Poor Einstein, Dummy Boy

In Science by Brian Koberlein2 Comments

I’ve been seeing a lot of Albert Einstein quotes recently. You know, the ones like “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Or the one where he says “Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” As Abraham Lincoln said, “95% of all quotes on the internet are false,” so you can probably guess that neither of these were ever said by dear Albert.  But it struck me how the quotes are attributed to Einstein as if it gives them more power.  Einstein was such a genius that his views on education or new-age philosophy must be genius as well.  Of course that’s not how it works. Being very talented or knowledgable in one area doesn’t make one an authority in others. And as history shows, Einstein even got things wrong in his own field.

Take, for example, Einstein’s very first publication. It was on capillary action. which is the effect that allows water to wick into materials among other things. Einstein proposed a connection between the amount of capillary action and the atomic weight of different liquids. If you’ve never heard of Einstein’s work on capillary action, that’s because it isn’t talked about much these days. The idea was completely wrong.

Perhaps his most famous errors involved general relativity. In his first version of gravitational theory, Einstein equated energy and spacetime in a way that violated conservation of energy. It was latter corrected to the version we use now. One of the things general relativity predicts is an expanding universe. Einstein didn’t like the idea, and so rejected it as a conclusion. When it was made clear that a relativistic universe cannot be stationary, Einstein added a term to his equations (now known as the cosmological constant) in order to make his model stationary. He was wrong, and what could have been a prediction turned out to be his greatest blunder.

Einstein also wasn’t keen on black holes. When it was found that black holes were a possibility within general relativity, he rejected the conclusion, calling the results a “disaster.” The same is true for the big bang. When Georges Lemaître demonstrated that cosmic expansion and GR led to the conclusion that the universe began as a dense “primeval atom,” Einstein called the result “abominable.” Einstein was wrong on both counts.

Then there was his opposition to quantum theory. Despite contributing foundational work to quantum theory (and being awarded a Nobel prize for the work), Einstein never fully accepted the ideas of quantum mechanics. A universe of particle-wave duality and probabilistic physics seemed nonsensical to Einstein. His opposition to quantum theory was made popular through the famous Bohr-Einstein debates, where Einstein tried to pick apart quantum theory, and Bohr clearly showed where Einstein went wrong.

Of course there were also a great many things Einstein got right. Revolutionary things that changed our view of the universe. Einstein’s genius is indisputable. But he wasn’t superhuman either. He made mistakes just like the rest of us. In fairness, when the evidence clearly revealed his errors, he did tend to accept them. Einstein’s goal was to have an accurate understanding of the universe.

But Einstein’s mistakes also demonstrate a power of science. Even the great Albert was wrong sometimes. Provably so by experimental and observational evidence. Instead of denying the evidence and declaring Einstein’s work to be unassailable, we celebrate the work Einstein got right, and discard the ideas he got wrong. In the end it is the evidence that leads us to better theories.

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