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What is Einstein’s theory of relativity?

Einstein's relativity theory can be understood as a theory of absolutes. The two fundamental principles on which his theory was based both involved invariants in the physical world. First, he argued that the laws of physics do not vary in different inertial frames of reference; they are the same in all non-accelerating frames. Secondly, he argued that the speed of light is constant in all frames of reference. Beyond these two principles, Einstein linked space and time in an invariant space-time that could serve as a metric to measure the distance between events in different frames of reference. Hermann Minkowski, a German mathematician and teacher of Einstein, provided the clearest formulation of this concept of invariant space-time. He argued that space and time are mere facets of an invariant all-encompassing space-time continuum in which one may measure both the spatial distance between two simultaneous events, and the temporal difference between two identically-located events. Although the spatial and temporal coordinates of two events can shift, they are always linked by the same invariant space-time, which serves as an absolute metric, or standard of measurement.

The British physicist Arthur Eddington also interpreted Einstein's theory as a theory of absolutes because he argued that Einstein's relativity demonstrated absolute idealism--that is, that the world has no existence independent of the physicist's conception of it, and thus all the laws of physics have an a priori mental character. This absolutism was a direct rejection of materialism. Eddington also posited another absolute, the "yearning towards god." He felt that relativity showed the inadequacy of science in applying to the nonmetrical realm, where the spirit could yearn for God. Finally, the Russian thinker V.A. Fock also interpreted Einstein's theory as one of absolutes: absolute materialism. Fock was a Marxist materialist who used Einstein's theory of special relativity to argue for the new absolutes of the constant velocity of light and space-time. He felt that relativity should be seen as an explanation of nature that takes into account exclusively the physical properties of reality, a rejection of idealism. To emphasize its absolute nature, Fock called relativity the "theory of absolute space-time." Thus, in spite of its name, Einstein's relativity theory has been repeatedly interpreted as a theory of invariants and absolutes.

What was Einstein's relationship to religion as a young child?

Although Albert Einstein was born into a Jewish family, his parents were not particularly observant. For instance, they did not observe traditional dietary laws or attend religious services. Hermann and Pauline Einstein sent Albert to a Catholic public primary school at age six, though he also received religious instruction from a distant relative, as instruction in one's own religion was compulsory in the state of Bavaria. When Einstein moved on to the Luitpold Gymnasium at age 10, he received the two hours of religious instruction per week that the school offered its Jewish pupils. Einstein studied the Ten Commandments, biblical history, and the rudiments of Hebrew grammar. At the age of eleven, Einstein went through an intense but brief religious phase in which he observed the kosher dietary laws, read the Bible avidly, and composed short hymns to the glory of God.

Though he began preparing to become a bar mitzvah, his acquaintance with Max Talmud, the poor Jewish medical student who joined the Einstein family for a weekly meal, soon weakened his fervor for traditional religion. Talmud recommended philosophical and popular scientific books that led Einstein to doubt the religious precepts he had been taught in school. Einstein began questioning the veracity of the Bible and declined to become a bar mitzvah. He soon became fully disillusioned with his faith as a result of his growing scientific awareness. By the time he turned thirteen, he began to resent organized religion and all forms of dogmatic instruction. From this point onwards, Einstein's connection with Judaism was strictly cultural rather than religious.

Why was Einstein drawn to the thinking of Baruch Spinoza?

Albert Einstein identified very closely with the seventeenth-century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, both because he was attracted to Spinoza's philosophy of religion and because he identified with the philosopher's relationship to the Jewish community. Spinoza believed that the universe is governed by a mechanical and mathematical order such that all events in nature occur according to immutable laws of cause and effect. He held that God is devoid of ethical concerns and therefore does not reward or punish human behavior. Einstein, who first studied Spinoza's Ethics in Bern with his friends from the Olympia Academy, was attracted to Spinoza's notion of a universally applicable causality, with God as the beginning of the causal chain. Einstein also agreed with Spinoza's denial of the existence of a personal God and this God's unrestricted determinism. Yet Einstein was not an atheist; as Einstein is often quoted as having said, "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Though Einstein denied any sort of personal God, he shared Spinoza's faith in a superior intelligence that reveals itself in the beauty of nature.

Additionally, Einstein adopted Schopenhauer's notion of cosmic religious feeling. According to this view, true religiosity is constituted by pure wonder and awe. Einstein believed that all scientists felt a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, and this cosmic religious feeling was the motivation for scientific work. Like Spinoza, he held that a man of science could not believe in a personal God, but once this notion was discarded, science and religion were reconcilable. Einstein may also have been attracted to the Euclidean nature of Spinoza's writing and thinking, which involved laying down postulates that served as the basis for his conclusions. Moreover, Einstein shared Spinoza's love of solitude and intellectual independence. Both Spinoza and Einstein rejected their Jewish religious tradition: Spinoza was excommunicated from the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656, and Einstein renounced his ties to Judaism at the age of twelve. Thus, Einstein identified with Spinoza for both personal and philosophical reasons.

What was Einstein's relationship to Zionism?

Zionism was a late nineteenth- and twentieth- century international movement established to promote a Jewish national state in Palestine. Einstein first learned about Zionism when he moved to Berlin in 1911, the Zionist headquarters at the time. He was drawn to the Zionist cause as a result of the influence of Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew who had recently persuaded the British government to issue the famous Balfour Declaration declaring their full support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Though Einstein did not identify strongly with Judaism, he was passionate about preserving the Jewish values of social justice and intellectual aspiration. Einstein thus had a cultural and intellectual vision for Israel, not a political one, and thus his version of Zionism did not involve any aspects of nationalism. He saw Israel as a cultural center of Jewry rather than a Jewish homeland or a Jewish state.

After witnessing the anti-Semitism of the European university system, Einstein was determined to create a place where Jews could gain an education, unhampered by prejudice. He felt that a Jewish state would serve as a cultural beacon that could best be achieved and maintained through education. Hence he was a strong supporter of Hebrew University, and in 1921 went on a worldwide tour to raise money for its establishment. However, he became increasingly distressed by the way in which the University was organized: Einstein had envisioned an academically elite institution devoted to research of the highest scientific standards; instead he found that the wealthy American Jews who had funded the University were more interested in creating a teaching institution at the undergraduate level. In 1928, Einstein resigned from the academic board as a sign of his disapproval.

Einstein also emphasized the need to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict by creating a Privy Council of representatives to serve as a mediating agent. He appealed to Weizmann to cooperate peacefully with the Arabs and suggested the creation of a secret council of four Jews and four Arabs to reconcile their differing views, an idealistic goal that was never achieved. In 1947, when the United Nations debated the future of Palestine, Einstein argued against the partition plan that would divide the land into an Arab and a Jewish state, instead advocating a military-free zone for both peoples. In 1952, four years after Israel became a Jewish state, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's premier, offered Einstein the position of president of Israel. Although he was deeply moved by the offer, he explained that he did not feel that he had the interpersonal skills for the job. Nonetheless, Einstein remained deeply committed to the welfare of Israel and the cultural survival of the Jewish people.

Essay Topics

How can Einstein's militant pacifism be reconciled with his 1939 letter to Roosevelt advocating an acceleration of America's atomic bomb research?

Why was Einstein disturbed by the very quantum theory he was so instrumental in formulating?

When and on what basis did Albert Einstein first become famous?

In what ways was Einstein a conservative? A revolutionary?

How has Einstein's relativity theory influenced artists, poets, and philosophers?

Why is 1905 considered Einstein's annus mirabilis, or miracle year?

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