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Albert Einstein’s Forgotten Legacy

This year there are countless conferences, exhibitions and publications dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s annus mirabilis, the miracle year in which he revolutionized our concepts of time, space, energy and matter. But since his death 50 years ago this week, scant attention has been paid to his political and social opinions, writings or activities.

In our non-ideological era, it has widely been forgotten that in spite of his amazing breakthroughs in the realm of physics, Einstein always found time to be intensely involved in public causes, not shying away from being outspoken and defying the political consensus of the day. He first became politically active at the onset of World War I. In October 1914, he was one of only four German academics to sign an anti-war manifesto drawn up in response to a pro-war manifesto supported by 93 German intellectuals and artists.

In the aftermath of World War I, Einstein became a major figure in the international peace movement until he fell out with the more radical pacifists who opposed the use of force to combat Nazism. In his famous August 1939 letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he urged the American president to explore the possibility of developing nuclear weapons to deploy against Nazi Germany.

Following World War II and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein deeply regretted what he perceived as his crucial role in initiating the atomic era. Yet contrary to popular myth, Einstein himself was not “the father of the A-bomb.” He was not asked to join the Manhattan Project, and in any case he would not have received a security clearance due to his leftist sympathies.

Nevertheless, after 1945 he was popularly perceived as a modern Prometheus who had bestowed the doubtful gift of nuclear fire on humankind. In 1950, he described the predicament of the modern scientist: “Thus the man of science, as we can observe with our own eyes, suffers a truly tragic fate. In his sincere attempt to achieve clarity and inner independence, he has succeeded, by his sheer super-human efforts, in fashioning the tools which will not only enslave him but also destroy him from within.”

Einstein believed that scientists had a special responsibility to educate their fellow citizens about the perils of modern technology. Therefore, he chaired the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists and campaigned tirelessly for nuclear disarmament and the establishment of a world government.

Yet in spite of Einstein’s enduring celebrity status, few are aware of his deeply felt conviction that scientists, and scholars in general, have an ethical obligation to fulfill their commitment toward society for the general good. Indeed, in the 50 years since his death, Einstein’s popular iconic image as a benevolent grandfatherly figure has brought about his de-politicization — a trivialization of his public role, in which he has been rendered as harmless to politics and society as Mickey Mouse.

What are the origins of Einstein’s profound commitment to the political and social responsibilities of scholars and intellectuals, and of his deeply held humanistic conviction that human beings are the measure of all things? On numerous occasions, Einstein ascribed his ethical worldview to his Jewish background.

In 1934, he wrote: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence — these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my lucky stars that I belong to it.” Einstein was convinced that it was the Jewish component in his multinational and multicultural identity as a Jew, Swabian, Berliner, Swiss and eventually American that led him to his fundamentally humanistic worldview. As a rational humanist, Einstein defined the Jews as a people united by a common destiny, history and culture and repeatedly claimed that he did not value institutionalized religions or believe in a personal God.

Einstein’s passionate belief in the social responsibility of scientists and academics was not merely an abstract ideal for him. It was also a principle he put into practice.

During his lifetime, Einstein was often confronted with the issue of how to best protect scientific and academic freedoms. Faced with antisemitic restrictions against Jewish scholars and students from Eastern Europe in Germany, he offered them complimentary courses on relativity and advocated the establishment of various institutions to accommodate their academic needs — including, most notably, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The radicalization of German politics and academia in the 1920s made Einstein and his “Jewish physics” a political target of the radical right. The rise of Nazism in the 1930s forced Einstein to emigrate from Germany to the United States and he, in turn, used his considerable clout to enable the immigration of hundreds of Jewish academics from Central Europe.

During the McCarthy era in the United States, Einstein advised those who were subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee to exercise civil disobedience. It was during this period that he warned fervently against the imperilment of the freedom of American intellectuals and artists and famously declared that “under present circumstances,” he “would rather choose to be a plumber or peddler” than a scientist in America, as it would offer him a greater degree of freedom.

What advice would Einstein give today’s scientists and academics about the ethical dilemmas they face in light of current controversial issues in science and medicine — such as their involvement in the development of military technology, the influence of corporate sponsorship on scientific studies, stem-cell research and the continuation of life support?

In March 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, he wrote: “By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty: one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes rational judgment and action.”

Einstein maintained that scientists are never merely experts working in a political or social vacuum. They are obliged to anticipate the consequences of their work — if the fruits of their labors are incompatible with their ethical values, they must refuse to participate, even at the risk of loss of employment.

The 50th anniversary of Einstein’s passing on April 18 fell on the eve of Passover, the Jewish festival of freedom. Perhaps it is high time to remember that Einstein bequeathed us not only with a scientific legacy, but also with a political and social legacy.

Indeed, how many contemporary scientists and other academics — comfortably employed at universities and corporations — are prepared to take up Einstein’s challenge and match his courage to speak out against militarism, civil right violations, social injustice and economic inequities?

Ze’ev Rosenkranz, historical editor at the Einstein Papers Project at the California Institute of Technology, is the former Bern Dibner curator of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of “The Einstein Scrapbook” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

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