The New York Times Says God Is Dead

As you can tell from the date stamp, it's now 2006, so the World Year of Physics is over. The people behind Quantum Diaries are shutting their blog collection down (though several of the diarists will be continuing on their own sites), and John "End of Science" Horgan pops up in the Times book section to say that there will never be another Einstein:

Einstein is far and away the most famous and beloved scientist of all time. We revere him not only as a scientific genius but also as a moral and even spiritual sage whose enduring aphorisms touch on matters from the sublime ("Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind") to the playful ("Gravity cannot be blamed for people falling in love"). Roughly 500 books about Einstein are in print, including at least a dozen published in the last year. Authors sometimes seem to compete with each other in the lavishness of their praise. Abraham Pais, Einstein's friend and biographer, called him "the divine man of the 20th century." To Dennis Overbye, author of "Einstein in Love," he was "an icon" of "humanity in the face of the unknown." In "God in the Equation," Corey Powell hailed Einstein as the "prophet" of "sci/religion," a spiritual path of revelation based on reason.

So, to rephrase my original question: will there ever be a second coming of Einstein? I have my doubts, but not because I think no modern physicists can match Einstein's intellectual gifts.

So, why are we doomed to languish in the wilderness without a prophet? It's all the fault of those pesky string theorists:

...Einstein seems bigger than modern physicists because - to paraphrase the silent-film diva Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" - physics got small. For the first half of the last century, physics yielded not only deep insights into nature - which resonated with the disorienting work of creative visionaries like Picasso, Joyce and Freud - but also history-jolting technologies like the atomic bomb, nuclear power, radar, lasers, transistors and all the gadgets that make up the computer and communications industries. Physics mattered.

Today, government spending on physics research has stagnated, and the number of Americans pursuing doctorates has plunged to its lowest level since the early 1960's. Especially as represented by best sellers like "A Brief History of Time," by Stephen Hawking, and "The Elegant Universe," by Brian Greene, physics has also become increasingly esoteric, if not downright escapist. Many of physics' best and brightest are obsessed with fulfilling a task that occupied Einstein's latter years: finding a "unified theory" that fuses quantum physics and general relativity, which are as incompatible, conceptually and mathematically, as plaid and polka dots. But pursuers of this "theory of everything" have wandered into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality. In his new book "Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond," the physicist Lawrence Krauss frets that his colleagues' belief in hyperspace theories in spite of the lack of evidence will encourage the insidious notion that science "is merely another kind of religion."

I heard Horgan speak about his book, The End of Science, and he often gets a bad rap for that. Lots of people respond to that book by arguing against claims that he doesn't actually make. What he actually argues (at least in person) is much more limited, and easier to defend than the inflammatory nonsense that people attribute to him-- I'm not sure he's right, but the real argument at least isn't transparently idiotic.

This piece, on the other hand, is just kind of silly.

I don't disagree that cutting-edge physics has become more esoteric since Einstein's day, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, but I'm not convinced that has anything to do with the lack of a "new Einstein" in the public imagination. Even at the height of his celebrity, relativity was famously incomprehensible-- that's part of the mystique, after all. And the modern scientist who comes closest to Einstein's iconic stature (in the sense of being instantly recognizable as a famous scientist) is probably Stephen Hawking, and even his popular book is completely opaque. It didn't stop him from selling a bazillion copies.

But a bigger problem with the whole thesis is that it seems to take the emergence of a "new Einstein" as something we ought to expect. I don't think we have any right to expect there to be a "new Einstein"-- in fact, I don't think we had any right to expect the first one.

I mean, look at his contemporaries in physics. People like Bohr, and Heisenberg, and Dirac, and Fermi are towering figures in 20th Century physics (you could make a case that in some ways, they're more influential, given Einstein's rejection of quantum theory) and nobody in the general public knows anything about them. Going back farther, Newton is arguably a much more important figure than Einstein, and the man on the street has only the sketchiest idea about what he did.

Or look at other sciences-- is there an Einstein-level iconic figure in chemistry or biology? I can't think of one. Horgan talks about Francis Crick, who certainly played a part in revolutionizing biology, but I couldn't begin to tell you what he looked like, or quote any of his sayings. Even in the more applied fields, there isn't anyone of Einstein's stature-- Alexander Fleming and Jonas Salk probably did at least as much to shape the world we live in as Einstein did, and nobody's selling posters of them.

"Well, yeah," you might say (particularly if you were John Horgan), "but Einstein was more than just a brilliant scientist. He's also known for contributions in other areas." I have a two-word answer for that argument: Linus Pauling. He's got two Nobel Prizes, one of them in Peace. And yet, he's nowhere near the iconic status of Einstein.

Why does Einstein loom so large in the public imagination? I have no idea. But here's a related question: Why are the Beatles so popular?

I mean, sure, they were prodigiously talented songwriters, and great performers, but there have been lots of talented songwriters and performers before and since, and none of them got to be, you know, the Beatles. What is it that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had that made them blow up to the degree that they did?

I don't think you can say why Einstein is such a huge figure in the public imagination, for the same reason that I don't think you can explain why the Beatles were such huge figures in pop music. It's some complicated mix of talent, personal charisma, the right set of sociopolitical factors, and sheer dumb luck. There's no simple explanation for why the Beatles became such a gigantic international sensation, and there's no simple explanation for why Einstein got to be, well, Einstein. It's some weird emergent phenomenon arising from the spooky interactions of millions of people having their own quirky reactions to things.

And given that, I don't think there can be any rational expectation of getting a second Einstein. The first one was one of those one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle events, and there's no sensible reason to expect it to happen again. And thus, it makes no sense to hold the lack of a "new Einstein" against science in general.

The important thing here is that science keeps moving forward. People keep doing new experiments, keep developing new theories, keep discovering amazing new things-- pick up the year-end issue of your favorite science magazine, and odds are you'll find a big list of working scientists who did mind-blowing things in the last twelve months. It's foolish to belittle their accomplishments by saying "Well, they're no Einstein." We should stop looking for the next Einstein, and be thankful for the one we have.

(Originally posted on my steelypips blog, where there may be comments.)


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