Max Born & Albert Einstein: Taking It Personal

born einstein

Not so unusually for the olden days, Max Born and Albert Einstein were able to maintain their correspondence even though they went over twenty years without seeing each other.

In his long correspondence with Einstein, Born’s comments are often very much about the everyday world…. his health, his job, his finances. Also, over the decades of their letter-writing, Born becomes more and more aware of his heritage.  And he not infrequently has on his mind ways in which he can obtain money, favor, or positions for himself and for his acquaintances. Because Einstein occupied an influential place in the world, this often means we read several times of Born asking Einstein for favors.

Einstein, on the other hand, comes off as a sort of ghost. The presentation of this thoughts almost always arrives with a certain amount of detachment.  For instance, though the injustices of the world –both great and petty– cause Born to vent his growing bitterness, Einstein rarely wears his disappointments and angers upon his sleeve– and when he does demonstrate them, they usually come wrapped in the garments of a humorous remark.  Whereas Born admits freely that “oppression and injustice provoke me to anger and resistance.

It becomes obvious reading the Born-Einstein correspondence that Born took pleasure in being part of the “in-group” of rising physicists. He is dismissive of critics operating outside the university-research system, calling them “pure cranks” and “outsiders who can point to no positive scientific achievement themselves, but who believe that they have found defects in some new doctrine.”

Born felt he belonged with “the younger generation” of physicists, “although I was only a few years younger than Einstein.”

Born writes that he is not happy that Schroedinger’s Wave Theory of electron behavior seemed to be eclipsing the Matrix Method which he and Heisenberg had developed.  He is convinced that his own method “was more deeply penetrating” and that “Schroedinger’s wave equation was preferred because it took as its point of departure traditional ideas of mathematical physics.”

But Born is also bitter about Heisenberg getting all the credit for their Matrix Method, writing… “that Heisenberg’s matrices bear his name is not altogether justified, as in those days he actually had no idea what a matrix was. It was he who reaped all the rewards of our work together, such as the Nobel Prize and that sort of thing. I do not begrude him in the least [yeah right, Born baby] but for the last twenty years, I have not been able to rid myself of a certain sense of injustice.”  He comments in his later notes on the letters that “The fact that I did not receive the Nobel Prize in 1932 together with Heisenberg hurt me very much at the time.”  He says that Heisenberg wrote him “a kind letter” and that eventually, “conscious of Heisenberg’s superiority,” he “got over it.”

Einstein is almost the polar opposite to Born in terms of how important the opinions of others are to him. Of course, when one is safely ensconced at the top of the pyramid of genius, it is doubtlessly a little easier to disregard the occasional ant-bites of lesser mortals. Still, it appears to have been genuinely part of Einstein’s nature to retain a certain detachment from his fellow Man.

After Einstein’s wife dies, Einstein openly admits to Born that his late wife “was more attached to human beings than I.” He says that, since her death, he has been hibernating “like a bear in its cave.” Born declares in his notes that Einstein, “for all his kindness, sociability, and love of humanity” was “nevertheless totally detached from his environment and the human beings included in it.”

Mrs Born, Max’s wife, also has some letters included in the collection of Born-Einstein missives.  In one letter to Einstein, she quotes the physicist back to himself, reminding Einstein of the time he told her that “there is nothing in the world which I could not dispense with at a moment’s notice.” She also reminds him that he once told her that, “I feel such a sense of solidarity with all living things that it does not matter to me where the individual begins and ends.”

Einstein, unlike Born, was not a joiner; he did not feel the need to be included in the in-group. Writes Einstein, “For all the communities available to us, there is not one I would want to devote myself to, except for the society of the true searchers, which has very few living members at any time.”

Because Einstein was such an affable fellow, he never developed the rivalries and enemies that some of the physicists did, but he was indeed gently ostracized from the leading physicists of the day as far his ideas on atoms and fields went.  Born comments that –concerning Einstein’s quest for an ultimate field theory which was intended to unify electrodynamics and gravitation–  that other physicists “were inclined to regard Einstein’s ceaseless efforts as a tragic error.”

But being an outsider was nothing painful to Einstein. In fact, one gets the sense that the old rebel rather enjoyed it. Writing to Born, he declares that, if the only way to be a modern physicist was to jettison the idea of causation, “I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee in a gaming-house, than a physicist.”

On the other hand, Einstein can find no purely logical reason why he feels compassion for his fellow Man. Calling the scientific explanation of sympathy-driven benevolence a “hopeless task,” he tells Born… “If someone asks, ‘To what purpose should we help one another, make life easier for each other, make beautiful music, or have inspired thoughts?’, he would have to be told: ‘If you don’t feel it, no-one can explain it to you.’ Without this primary feeling we are nothing and had better not live at all.”

Writing to Mrs Born, Einstein states that “living matter and clarity are opposites.” This is why, he says, a good movie or play “should not smell of a logical scheme, but of a delicious fragment of life, scintillating with various colors according to their position of the beholder. If one wants to get away from this vagueness, one must take up mathematics.”

Einstein also felt that, as Born explains it, “one should not couple the quest for knowledge with a bread and butter profession, but that research should be done as a private spare-time occupation.” But Born counters– “to be able successfully to practice science as a hobby, one has to be an Einstein.”

Einstein comes off in the correspondence as someone particularly forgiving of mistakes, remarking at one point that “Death alone can save one from making blunders.”  That said, he seems to have held a fairly low opinion of the average man– not from bitterness, but similar to how one might simply note and accept that the grazing cow will never be able to divide three into nine. “The spinal cord plays a far more important role than the brain itself,” writes Einstein about humankind’s enslavement to its baser longings, using humor as usual to cut his harsher remarks.


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