Monday, December 19, 2011

Advent Calendar #19: Confident Einstein

In September 1919, Ilse Schneider was working on her Ph.D. thesis in philosophy at the university of Berlin on the "space-time problem in Kant and Einstein". She did profit from the fact that the creator of the theory of relativity was a professor in the physics department: She attended Einstein's lectures, and met regulary with him to discuss the meaning and implications of his theory.

At that time, Einstein was eagerly waiting for news about the results of the British eclipse expedition by Eddington, who had tried to measure the deflection of light by the sun as predicted by the general theory of relativity. Einstein's theory of general relativity is a remarkable achievement of a brilliant mind that knew how to make use of mathematics. Einstein had to try around somewhat before he found the correct equations, but once he had arrived there, he had little doubt they did describe nature correctly.

In her memoir "Reality and Scientific Truth: Discussions with Einstein, von Laue, and Planck", Ilse Rosenthal-Schneider remembers on of her meetings with Einstein from that time:

Suddenly Einstein interrupted the reading and handed me a cable that he took from the window-sill with the words, "This may interest you." It was Eddington's cable with the results of the famous eclipse expedition. Full of enthusiasm, I exclaimed, "How wonderful! This is almost the value you calculated!" Quite unperturbed, he remarked, "I knew that the theory is correct. Did you doubt it?" I answered, "No, of course not. But what would you have said if there had been no confirmation like this?" He replied, "Da könnt' mir halt der liebe Gott leid tun. Die Theorie stimmt doch." ("I would have had to pity our dear God. The theory is correct anyway.")

We thank Toby Bryant for reminding us of that story! According to the Einstein biography by Albrecht Fölsing, Einstein did receive a telegram from Lorentz in Leiden on September 22, 1919, reporting preliminary results on the light deflection as compatible with the prediction of general relativity.


  1. I'm looking forward to the followup on this, when the results were announced at the Royal Society, and even with concrete physical evidence of a four-yr old theory, there was one chap who cautioned not to be so hasty to accept that Newton's theory had been overturned (upgraded), pointing to the painting of Isaac adorning the hall.

  2. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    Thanks as I’ve long been aware of that story yet not the particulars. However I don’t think it should be thought unusual for someone who after taking nearly a decade in perfecting a theory to be so confident. On the other hand there was the intervention of fate that had Einstein to timely discover in 1915 that he had done his calculations regarding the bending of light incorrectly to be only half the value it should have been. In fact in 1914 a German expedition was sent to the Crimea to prepare to measure this during an eclipse yet as Anthony Zee puts it in his book Fearful Symmetry “but then the guns of August boomed” to prevent this. On such occasion he wrote to a friend to complain “only the intrigues of miserable people” prevented his idea from being tested. So we could say that even geniuses have to be lucky and well as brilliant at times.



  3. This reminds me of Hegel:

    If reality does not want to abide by the idea, too bad for reality

  4. Brecht lets say the Inqisitor to Galileo:
    "I feel pity for the facts" when Glileo tried to show him the facts in a telescope.
    This is similar to Hegels statement.
    Which was first? Galileo, Hegel, Brecht?

  5. Frank Close's "The Infinity Puzzle" makes it amply evident that luck plays a huge role in the achievements of genius. Luck also plays a huge role in the genius being correctly attributed the results.

    Running after these things for the sake of fame and historical immortality is a high risk venture.

  6. I think Einstein must have been one of the most humorous people in the world.

    Best, Kay


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