that remain to be solved, and as it turned out those two problems led to quantum mechanics and general relativity — the two greatest scientific revolutions of the 20th century. So, you know, surely this is how things are happening, and we have had a number of occasions of, there are those things where — you know, another famous physicist once said “Who ordered this?” I mean, so, who ordered dark energy? As if we didn’t have enough to explain as it was already, and then suddenly this thing appears and its now the most perhaps intriguing question in all of physics.
Krista Tippett: Right.
Mario Livio: You know, some people sometimes ask me if I’m fascinated by science fiction, and I like to say that actually real science is way more fascinating than any science fiction I’ve ever read. Because, you know, there is really so much there to do and there is so much room for imagination and creativity ….
Livio is adapting a phrase by Nobel Prize winning-physicist Isidor Isaac Rabi who once said “Who ordered that?” when the muon was identified. A New York Times book review traces this line of scientific compounding back even farther, blaming Democritus.
Interestingly, in Livio’s dual passion for science and art, and his work to make a deeper understanding of the universe more accessible to humanity, it seems he shares the perspective of the man he quoted. According to one biographical entry, Rabi once wrote, “What the scientist really desires is for his science to be understood, to become an integral part of our general culture, to be given proper weight in the cultural and practical affairs of the world. Like the poet, the scientist would rather be read than praised.”
Mathematics in Sunflowers
Shubha Bala, associate producer
This week’s show with astrophysicist Mario Livio explores, amongst other things, how math is implicated in the nature of the world. The Nobel physicist and mathematician Eugene Wigner, who wrote “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Science,” argued that math is so successful in predicting events in physics that it could not be a coincidence. Even on our previous show, “Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God,” the astronomers pointed out the complexity in declaring whether math is discovered or invented.
While producing these interviews, I happened upon the video above. The visualization helped me by filling in some of the specific examples in nature that mathematicians can easily visualize on a daily basis. It shows how three mathematical concepts, including the golden ratio, translate into simple objects in nature.
What I really love is the about page, which deconstructs how the Fibonacci series and golden ratio translate into the spiral of a shell, and the spirals within a sunflower. When listening to Livio, what examples of math explaining the cosmos came to mind for you?
The “Residue” of God’s Image
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
I was lucky enough to have the best seat in the house for Krista’s live interview with Robert Wright (in the very front, manning the video cameras), and this was probably my favorite part of the entire conversation. I was fascinated by Wright’s intersection of belief in physics and belief in God, which he sums up in the afterward to The Evolution of God:
“Maybe the most defensible view — of electrons and of God — is to place them somewhere between illusion and imperfect conception.”
Reading Wright’s 1988 book, Three Scientists and Their Gods, I saw a role reversal from his conversation with Krista. In 2010, he played the part of the “relentlessly logical” theorist, but in ‘88 he was the questioner who was probing rationalistic scientists like Edward Fredkin and E.O. Wilson with his own challenging questions.
For instance, Wright talks to digital physicist Edward Fredkin about his conception of the universe as a computer. Fredkin seems resistant to any conversation of the theological implications of this idea, but Wright probes him until he gets this response:
“‘I guess what I’m saying is: I don’t have any religious belief. I don’t believe that there is a God. I don’t believe in Christianity or Judaism or anything like that, okay? I’m not an atheist … I’m not an agnostic … I’m just in a simple state. I don’t know what there is or might be. … But on the other hand, what I can say is that it seems likely to me that this particular universe we have is a consequence of something which I would call intelligent.’
‘You mean that there’s something out there that wanted to get the answer to a question?’
‘Yeah. Something that set up the universe to see what would happen? In some way, yes.’”
Wright challenges sociobiologist E. O. Wilson as well, asking:
“‘The knowledge that we are all related to bacteria makes it no easier to swallow the harsh facts of hard work, brief retirement, and death. How can scientific materialism give meaning to our lives?’”
Even though Wilson shares Wright’s (and Krista’s) Southern Baptist upbringing, he seems to have completely avoided the same “residue.” Or at least, almost completely avoided it:
“Still, a funny thing happened a couple of years ago. Harvard was honoring Martin Luther King, Sr., and Reverend King, as part of the festivities, was preaching at the Harvard Memorial Chapel. Wilson, being a southerner, was invited to the service. There was a large turnout. The reverend preached fervently, and the congregation sang richly, and one of the hymns hit home with Wilson — ‘one of the good, old-timey ones that I hadn’t heard since I was a kid.’ Partway through it, E. O. Wilson — scientific materialist, detached empiricist, confirmed Darwinian — started crying.
As if in atonement, he has a perfectly rational explanation. ‘It was tribal,’ he says. ‘It was the feeling that I had been a long way away from the tribe.’”
From Building Blocks to Erector Sets
Shubha Bala, associate producer
“…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…”
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).
Neil deGrasse Tyson Interview
Trent Gilliss, online editor
Neil deGrasse Tyson is a name that’s been bandied about the office in the last several weeks as a potential guest. While scanning RSS feeds, one keys in on keywords one may not have paid attention to previously.
In this interview with The Humanist, the popular astrophysicist has some intriguing things to say about beliefs, education, and communication. When asked if he’s a humanist:
I’ve never identified with any movement. I just am what I am and occasionally a movement claims me because there is resonance between my writings and speeches and what they do, and that’s fine; I don’t mind that. But no, I have never been politically or organizationally active in that way. Astrophysics—that’s what I identify with.
I gave a talk to the National Science Teachers Association. That is an important group of people, K-12 educators in science. I asked by show of hands how many people—because I knew it would get an interesting reply—didn’t own a television. Half of the hands went up. Of those who owned a television, I asked how many only occasionally used it to watch a movie, and half of the hands went up. So fully three quarters of that audience whose job it is to teach the next generation science don’t watch television, yet the average American watches thirty or forty hours of television a week. That disconnect is pedagogically fatal.
…and when I say pop culture I don’t mean only the TV shows that are kind of cool and interesting. I also mean the hit shows. I’m talking about Dancing with the Stars. I’m talking about the reality shows most educators thumb their noses at as being of no educational or intellectual value. Yet clearly millions of people watch them every week so there is a disconnect. Once there is a disconnect, you’re not communicating.
On a new atheist’s style of communicating science:
In the category of worst practices, there are occasions where people—either humanist or atheist—are just completely obnoxious in a conversation with others. I even had a tussle with Richard Dawkins (I think it’s my most viewed YouTube clip) in which I accused him of being completely ineffective because he is so sharp of wit in the service of his point of view, and he is so well educated that he may fail to fulfill the directive of his title, which at the time was Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. That implies that your conversation with another person is an act of persuasion in some ways, not hitting them over the head. You want to understand what is going on in another person’s mind and meet them there. Otherwise, you’re not as effective as you could be.
Rapping the LHC
Marc Sanchez, Associate Producer
I was recently doing some research on Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Frank Wilczeck. Truth be told, I can barely spell “physics” much less grasp the concepts he works with, like quantum chromodynamics (QCD).
Currently, Mr. Wilczeck is trying to combine the theories of how to measure the four forces of nature — gravity, electromagnetism, strong force, and weak force — into one, unified theory. To help solve this problem, he has enlisted the help of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). That’s the gigantic particle accelerator that got people in a tizzy about sucking the Earth into a self-made black hole.
Physicists, including Mr. Wilczeck, have assured us that our universe is safe, but I still needed to wrap my head around the LHC. Enter Kate MacAlpine, an employee who works with the particle accelerator in Switzerland. She put together a rap that actually does a really good job of breaking down the science.