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Episode Two: Einstein's War

Sepia image of Einstein, cover of Einstein's War

Episode Two: Einstein’s War

“We like to forget how hard it is to do science and how it could have been different. A simple story of science seems more true, more convincing.”
–Matthew Stanley, Einstein’s War

Transcript
Episode One: Einstein's War

KC Trommer (host)
I'm so pleased that you're part of this. I was thinking what better way to showcase this than to look at a book that speaks directly about a collaboration, albeit from a distance, between Albert Einstein, everyone's famous Swiss patent clerk turned theoretical physicist, and the astronomer AE Eddington, the head of England's Royal Observatory. And a hundred years ago, their collaboration changed our understanding of the universe and as collaborations sometimes do. You demonstrate in the book the way that the two connected during the great, so-called Great War, World War I, in which Germany and England are enemies, though both Einstein who held a Swiss passport and Eddington, who is a British Quaker, were outside of the nationalist fervor that overtook many of their colleagues in their respective home countries, and both were interested in advancing or I guess re-articulating, returning to, international collaboration in science and scientific work.

Matthew Stanley
So in the run-up to the Great War, science had become international and global in a way it had never really been before. It became normal for not just scientists to work on projects across borders, although there were a lot of those. So for instance, there were regular conferences that would bring together scientists working on a particular project, say quantum theory or something like that. So they would be brought together to converse with each other and work on common problems and so on. But even more, there were networks of publication. That is, if you were in Germany, you read journals from America and the United Kingdom and France and possibly even Japan at the time because that was how you formed the scientific community. The community was sort of defined by the group of people who could communicate about the work they were doing, and then was also very common for young students of undergraduates and PhD students to go and study in other countries. So this was the norm when Einstein and Eddington were sort of young scientists and training. So it was all the more shocking when the war broke out and all of those deep international ties were ripped almost immediately within weeks of the start of the war. Scientists retreated into their own nationalistic camps. So the kind of collaboration between Einstein and Eddington that looking back seems perfectly straightforward and sort of a natural part of science was actually quite controversial and difficult to establish.

KC Trommer
That was one of the things that really struck me about the book and the way that you situated the workings of science and coming to these realizations and understandings in the historical context and the difficulty of it--Einstein losing weight and having stomach issues and starving in Berlin and then Eddington as a conscientious objector, being put through all of these different tests to try to get him conscripted. And this is all happening underneath the work of science. They're not just sitting back and working on science. They're actually actively being worked against.

Matthew Stanley
Right yeah, scientists often like to talk about their field as being sort of above ordinary concerns. It sets not it's not political, it's not national. It doesn't deal with kind of everyday messy things, and that's supposed to give some kind of intellectual authority to it. But in practice, that's never the case. So this is a particularly interesting example because the war kind of brings all of these things out. But it's always the case that scientists have to worry about things that are that should be labeled political questions like who you're going to correspond with, what language you're going to write your paper in, and who do you cite and who do you not cite? Are you getting funding from a government agency or a private corporation? These are all political questions in an important and deep way that happen literally every day for every scientist. There's no escape from these sorts of questions. It's just that the war brings them out in particularly strong relief. And I think it's one of the reasons this is an interesting story because it brings these things out.

KC Trommer
I got to page 256 and I realized they've never even corresponded. Their first correspondence was in...?

Matthew Stanley
The end of 1919. This is an interesting kind of collaboration because as you suggest, Einstein and Eddington are working together in some sense for about three years before they even are able to send letters back and forth because the nature of war is such that Germany is blockaded and Einstein can't get papers or letters in or out of the country. The best they can do is correspond through a neutral third country. That's the Netherlands, where they have a mutual friend, this guy named Willem de Sitter. And then even when they do have letters going back and forth between de Sitter, those are often on ships that are sunk by submarines. So there isn't even a guarantee that these neutral communications will get through to where they need to go. So it's an interesting sense of collaboration because the project is sort of finished by the time they actually are able to talk to each other. So the sense in which they are collaborating is these high-level abstract goals, things like scientific internationalism, reworking the foundations of physics. And each of them is working on the project sort of from different ends at the same time. And they actually don't meet in person until 1921, even a couple of years after they're able to write letters back and forth.

KC Trommer
Right, so I guess we should step back a little bit and talk about the larger collaborative issue here which is that Einstein had come up with his theory but he didn't have the practical means to prove it and needed an astronomical proof that was available in the eclipse that happened in 1919, which Eddington was in charge of two expeditions for.

Matthew Stanley
Yes, so Einstein finishes his theory of general relativity in 1915 and relativity is a very strange theory in all sorts of different ways. It's conceptually weird because you have things like clocks running slow and space-time being distorted; it's also mathematically strange. It's hard for even trained scientists at the time to kind of read it. And Einstein himself is not a particularly important enough person for anyone to go out of their way to kind of understand this stuff. So he's got a lot of strikes against him, so what he needs is an empirical confirmation of his ideas. He has a series of equations that describe how he thinks the universe should work. But physicists usually want to check those ideas because you got all kinds of crazy ideas. So you need something that you can go out and look for and see if it's right. So for Einstein, the best test he had available is what's called the gravitational deflection of light. So in relativity, gravity bends light. If you look at a star that appears right near the edge of intense gravitational body like the sun, the image of that star should be slightly distorted as the sun's gravity bends the light ray as it comes by. But of course, the sun is bright. So you have you can't see the star during the day. So you have to wait for a solar eclipse when the sun is blotted out and the stars become visible but they're still close to the sun. You have to wait for a solar eclipse. You have to wait for the sun to be in just the right place. That has to be right in front of one of these stars. And then you have to take this measurement, which is a very small amount. So Einstein predicts that the star’s image will be distorted in this very particular way with a numerical value. So Einstein needs somebody to go out and measure the position of this star during this solar eclipse. And he can't do it; he's not an astronomer, he does not have this set of skills. So he has a friend of his in Berlin who he tries to get to do it actually just before the war breaks out. Unfortunately, the eclipse this German astronomer is going to go observe was actually in Russia. So the eclipse was supposed to be just a couple of days after the war ended up starting. So this guy gets arrested as a spy because he's got these telescopes in the middle of a Russian naval base, essentially. And then once the war begins, it becomes impossible for Einstein to travel but he keeps trying to get other people to do this. When word of Einstein's theory makes its way through the Netherlands, up to England, that's when this guy Arthur Eddington reads about it for the first time, and Eddington is an astronomer who has some interest in physics. And it so happens that he knows the weird math that this is written in, he is kind of a math nerd in college so he just happened to learn it. He understands Einstein's theory and is excited about the physics, but he also realizes that this is an opportunity to sort of demonstrate the importance of scientific internationalism, that is, to show that English and German science can work together. And he really only realizes this is an opportunity after he hears that Einstein is also a pacifist. So there are these two pacifists who can't meet but who were thinking about science in similar ways. Eddington decides that he actually has the skills and the capability to go and do this test. And in fact, he sets this up, he has lots of help, many friends—friends in high places specifically who provide him with money and cover because as you pointed out, there is a danger that Eddington would be arrested and thrown into prison because he was a conscientious objector to the war and his high-ranking friend manages to get him out of this particular problem. But Eddington, in the end, is the one who goes to the Southern hemisphere where the eclipse happens to be in May of 1919 on this tiny little rock off the west coast of Africa and performs the measurements that show that Einstein's prediction was right and relativity was true.

KC Trommer
Eddington was motivated not just purely out of scientific beneficence, but out of a sense as a Quaker, of wanting to reaffirm that internationalism.

Matthew Stanley
Exactly right. So he, like Einstein, is surrounded by his scientific colleagues who are deeply nationalistic and really doing the best they can to win the war and Eddington is disgusted by this. He thinks it's terrible, it's not what science should be about. He wants to use Einstein and relativity as a great example, kind of a big event, to show everyone how important it is to have these kinds of international collaborations and to really make people think that that's what science should be about rather than, say, developing better chemical weapons, which is what other people are thinking about.

KC Trommer
Einstein’s friend Haber, for example.

Matthew Stanley
Yes, that's right. And Einstein has the same problem in Berlin. He's surrounded by all these very pro-war, pro-imperial people. Many of his close friends feel this way as well. So it's interesting how you get these two scientists that are deeply isolated by their respective communities but managed to find this bridge via science, but also via their common politics, that is, they're both pacifists and want the war to come to an end.

KC Trommer
And they connected just as the war ended and then Einstein became kind of synonymous with science and genius.

Matthew Stanley
Exactly. And this is in large part due to Eddington’s efforts, right. So Eddington wanted the scientific revolution that we think of associated with relativity. But he wants to restore this idea that science should be transnational and not be bound up with the war. So one of the things he does is he sets up an enormous public relations campaign to make everybody excited about Einstein. And it so happens that Eddington was sort of the Neil deGrasse Tyson of his day, a really gifted public speaker, a talented writer. He's the great popular science person of Britain in between the wars. And he uses all of those skills to get people excited about Einstein, and it works. So Einstein becomes famous not because really of anything he does, but because of how Eddington and others used him as sort of a symbol of what science should be in this particular political view.

KC Trommer
So Eddington is the ambassador for Einstein and relativity and also for his larger aims.

Matthew Stanley
Yes, that's right. And I think it's important to understand that it's both a scientific and political project all at the same time.

KC Trommer
Right. And there's a passage that I want to read that’s related to what we’re talking about, on page 319 . . .

Matthew Stanley
So this is from the last chapter of the book, so this is after Einstein becomes famous in these critical moments: “Today we think of relativity as a fantastically abstract theory. Just a few elegant equations on a page, but its emergence was a messy, tangled story. There was no single moment of discovery. No guarantee of fame, only years of struggle and failure and challenge. Einstein had to persist through failure and skepticism. He had to trust his friends. Eddington had to hold to his pacifism against overwhelming pressures. He needed to have faith in both God and physics. Any of a dozen turning points could have waylaid relativity, leaving Einstein no more recognizable in name than Lorentz or Noether, leaving the equations more curious than earth-shaking. He might be remembered as one of a dozen or so people who contributed to early quantum theory. Relativity might be mentioned as an odd side project of his. We like to forget how hard it is to do science and how it could have been different. A simple story of science seems more true, more convincing.”

KC Trommer
In that passage, I thought you hit on a few things, which is the sense that what has happened was inevitable. It wasn't the end, and also that we always neatly trimming the narrative to make it make sense and to make it more tellable, and I think Einstein did that as well.

Matthew Stanley
He does it himself. And this is, I think, an important lesson of historical thinking generally, is realizing that the stories we tell about the past are generally chosen for reasons, right? No one just sits down and tells an impartial story of the past. And this is true for science too, that is, the way we think about the theories and equations through which we interpret the universe could have been different. We like to think everything makes sense in retrospect, but it's actually that's something we impose on it. In the past and relativity, I think is a particularly interesting story because Einstein has several different versions of the story he tells over the years. So depending on how old he was when you asked him, “how did you come up with the theory of relativity?” You get many different stories and people ask him this enough that it's very confusing if you don't sort of see the pattern. But at various times in his life, he tells the story differently because he's trying to make different points about the nature of science or he's in the middle of an argument with someone at a particular point, and he wants to use this as leverage. Stories have power.

KC Trommer
He originally published six papers in 1905, that was the basis of it.

Matthew Stanley
His miracle year.

KC Trommer
Super productive--was he 27 then?

Matthew Stanley
Something like that, mid-twenties.

KC Trommer
So, hyper-productive, and then the war encroached on all of that. And then in 1919, it was affirmed with Eddington's confirmation. In thinking about the telling of stories. I was wondering what gave rise to you wanting to tell this particular story, and I was thinking about your previous books. Can you talk a little bit about what moved you to write this and how you built on those previous books.

Matthew Stanley
My first two books were academic books, meaning they were written primarily for other scholars and that's a necessity of being a professor in the modern university: you have to write this kind of work until you're established. But one of the experiences of being here at Gallatin has been that since everyone is interdisciplinary, there's no one here in my own field. So if I was in a history department, everyone would already understand the kind of history I was writing. But here, you know, I share office walls with Latin American political theorists and people who do ancient Greek drama and they don't understand right off the bat why this kind of history is important. So I've had to get a lot of practice at explaining why the work we do in the history of science should be interesting to all sorts of different people. And of course, that's what happens in the classroom as well. So a few years ago, I realized I was unsatisfied with my professional writing, being focused on this tiny little audience when I was having these really satisfying conversations with people outside my fields about this material. So I decided I wanted to write something aimed at a broader audience. And we were creeping up on the centenary of the events in this book. I thought this might be a good way to grab some people because everybody loves Einstein whether they know it or not.

KC Trommer
When you say the conversations you were having were more satisfying in the sense that you were explicating something that someone didn't understand and you saw them understand it or that they were asking you questions that changed your way of thinking about it?

Matthew Stanley
Probably more of the latter, that is, in having to explain to my colleague, who is a dancer, why this is interesting and important--in the process of that conversation, we both make connections between our interests and our fields that we wouldn't have found otherwise. I wouldn't have had the motivation or the opportunity to make those sorts of connections. So I think the story is much more interesting because I have all of those conversations in the back of my head and thinking about, oh, yes, these are the things that can get the economists or the literature scholars interested in this stuff as well.

KC Trommer
Well, I noticed once relativity was confirmed and it was being disseminated in The New York Times, what did they say? They said . . .

Matthew Stanley
"Lights Askew in the Heavens."

KC Trommer
"Lights Askew in the Heavens." So beautiful! And all of a sudden there were a number of poems that were rewritten on this theme. And all of a sudden because everyone was thinking about the heavens and the stars, then all of a sudden, as a poet, I notice that the language was suddenly looking toward metaphor more. And that in terms of some disseminating it into the popular conversation, even though people would say they don't understand or it's impossible to understand relativity, which is not the case, but that the language that people were reaching for was more poetic.

Matthew Stanley
Yes, that's right. And this is there's a sense in which this was a different era when something interesting happened in the world, your average person would sit down and write a comic poem about it, and that was totally reasonable. Then you'd go to the party and you would share the poems that you wrote about this thing. So things are a little different today, but it's really remarkable to the kind of literary and artistic response to Einstein as well. So he becomes, at least as an icon, becomes a fixture of the cultural conversation for many people today.

KC Trommer
Now, he would be a meme. In the research of the book and in your what you anticipated in the writing of it, was what were the surprises that you found along the way?

Matthew Stanley
Well, one sort of surprise of magnitude, that is one of the things I knew this story was going to be about, is how Einstein goes from obscurity to fame. So that's kind of one of the primary narratives. But I didn't really understand how significant that was until I got into the primary sources quite deeply. So my favorite example of this is it's 1917, it's two years after he has finished his theory of relativity, his great magnum opus, and he goes to Switzerland to deliver a series of lectures on relativity and no one shows up.

KC Trommer
It was canceled, right?

Matthew Stanley
It was canceled because of a lack of interest. So if you can imagine, there was a time at which in an entire country, Switzerland, not enough people were interested in hearing Einstein talk, to make it worth holding a lecture.

KC Trommer
And two years later, women were fainting when he walked in the room.

Matthew Stanley
Exactly, right? And that that change is a really remarkable thing, especially for the era. You know, nowadays, fame comes and goes a little bit faster. But this is still the era of the telegraph. Radio is still a brand new technology at this time. So it's really extraordinary how quickly his own experience of the world changes from being just another physicist to being the most famous person in the world.

KC Trommer
I was thinking about fame in the contemporary moment. I also think about what it is to bring out this book about nationalism in this cultural moment that we're in and particularly in America, but by no means only in America. So were you thinking about that at all? I know your market the centenary, but was there anything else in play in your mind?

Matthew Stanley
Not consciously, I should say. The nationalism is, of course, a core part of the story, I wasn't deliberately trying to make references to the current day. And to be perfectly honest, I'd be much happier if there were fewer correspondences to the present day. But I think this is something that people often ask me because of the subtitle of the book about how relativity triumphed over nationalism. And I should say that's my publisher's wording, I probably would not have put it quite that strongly, but people say so how did this work? Why was relativity able to triumph? And some people want to tell this story as one in which science, as an inherently transnational thing, just kind of holds to its own values and win, and that is not at all what actually happens. There are many more scientists who are excited about nationalism than are protesting nationalism like Einstein and Eddington do. The resolution of the story, where relativity wins, is not because it's inevitable that science will triumph over nationalism, but because a small group of people who had strong values and a commitment to a particular way of doing their work worked really hard and sacrificed all sorts of things and really devoted themselves to that goal. So I think that the lesson there is that institutions like science, say, don't have power on their own. Institutions are made of people and people have to make decisions to do things. So we have a story here about science triumphing over nationalism because a group of scientists decided that nationalism was a bad thing and that they wanted to put their efforts into something better.

KC Trommer
Do you think that this kind of re-articulation of that, then, has continued? Do you see that set the standard and articulated it very clearly in response to what happened during World War I?

Matthew Stanley
Yes, so one of the things that happens is that the eclipse expedition, the moment that makes Einstein famous, becomes an icon of science. So then becomes the sort of touchstone for scientific internationalism throughout the 20th century. So as that international science gets imperiled, again and again, people can say, no, we need to do what Einstein and Eddington did back in 1919. So then it becomes kind of a model, so even if those people aren't around anymore, it's something that you can touch back to. And this happens with the rise of fascism between the wars and World War II itself and then in the Cold War. There's no moment between 1919 and today in which science kind of relaxes and is able to be unproblematically international. It's always under these pressures right up to today, and I think that's a critical thing to remember, is that it is a constant struggle. There is no moment at which you can just say, okay, we've finally fixed science because science is what scientists do. And the scientists are not thinking about these issues, then they will just fall into whatever the context of the day is.

KC Trommer
Their collaboration has become a touchpoint?

Matthew Stanley
Exactly, it's a model, right. And we use we see scientists saying this explicitly said at the height of the Cold War, the will we get American scientists saying, look, if the British and the Germans at the end of the worst war of all time could get along, surely we can talk to our Soviet colleagues.

KC Trommer
So good. I love the book. Great, thank you. You can buy Einstein's War wherever books are sold. You can find Matt Stanley on the fifth floor of Gallatin at 1 Washington Place. And also, you are the co-host of the podcast What the If?

Matthew Stanley
That's right. WhattheIf.com or @WhatIfShow on Twitter where my friend Philip Shayne was a documentary filmmaker and I get together and run crazy thought experiments every week will change something about reality and then run with it. So what if there was no gravity? Or what if humans had four legs instead of legs and arms? And then we run with those consequences and we learn some science along the way. That's a lot of fun.

KC Trommer
Fantastic. Check it out. Thank you so much for being our guest.

Matthew Stanley
Thank you for having me.