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E=mc2 - how Einstein changed our understanding of the universe
"The results of an electrodynamic investigation recently published by me in this journal lead to a very interesting conclusion, which shall be derived here".
The opening lines of one of five scientific papers written 100 years ago by Albert Einstein in 1905.
After three pages of mathematical notes, no more than a postscript to his main Relativity article, the conclusion: E = mc2.
A century after these papers were published, Roy Farrar examines’ how the materialist basis for Einstein’s theories was reflected in his socialist ideas and support for the struggle to change society.
The horrific destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 thrust Einstein's most famous equation onto the world's consciousness. Its potency could not be denied - the conversion into energy of about 10 grammes per kilogramme of uranium was enough to destroy Hiroshima - the nuclear flash would have been visible from the planet Jupiter!
In 1939 Einstein had written to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility of Germany building an atomic bomb. That was his sole contribution to the Manhattan Project, the U.S. atomic bomb programme.
When he contemplated "the fields of death" he declared that if he had known that Germany would not succeed, and that the bomb would be used against Japan, "I would never have lifted a finger. Not a single finger!"
As a long time anti-war activist it had been no easy matter for him to write to Roosevelt. His conscience struggled over whether to oppose war, or to help the fight against the Nazis. He finally decided that a Nazi Europe would be worse than world war.
Einstein’s status, as a foreigner and a Jew, and his controversial political views had made him some influential enemies. He had already publicly denounced the profiteering of the arms manufacturers. The FBI had reported to Army Intelligence:
"In view of his radical background, this office would not recommend the employment of Dr Einstein… unlikely that a man of his background could… become a loyal American citizen".
First World War
When the First World War broke out in 1914, jingoism and war hysteria were prevalent throughout the battling nations. This did not leave science unscathed - instead of the former research work many turned to weapons development. Einstein, then in Berlin, was disgusted.
Einstein openly opposed the war by co-signing the Manifesto to Europeans. As the war progressed, so did his political involvement. He joined an anti-war party which was subsequently banned by the German government in 1916 and the authorities regarded him a traitor. He concluded that the underlying cause of the Great War was economic, that the conflict was born of imperialism - the ‘war for oil’ of its day - and became a socialist.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler's Nazi party seized control and with them came the systematic persecution of Jews and of political opponents. As a Jew and a socialist, Einstein was a target of the Nazi secret police. Mass meetings were held in Berlin denouncing Einstein's theories and "Jewish physics". A book One hundred authors against Einstein was published - he remarked that if he had been wrong then one would have been enough!
In the early 1950s, Einstein opposed McCarthyism and used his celebrity to speak out against racial and ethnic discrimination. In 1952 he was offered the position of President of Israel, which he declined. For some time he had supported the concept of a Jewish homeland but was uneasy about aspects of Zionism. In 1938 he had said:
"I would much rather see reasonable agreement with the Arabs on the basis of living together in peace than in the creation of a Jewish state ….. My awareness of the essential character of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power ….. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain."
Einstein wrote an essay entitled "Why socialism" for the founding issue of "Monthly Review" (May 1949). In it he concurred with Marx that capitalism rested on private property and the ownership of the means of production by an elite few. That goods are produced only for profit and not for people's needs. That capitalist exploitation was based on the unpaid labour of the working class - that wages are determined by the minimum needs of the workers not the value of their labour.
Einstein's "workers" were everyone who did not own the means of production.
He recognised that these workers had achieved some reforms through trade union and class struggle but the fundamental nature of capitalism was untouched.
He understood that the history of society was conditioned through the interplay of cultural, political, and social superstructures and trends with the underlying economic base and in so doing rejected the "exclusively economic" approach of the 'vulgarisers' of marxism.
Rejecting the arguments of the biological "reductionists" (the 'genetics is everything' crowd) he argued that human nature was not fixed and pre-determined by our biological make up. That our social and cultural environment can mould, for the better, human development, and moral behaviour.
He regarded scientific and technological advances, as not ends in themselves, but able to furnish the means to achieve socialism. Under capitalism however, he saw that new technology does not free people but results in unemployment and intensified exploitation.
The profit motive coupled with competition means that capitalism cannot create a stable society - that economic depressions and slumps are unavoidable. He was particularly concerned that capitalism with its inherent insecurities alienated the majority of its citizens:
"This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism."
….."I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion."
He was clear, however, that a planned economy, as in Stalin's Russia, was not socialist. Questions of how to overcome its lack of democracy, to safeguard human rights, to counter any bureaucratic tendencies that may arise from the centralisation of production greatly concerned Einstein.
He felt that the solving of such difficult socio-political problems held the key to any successful transition to socialism, but also that there seemed insufficient experience on which to base any definite models for the socialist society of tomorrow. He ended his essay by appealing for a serious debate to clarify the socialist programme.
In The Socialist 19 May 2005: