Thursday, September 1, 2011

Born-Einstein Letters: Physics and Friendship in Uncertain Times

S.Ramakrishnan, noted contemporary writer in Tamil Nadu, visited a book fair and listed the books he had bought. "Born-Einstein Letters 1916-1955:Friendship, Politics and Physics in Uncertain Times" was a very unlikely inclusion in that list. I always love to read anything by or about Einstein.

The 'letters' is an easy read but nevertheless rich one. Two great scientists living in a very politically tumultuous time exchanged letters over nearly 40 years of which for nearly 20 years they never saw each other. The letters are not just between Max Born and Einstein. Max Born's wife Hedi also corresponds with Einstein with lively exchanges.

The letters do not have any explosive content, not much that is unknown to general informed reader. However the first hand accounts of persecution, some rivalries, attitude of Governments toward science and state of scientific institutions all provide very valuable insights for the discerning reader. As I pointed out in my earlier blog Soviet Russia persecuted scientists just for teaching 'Theory of Relativity' .

The period covered by the letters, 1916-55, is the most tortuous time in Germany spanning two World Wars and the rise of Nazism. Born and Einstein are Jews and the drama plays out in many letters. Born, writing about the lack of job prospects for Epstein, says "as a Jew and a Pole (he) will therefore be strongly rejected". Born, Einstein, Bohr, Neumann and scores of other giants of science fled Nazi Germany, mostly to USA. The University of Gottingen, home to Math geniuses like Hilbert and Courant, lost all its crown jewels due to anti-Semitism. Courant fled Gottingen to NYU in New York. Courant is credited with creating the finest math department in USA. Neumann fleeing University of Berlin comes to 'Institute of Advanced Studies" in Princeton and played a key role in the development of the atom bomb along with other emigrant scientists. Born recounts how Philipp Lenard spearheaded an attack on Einstein fueled by anti-semitic hatred. Born credits Lenard with inventing the "difference between 'German' and 'Jewish' physics". Born also indicts another scientist, Johannes Stark, as being "responsible for the removal of all Jewish scholars".

Born met Henry Goldman of Goldman Sachs. Born admires Henry whose Jewish parents had emigrated from Europe and arrived penniless to USA. Henry's grandfather was a door-to-door salesman who finally ended up owning a small bank. The rest if history. Today, in 2011, Goldman Sachs is the most hated financial firm in Wall Street. When I hear snide remarks about Jews controlling Wall Street, Hollywood and USA I recoil. How many realize that Goldman Sachs was not created in a day?

Any student who has a love of Physics would find it enjoyable to read about names that we learn of as remote geniuses. Born tells that Max Planck suffers great tragedies losing his two daughters in childbirth. The book has an introduction by Heisenberg (Uncertainty Principle). Heisenberg's work in Nazi Germany was the most controversial. Born's writes a letter in which he remarks that Heisenberg is "Nazified". However Born who added notes to the letters in the 50's retracts that as too harsh a judgment. In another letter Born states that Heisenberg did not know much about matrices in math when Heisenberg worked under him. (The concept of matrices and the non-commutativity of matrix multiplication is the root of Heisenberg's revolutionary 'Uncertainty Principle'). I found it notable that though Heisenberg wrote an introduction letters critical of him are left intact.

Born is very open in admiring younger scientists, especially his assistants Pauli and Heisenberg. He practically admires them both. Pauli, we learn, is a lazy assistant who needed to be woken up from bed. In his note to a letter from Einstein congratulating him for his belated Nobel (Born was awarded the Nobel in 1953) Born concedes that he was very wounded for not getting the Nobel in 1932 along with  Heisenberg. Very graciously he writes "I got over it, because I was conscious of Heisenberg's superiority".

It is Hedi who provides relief in this collection. She upbraids Einstein for falling prey to a publicity stunt and sternly tells him to dissociate with a publisher. In another letter Hedi insists that Einstein "must read Rabindranath Tagore's novel 'Home and the World' ". I do not know how they read Tagore, in English or German. Note that the letters were originally written in German. In fact all three did not have great felicity with English as a language. All scientific papers were written only in German those days. After her visit to India Hedi published a book of sonnets about India.

Einstein's letters are mostly short. Ronald Clark's classic biography of Einstein has a chapter titled "Stateless Person" referring to a period of Einstein's life when he really did not belong to any country, he had no valid passport of any country. Advising Born to take up a position in Gottingen Einstein adds that as a 'rootless person' he is ill qualified to advise such a step. He says he buried his father in Milan, Mother is buried Germany, children living in Switzerland and he in Germany. Einstein worries about the world, wonders if Woodrow Wilson will make the 'League of Nations' a robust institute.

Einstein is supposed to have read Kant as a schoolboy. He writes to Born that Kant's 'Prolegomena' is not as good as Hume's books. Hume, as Will Durant notes, is credited with waking up Kant from his 'dogmatic slumber'. Such intellectual pastimes, especially reading an Indian author or a British philosopher , are wonderful especially in an age when there was no internet or or wikipedia.

Einstein is a warm man but not an intimate person. Writing from Princeton during winter Einstein says he is hibernating like a bear and adds that he feels lonely after the loss of his 'mate'. Thats it. His wife's death is an added line to his hibernating like a bear as if he was adding a line about having cold, not even fever. Born, despite having known Einstein for 40 years, is perturbed and it is he who draws attention to this fact in his explanatory note to the letter.

One thought which came to my mind was the wonder of progress in science in Germany in those years. Indians mostly complain about beurocracy, government control, lack of funds for research, lowly salaries for academicians as reasons for lack of scientific output. Most scientific institutions in Germany were run by the government, strapped for funds during the period 1916-1955 (in fact Germany was a pauper then), politics and racial tensions all plagued the scientific establishment. Yet it was the apogee for scientific research. Notably most progress was made in theoretical science, not experimental. Born who fled to Edinburgh writes that his salary was pittance, no pension even.

Born has very interesting anecdotes of Sir C.V.Raman. Born alleges that Raman encouraged his pupils to attack Born's theory concerning structure of crystals, in the pre-eminent scientific journal 'Nature'. Raman had invited Born to IISc-Bangalore, that Raman created. After that visit they fell out. Later during a meeting at a Nobel ceremony Born says Raman just stomped out telling Hedi that Max Born had insulted him. S.Chandrasekar's (nephew of Raman) biographer Kameshwar C. Wali writes in "Chandra" that Chandrasekhar's mother told Chandra to keep away from Raman's orbit.

Another interesting anecdote narrated by Born is about a Jewish physicist in Aligarh Muslim University. Born credits that physicist with establishing a fine physics department in AMU. Born says that the new Vice Chancellor, a Muslim, kicked out all non-Muslim staff.

As the 50's rolls in both Born and Einstein have aged considerably and the turmoil of fleeing their homeland takes it toll. Born, much to Einstein's disapproval, returned to Germany. Einstein never set foot in Germany after leaving it in the 20's. Now its cold war. Courant, now at NYU, invites Born to USA. Meantime McCarthyism rages in USA. People suspected of being communist had their careers broken, lives became hell. Born wrote that since he was born on the far side of the Iron Curtain he would not get a visa.

In their final days Born and especially Einstein became pacifists. Einstein agonized over his letter to FDR that kicked off the Manhattan project became a pacifist. Born says he would not like to visit UC-Berkley was because Edward Teller the father of atom bomb was there.

The letters end in 1955. Einstein passed away in April 1955 in Princeton NJ. I recently took my dad to the street where Einstein lived. 112 Mercer Street. Its a private home now. The gate had a small board "Private Residence".

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