Born And Einstein And Politics

born einstein

Because Einstein and Born belong to the generations of scientist who gave us the atomic bomb, they are both forced to wrestle– in a way unlike any generation of scientists before them– with the responsibility of the scientist for application of his discoveries. Born, since he was never invited to participate in an atomic bomb program, has the liberty to be quite severe in his condemnation of physicists who abetted the development of nuclear weapons. In his comments upon his and Einstein’s correspondence, Born writes, “even if one does not earn one’s living by science, but publishes the results of one’s research, one cannot rid oneself of the responsibility for the use which is made of them.” After all, “the plumber and the peddler” must be held accountable for their work and wares– why not scientists?

Einstein, of course, once signed his name to a letter addressed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which encouraged the U.S. government to pursue nuclear research with all due haste, for the Germans were already doing so. Perhaps that is why Einstein never (in the Born-Einstein correspondence at least) personally criticizes those who aided scientifically in the war effort of any country, friend or foe. The most he says along these lines in the letters is when he writes that, “in the present circumstances, the only profession I would choose would be one where earning a living had nothing to do with the search for knowledge.”

Born’s sums up his more general political outlook when he lists for Einstein “the principal evils of our time” as being: “militarism, bureaucratic oppression, and plutocracy.”

As for Einstein, he had little faith in good ol’ horse-sense of the common man… “The idiotic public can be talked into anything,” he writes Born in a particularly exasperated tone when speaking upon the subject of military adventurism. “They really are very shortsighted,” he continues, “for technological superiority is transitory, and if it comes to an all-out conflict, the decisive factor is sheer numerical superiority.” And he does not trust the hearts or gut-feelings of average folks to always lead them intuitively in the right direction… “We know only too well that the collective conscience [note: not “conscious”] is a miserable little plant which is always most likely to wither just when it is needed most.”

Einstein is obviously an internationalist, writing Born that “I don’t believe that human beings as such can really change, but I am convinced that it is possible, and indeed necessary, to put an end to anarchy in international relations, even if it were to mean sacrificing the independence of various countries.”  Personally, he usually shunned direct political activism. Instead, he writes Born that one of the best things an individual world-citizen can do is to give a fine example and to have the courage to uphold ethical convictions sternly in a society of cynics.

Einstein congratulates Born in one letter upon his personal success, then laments almost in the same breath the collective failure of humanity… “I am glad that your life and work are fruitful and satisfying. This helps one to bear the craziness of the people who determine the fate of Homo sapiens (so-called) on the grand scale. Maybe it has never been any better, but one did not see it as clearly in all its wretchedness, nor were the consequences of the bungling quite as catastrophic as under present conditions.”

Where Einstein speaks broadly of humanity, Born does hold back from cursing individual countries or naming names in his political condemnations. He unleashes a special tirade against the United States… The Americans have demonstrated in Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki that in sheer speed of extermination, they surpass even the Nazis.” Born writes in his later comments that “one would have to have been brought up in the ‘spirit of militarism’ to understand the difference between Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the one hand, and Auschwitz and Belsen on the other.” … “the plain truth is that the people involved are in both instances non-participants, defenseless old people, women and children, whose annihilation is supposed to achieve some political or military objective.”

Born, too, has his moments of general condemnation, as when he writes that I am certain that the human race is doomed, unless its instinctive detestation of atrocities gains the upper hand over the artificially constructed judgment of reason. And though he uses humor less often and less deftly than his pen pal, Born can also land a comic punch, as when he simply, but quite descriptively, groans to Einstein that “the unteachable are in the ascendancy again.”


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