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Desperately Seeking Albert

It is now 50 years since the death of Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist often regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century since his "Miraculous year" of 1905 where he provided the basis of three fundamental fields in physics: the theory of relativity, quantum theory and the theory of Brownian motion. Einstein is still the poster boy for science as a whole

Thus 2005 has been declared The World Year of Physics by the UN in Albert Einstein's memory. In fact, in the UK and the Republic of Ireland the initiative is flat out called The Einstein Year. During the year lectures, seminars and activities will be held to raise the general public's awareness of physics.

In a way this initiative is a bit befuddling. Never before has physics, science in general, and technology in particular been as successful and important in our daily lives. It is also noticeable how rapidly scientific progress is benefiting the common man through the free market.

But there has been a marked global decrease of students willing to study physics, and funding has decreased accordingly. Not only that, the best students are not heading for studies in physics, finding other fields more appealing, and science teachers to schools are getting scarcer in supply. In fact, warning voices are being heard about the spread of a "scientific illiteracy" where many living in technologically advanced societies lack the knowledge and the ability for critical thinking in order to function in their daily environment.

Albert Einstein is a symbol, an icon for wisdom, imagination, creativity, scientific integrity and concentrated mental power. But is he a forward-looking symbol?

Einstein in his person exemplifies both physics’ rise to become the portal discipline of the 20th century, and its current decline.

The physics of the early 20th century was a radical endeavor indeed. It swept away old absolutist notions and provided science with modern ideas – inspiring great changes in art, culture, and political thought. Einstein's thoughts about relativity both suited the mood of the time and influenced it. Science had a powerful connection with society through a capable environment of amateur scientists, interested politicians and debaters.

In fact, the physics of the time might have been even too successful. In its grand projects and powerful mathematical methodology, many believed to see the solutions for societal issues. Through scientific planning the objectively best values would be achieved.

The image Einstein projected in this early period was rather different than the one we know from the myth created about him (and that he helped to create). Not only because he was young, but also because he was dapper-looking, progressive, dedicated (so much that he worked at the Swiss patent office, in the midst of his annus mirabilis before achieving tenure), engaged in societal issues (he was a Zionist, and one of the founders of the liberal Democratic Party of Weimar Germany, though later drawn to soft socialism and pacifism). He projected that very different kind of active image that a European professor did at these times.

But Einstein's image changed along with the image of physics. The post WWII-era seemed to develop a happy synthesis between the view on science practiced in autonomy from the rest of society and science as harnesser of natural forces for the good of society. Science could concentrate itself on a value-free production of knowledge while politics controlled the debate on the values, direction and goals of research.

In society at large values changed. Modern warfare, the atomic bomb, the environmental disasters, and other problems connected to modernity were not seen as unfortunate side effects or science put into bad use, but as the very essence of science. The lost connection between physics and society bred suspicion, a suspicion that grew into sentiments against progress and was even directed towards the material benefits gained through science. Science might produce more useless "stuff," but it did not make people happy. Thus science had to be controlled, and put on a leash.

Einstein moved to the US, and became more of a recluse. The scientific problems of theoretical physics had certainly become more difficult during Einstein's life, but he continued to be the last classical physicist rather than taking part of the revolution of relativity and quantum mechanics he had ushered, instead pursuing an extension of the general theory of relativity in a unified field theory. During his Princeton years he cultivated the image of the bohemian, sloppily clad, ivory tower professor that became the very essence of the public's image of a scientist. In his search for the unified field theory he also became more concerned with abstract formalism, rather than argumentation and experimentation – a formalism that unfortunately is seen in today's class rooms where teachers often find it difficult to explain why physics is of relevance to the students.

Symbols of science powerfully communicate the values science wishes to project, and while the image of Einstein as the bohemian grandfather of physics might be a pleasant image, we must consider that it has its downsides too.

This in particular since physics has become so vital through its applications, increasingly breaking out of the mold of rigid formalism so many regard as negative, meeting design, engineering and through this trying to build a bridge between the two cultures of science and humanities.

From this stems a new discussion about values. In opening up entirely new opportunities in human existence, and not just producing more "stuff."

We see a shift to biotechnology and information technology as the disciplines of the 21st century that provoke and question other disciplines and society. But physics has still a lot to contribute when it comes to solving problems of energy production, environmental protection, public health etc.

Should we revert our image of the scientist to the younger Einstein? Probably not. The Einstein of the future is a network of researchers spread all across the globe, a "market place of ideas" as envisioned by Hayek-inspired science philosopher Michael Polanyi. If science is seen as an open, bold and inquisitive process spread in time and space, it encourages cross-disciplinary work more and builds opportunities for more public and cultural participation than the "lone genius" image ever could.

October 20, 2005

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