Michael Gordin is the Rosengarten Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the University and the Director of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts. This spring, Gordin is teaching a class on “The Einstein Era,” centered around “the most renowned, and most recognizable, scientist of the twentieth century,” according to the course description.
The Daily Princetonian sat down with Gordin to discuss the history of science as a discipline, Einstein’s legacy at Princeton, and the experience of teaching about the scientist.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you talk a little bit about the Einstein course you’re teaching? What does it focus on?
Michael Gordin: So the course is History 398. It’s called The Einstein Era. This is the first time it’s being offered. I had offered a freshman seminar about Einstein, I would guess over a decade ago. And I've always wanted to make it a more expansive class for more students. And the course is about Einstein … but it’s really technically about the Einstein era. We use Einstein as a vehicle to talk about a bunch of different things. Of course, relativity and quantum theory and the scientific developments are part of that.
But the purpose of it is to try and see how this one person's life can help us understand an extremely turbulent period of world history in which he happened. Because he was so famous and situated in particular places at particular times, he managed to touch upon and influence a large number of different intellectual, political, and scientific movements.
DP: So can you talk a little bit about Einstein’s time in Princeton? We have, for instance, an Einstein House here in Princeton, and there's the Einstein classroom in Frist. But what really was Einstein’s role in his time here in Princeton specifically?
MG: So Einstein had come to Princeton before 1933, which is when he moved here, he came and lectured here in 1921. And he had extensive correspondence with faculty members of Princeton going back from that period until he moved here in ’33. When he became one of the inaugural faculty members at the Institute for Advanced Study, across town, of course — then it didn't exist because they hadn't built the building yet — so he was here on Princeton's campus until that happened.
So he first lived in the small rental house on Library Place for a year while waiting to find the actual house. That house that Einstein lived in, is on Mercer Street. He also did quite a bit of political work in the 1930s. He was a touchstone for refugee politics, trying to get a lot of people out of Europe, if he could, and to raise awareness about the dangers of Nazi Germany. And then he stayed here until 1955, when he died.
He engaged with some student groups occasionally, especially those related to world peace. He was quite supportive of civil rights for African Americans. That is an important part of the history of Princeton, that it was a town with a large African American community — still is — and he was concerned about civil rights issues which in some ways he analogized to the treatments of Jews in Europe.
And then there’s just a lot of other stuff. He was one of the most famous people in the world and probably the most famous American in the 1940s and 1950s. He became an American citizen in 1940. He was both a resident of a reasonably small town and also a global citizen — and all of that was factored in through living on Mercer Street.
DP: So another thing that I’m interested in that you touched on before when you were introducing the class was Einstein’s role in the world of physics at large. What about his role in the history of science? Where does he fit into that greater story? I think it’d be great if we could focus it on the on the Princeton period.
MG: So the legendary status is usually associated with Bern in 1905. When he’s a patent clerk, he publishes three extremely important papers on Brownian motion, on the photoelectric effect — which is the origins of quantum theory and special relativity — in a very short period of time. A decade later, he publishes his theory of gravity: general relativity. And then in 1933, when he moves here, he’s working on a number of different projects. I’ll just highlight two of them. And they both end not necessarily in the way people usually like to think of Einstein in that he ends up on the losing end of both of these particular developments.
So the first of these is quantum theory. Einstein was one of the people who launched the quantum revolution in the sciences in 1905. And he was actively involved in it through the 1920s. He was engaged in an active debate through the mid-30s, and into the late 30s, about what the proper way of understanding the microworld was. Quantum mechanics was a brand new theory from 1925, and it has a disturbingly relaxed attitude towards causal relationships— that is, A causes B in a deterministic way. For Einstein, that was pretty much the definition of science.
So trying to understand how this incredibly accurate theory could yet somehow be delinked from what everybody had assumed was the nature of physics was an important philosophical question, but it was also an important physics question, and he was involved in those debates. Generally speaking, the physics community decided that Einstein’s interpretation was less favorable than the interpretation associated with Niels Bohr from Copenhagen. So by the late 30s, Einstein is seen as having ... “lost” those debates. So that’s thing one.
The second thing in the history of science that he was involved with was a decade’s long quest to create a unified field theory, a theory that unified for him gravity, which is what he did in general relativity, with electromagnetism, which is what special relativity was mostly focused on. And he wanted to create a unified field theory that explained both of those phenomena. And it didn't work for two reasons.
[First,] it’s not compatible with quantum theory. Neither is general relativity, but we still use that. The second reason is he thought there were only two fundamental forces of nature, gravity and electromagnetism. That's what everybody thought then. The world discovered that there are actually two other fundamental forces of nature, the strong force that holds the nucleus together, and the weak force, which is responsible for certain aspects of new atomic decay, and nuclear decay. And without those two forces, there’s no way you can come up with a unified field theory — no one has yet but we’re closer than Einstein was. So his second big project where he devoted most of his time in Princeton to ended up not yielding results.
DP: So you just spoke a little bit about how a lot of the class is focused on biographical information — sort of using Einstein as a way to look at this larger period of history in which he lived that was really turbulent. I’m wondering though, what is something that you really particularly enjoy teaching from his life — maybe a story or an anecdote, or a particular concept?
MG: So I guess the thing I most enjoyed teaching about it is his very distinctive voice. There are a bunch of things that are unique about Einstein. The fact that he is as famous as he is, is unprecedented, and still pretty unusual. Children today know what his face looks like, that’s kind of surprising. But he wrote a great deal.
We have preserved a lot of his letters, his public writings, obviously, they’re published, but a lot of his private writings, too. And I find actually reading in detail, his, his voice, his uniquely personal voice, which has a particular sense of humor. It’s not always to everyone's taste, but it is funny sometimes. And it has a very distinctive approach to how he reasons and how he interacts with others.
I find discussing with students the human aspect that’s behind this highly mythified figure, that’s the part I really like doing the most. That resonates whether you’re talking about his, his interest in involvement with the Zionist movement, his interest and involvement with physics, civil rights, pacifism, you can always hear that voice in the documents. And that’s one of the things I find most exciting about working with him.
DP: What is one thing that you really want to make sure that people know about Einstein or about this class in general?
MG: So, I guess two things. The first, which I think everybody who reads the special issue in the ‘Prince’: No, Einstein was not a faculty member of Princeton, he was a faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Study, and those things are different. This is just a little hobbyhorse, because it's very weird to have to explain this to a lot of people.
The second thing is we have about 50 percent of Einstein's archive in Firestone Library. It’s a copy of half of what exists now in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but also a bunch of original documents that are just specific to here. And anybody on campus can go and look at those and you can have your firsthand contact with documents or pictures that associate Einstein specifically with this place: him sailing on Lake Carnegie, him walking through campus, and that's kind of a wonderful opportunity, which people who are on Princeton's campus have access to that I wish more people knew about.
Hope Perry is the Head Podcast Editor at the ‘Prince’ who has covered USG, University COVID-19 policies, and US politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hopemperry.