Archive article from The Socialist Issue 393
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 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:
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:
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:
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.
The early years – low pay and poverty
Einstein's parents had worried that he displayed learning difficulties. He was ponderous and his speech was not fluent, which may have been linked to dyslexia. However, he had good manual dexterity and was curious about how mechanical toys worked.
At school a teacher told him: "that nothing would ever become of you. Your presence in the class destroys the respect of the students" toward the teachers! Einstein was expelled for being disruptive and left without a diploma.
Early in life he developed a critical attitude towards false authority and realised that creative thought requires the questioning of accepted convention. The steady influx of younger people willing to challenge the old precepts keeps true scientific inquiry alive. He valued self-discipline, single-minded determination, and dedication to truth.
His final grades at a Swiss Polytechnic were unexceptional. With little prospects his father would write to various scientists begging them to give his son a job. From one in 190l; "…his idea that he has gone off the tracks... and is now out of touch gets more entrenched every day... he is oppressed by the thought that he is a burden on us, people of modest means."
Eventually Einstein got a job as clerk at the Bern Patent Office through a friend - in 1904 his promotion from clerk third class to second class was denied. Einstein knew all about low pay, tuition fees and student poverty - his meagre salary couldn't pay for child care to allow his wife, Mileva, to continue her university studies.
Yet in 1905 he sent an article to the journal Annalen der Physik. The first draft of his theory of relativity had taken him less than six weeks to prepare. Other scientists were incredulous. Where were the powerful experimental facilities and research laboratories that must surely have backed Einstein's conclusions?
He jokingly referred to his desk drawer at the Patent Office as his "department of theoretical physics" - it contained the notes he scribbled down during his work breaks. In his spare evenings he would be found hunched over his manuscripts at the kitchen table, his free hand rocking the crib of his young child. Einstein was 26 years old!
After 1905 Einstein does what no one has equalled since. Over the next 20 years he continued to produce consistent work at the cutting edge of physics. For all the miracles of the year 1905, his best work lay ahead.
1905 – the miracle year
1905 - "the annus mirabilis, the miracle year"
Einstein gave an incontestable affirmation to the contention of dialectical materialism - that matter and energy are inseparable, and that motion (energy) is the mode of existence of matter. Ten years later, in his General Theory of Relativity, space and time were shown to be unified (the spacetime continuum), that matter causes spacetime to curve and that its motion and properties are, in turn, altered by that curvature.
Einstein’s ideas are often misrepresented. The playwright Tom Stoppard has characters in his plays talk about "Einsteinian" effects that supposedly echo the view of relativity. However Einstein had already answered these distortions in 1929: "The meaning of relativity has been widely misunderstood. Philosophers play with the word, like a child with a doll... It (relativity) does not mean that everything in life is relative."
Max Planck's experimental work caused him to claim that energy, such as light, seemed to be transmitted in discrete 'packages'. This view challenged the conventional view - that radiation travelled as a continuous wave. Only Einstein understood that the suggestion had a fundamental significance for physics, which he developed into a "quantum" view in his 1905 paper on the "photoelectric effect".
By 1909 he was satisfied that he had produced his strongest argument for the physical reality of these packages of light - what we now call photons. For this significant work, the only one he himself regarded as truly revolutionary, he won the Nobel Prize in 1922.
Einstein’s third achievement of 1905 remains largely neglected. In solving a mystery that had perplexed scientists for decades, he proved the existence of atoms and molecules as physical entities although they could not be directly seen!
During the nineteenth century, a growing number of scientists had posed the existence of atoms but they were not universally accepted by the beginning of the 20th century.
There were outright opponents like Ostwald and Helm (the Energeticists). and others, like Ernst Mach (the Positivists), refused to accept the existence of things that we can’t directly sense but did admit that "atomism" had a certain limited "usefulness".
Einstein contended that matter was composed of atoms. Of his 1905 paper investigating Brownian motion, he declared that this "would guarantee as much as possible the existence of atoms of definite finite size". (Einstein, "Autobiographical Notes", 1979, pp44 - 45)
Less well known is Einstein's major contribution to understanding magnetism, as well as energy. His ideas stand behind lasers, atomic clocks, pharmaceutical equipment (hospital PET scanners, etc.), shipping and aircraft navigational aids (Loran C and the Global Positioning Satellite System), all internet switching devices, smoke detectors, areas of bio-engineering and nano-technology, and so on. The synchronisation of the global financial and banking transactions depends on adjustments according to Einstein. In one of his minor papers he even explains why the sky is blue!
Einstein himself would be the first to say that his ideas are not the last word in physics, he acknowledged that he was able see further because he "stood on the shoulders of giants". Einstein had his successes, but we should also recognise his failures. Despite his many revolutionary ideas, Einstein refused at first to accept that his own General Theory of Relativity implied that the universe was expanding.
Yet he was not afraid to change his mind or admit he was wrong when faced with Edwin Hubble's proofs. Relativity, basing itself on experimental discoveries, showed the limits of Newtonian physics. In turn it will be revised as new findings test it to the limit. Ideas about nature may falter but not the real world!