Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Finite Cannot Contain The Infinite: Notes Toward A Medium Opus IV

There is, perhaps, no single individual from the first half of the last century who transcends our typical categories of celebrity than Albert Einstein. Due in no small part to his own natural humility and accessibility - in later life, people in and around Princeton, NJ, would find him sitting on the porch of his small house, chatting with whoever might be passing by; parents would bring their children by for help with mathematics, into which he would dive enthusiastically, if not always successfully - Einstein seemed to radiate the exact opposite image of the buttoned-up intellectual, far afield from the concerns of the rest of us, even as his own area of study was understood, even as he admitted, by fewer than two dozen people.

Not long after my second semester in college began (that would have been January, 1984), I was in the bookstore in town. Ramming around the shelves, not particularly sure what I was looking for, or even why I was there, I stumbled, quite by accident, across a thick volume on the discount shelves. Entitled Einstein on Peace, edited by Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, it was for sale for seventy-five cents. That, I thought, was a deal at any price.

I had no idea what I'd just done; reading through that book over the next couple weeks, sitting quietly in my dark dorm room, the only light the lamp on my desk - January and February in western New York, no matter the time of day or amount of sunshine, are very dark indeed - I entered a strange world that offered, I thought intuitively, a key to the puzzle I'd set myself to putting together a year and a half before. There was a link here between the questions proposed by that long-ago National Geographic article and my own, current, course of study and far more personal interest in politics. Nathan and Norden were the literary executors of Einstein's estate; after his death they gathered letters, essays, interviews, pamphlets, petitions he'd either written or signed, set them chronologically, and offered editorial comments, dates and other ways of setting context, to present the changing nature of Einstein's views on peace between and among nation-states. Perhaps best known, late in life, as both the instigator (on many levels) of the atomic bomb and the most visible advocate for the tiny but eloquent World Federalist movement (the head of the American branch of the World Federalists was a young California attorney; he won a seat in Congress in 1948 in no small part for his advocacy of reducing national sovereignty in matters of atomic armaments, and thirty-six years later was still in Washington as California's senior Senator, Alan Cranston). While I gleaned a lot of historical information from the work that has come in handy over the years, perhaps the biggest thing I got from the book was, alas, more questions: What was national sovereignty? Why were relations among states liable to break down? Was the logic Einstein used in his frequent arguments in favor of some kind of supranational mechanism for control of nuclear arms flawed in some way?

In 1905, Albert Einstein was an unhappily married, frustrated physics student, making ends meet as a clerk in a patent office in Switzerland. In his spare time he read the physics journals, and thought it would be interesting to offer his own views on some matters. He had been working on several different problems for a while and, finally, in three successive issues of the leading academic journal of physics, he published, first, a statistical analysis of Brownian Motion, what was thought to be the random motion of particles suspended in either liquid or gas. Einstein showed that, in fact, the movement was not random; there was a statistical regularity, once one examined the evidence closely. The answer Einstein offered was there had to be a force at work between the particles that operated at a level that was superceded once one moved from the very small setting of these particles. The second article considered the well-known but puzzling photoelectric effect. It was common knowledge among physicists that when materials are struck by light, the emitted electrons at particular frequencies. Einstein suggested that it was possible light, while being a waveform phenomenon might also be particulate, a bundle of specific energy that also had mass called a photon. It was when these photons hit the metal that, acting according to the laws of physics, the metal reacted and electrons were emitted, releasing not only energy but also mass in order to remain in steady-state.

The last concerned the problem posed by his solution to the photoelectric effect. How was it possible that light acted this way? How was it possible that materials, which were mass, reacted this way to light, which was energy? Einstein simplified many intersecting and contradictory possible solutions using Ockham's Razor - the simplest solution was probably right - and provided an equation, after much mathematical deduction, between mass and energy. In the process, by making the speed of light a constant as part of an equation concerning the most basic physical structures of the Universe, he went on to insist that the speed of light was a constant within all frames of reference. In other words, no matter velocity or acceleration, the speed of light - 186,000 miles per second - was always the same. It would be eleven years before the implications of this, what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity, were worked out. For the rest of his life, no matter what else Einstein would do, he was known for E=mc2, a formula that, while well known, was little understood.

Of the many virtues of Einstein's work here and later in life, perhaps the most important was his willingness to reduce the matters in question to their simplest, which would in turn create conditions for solutions that were not only logically foreseeable but also aesthetically pleasing. This insistence on the relative simplicity both of the problem and solution changed the way physics was understood, perhaps the greatest of Kuhn's paradigm shifts in the history of science. This quest for simplicity and elegance, rendering logic as necessary to understanding Einstein's thought as calculus, was also operative in his thoughts on the question of peace in world affairs. In particular after the Second World War, there was no small amount of discussion about control over both atomic armaments and the materials used in their construction and the engineering involved in their construction. Not long after the war, Harry Truman had industrialist and politically connected financier Bernard Baruch lead a small committee that would consider these problems and offer a plan to the UN Security Council. What became known as the Baruch Plan offered the gloss of international controls over the entire structure, from procuring nuclear materials to the creation and deployment of nuclear weapons in the hands of the UN Security Council; in practice, however, the entire plan was created to fail precisely because the other major powers, in particular the Soviet Union, would face massive violations of their sovereignty. A sociopath like Stalin, who didn't even trust those closest to him, was not about to allow huge numbers of American military personnel under the guise of the United Nations to wander freely through Soviet territory. The Security Council rejected the Baruch Plan before the ink was dry. 

Einstein understood the basic flaw in the Baruch plan slightly differently than did other observers. In 1905, he had started a revolution in science by making the one constant in the Universe the speed of light. Everything else, including time, was now a variable that could be altered as long as the key to the equation between mass and energy was intact. The equations, and the phenomena they represented, only made sense this way. After 1945, as Einstein saw it, the fundamental problem facing the world was the possibility of mass destruction through the use of atomic weapons in the hands of several nations with no realistic curb on their sovereign power. If that was the problem, the solution for Einstein was simple enough: alter the constants in current understanding in order to arrive at a simple, elegant solution. As Einstein understood it, his argument for some kind of supranational agency was to be limited to control over the material, technical expertise, construction, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Other matters in international affairs could be left to nation-states (although Einstein did note that, should such a mechanism be set in place, nations might well find it convenient to use as a way of settling disputes without the fallback of war that had become, even without nuclear weapons, devastating). Part of the key for Einstein was the creation and maintenance of an international force with both the authority and ability to intercede any time and place a nation might try to gain what would be the illegal understanding for building the Bomb. What, Einstein thought, could be more simple and clear given the massive destructive capability of such weapons?

Simplicity. Clarity. Elegance. These qualities were rooted in the belief that the Universe was intelligible in terms that, once reduced to their most basic were, in principle, available to anyone. Whether in physics or politics, the key was to rid ourselves of the baggage of superfluous nonsense, cut to the heart of the most basic problematic, and the questions and answers both would practically fall in to our laps.

It was difficult for a naive, young, idealistic, and extremely ignorant young man like me to articulate the fundamental flaw in all this. It was nearly impossible for a man who had all these qualities as well as a further one: I had no idea, at the time I was reading Einstein, how to articulate what I intuitively understood was the flaw. I just knew there was something amiss here. If a gun had been placed at my head, however, I wouldn't have been able to say what, precisely, that might be. Finding that flaw, being able to articulate it, became important to me, not least because right here, in this single volume in which a physicist ruminates on political matters, a big piece of the puzzle I had dumped on the table became clear. That puzzle - how was my innate interest in political matters related in any way to my growing interest in figuring out what the heck was up with things like science - had seemed impossible to put together.  No two realms seemed more different; Einstein, it seemed, offered an easy way of connecting them. Except, it was clear to me even though I couldn't have said why, I had discovered that the easy way was, in all likelihood wrong.

Virtual Tin Cup

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