Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Theory of Relativity, The Nazis and Soviet Russia.

A scientist, especially Nobel Laureates and heads of premier research institutions, is held in awe by the common man. A man of science is thought of as rational, one who rises 'above' common passions and prejudices. However a cursory reading of the lives of scientists would dispel that myth. At the end scientists, too, are just human beings.

I am now reading "The Born-Einstein Letters:1916 - 1955" edited by Max Born. This is a collection of correspondences between physicist Max Born, his wife Hedi and Albert Einstein. Its a charming book that does not tax the reader but nevertheless leaves one enriched. I love to read anything about Einstein and hence I am not a stranger to the many controversies of the period that the letters portray but the personal narrative brings such distant happening to an immediacy. 

Anti-semitism, hating Jews, is often thought of as unique to Germany, thanks to Holocaust. Even more simplistically many think that Jews were persecuted by just Hitler and his bigoted ideology that the Germans took a fancy for under turbulent times. Anti-semitism has deep roots in Europe (and USA too!!!!). When Einstein, an unknown worker in an office for issuing patents, shook the scientific world in 1905 with his paper "Special Theory of relativity" he burst into the international scene. Finally when he published, in 1915, "the general theory of relativity",  he practically redefined the world for eternity. Problem was he was a Jew. 

As early as 1920 Philip Lenard, Nobel Prize winner in 1905 for his research on cathode rays, spearheaded several German scientists in a blistering nakedly anti-Semitic attack on Einstein. Lenard was a member of the Nazi party and chairman of "Aryan Physics". Lenard and many other's attacked TOR (Theory of Relativity) as a "Jewish Conspiracy". Irving Wallace, researching for his book ' The Prize' about Nobel's, discovered that Lenard was instrumental in making the Nobel committee to award the prize to Einstein not for relativity but for his lesser known papers on Photoelectric effect and Brownian motion. The prize was inevitable after Eddington in a spectacular experiment had proved the curvature of space as predicted by the General TOR. 

TOR fared even worse in Soviet Russia. In a letter dated 12th August 1929, Born writes to Einstein seeking help for a Russian physicist, Rumer. Born writes "Rumor, left Russia because relativists are treated badly there (truly!). The Theory of relativity is thought to contradict the official materialist philosophy and, as I've already been told by Joffe, its adherents are persecuted". TOR was thought to contradict the central tenet of determinism of dialectical materialism that ruled the roost in Soviet communist era. Born adds a detailed note to the letter. Rumor had been deported for espousing TOR to some Gulag near the Arctic ocean. "After the death of Stalin he received a telegram" freeing him and recalling him back to Moscow. Rumer was appointed head of an institute and became a loyal communist. Born says Rumer later wrote to him extolling the virtues of communism and how "Soviet system is superior to Western institutions, not only politically and economically, BUT ALSO MORALLY". 

Incidentally Soviet Russia also disliked genetics and frowned on Gregor Mendel for the same reasons as they objected to TOR. Science was an ideological football in Russia. School students learned only the Mendeleev periodic table (based on atomic weight) and not the modern periodic table (based on atomic number). I remember my school chemistry textbook detailing key difference between Mendeleev's and Modern periodic tables and how the latter addresses certain defects of Mendeleev's table.

Scientists are often the worst offenders of the tenets of science. However throughout history eventually science, and truth, often triumph in the end.

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