Friday, August 22, 2008

Radical Einstein


Radical Einstein
By Kim Gargar

No other scientist can surpass the popularity attained by the physicist Albert Einstein. He is popular even among ordinary market vendors. It is commonplace to hear someone calling a person with an ingenious solution to a simple day-to-day problem as an “Einstein.” Despite this popularity, much information about this man remains in the confines of a few biographies and is not known to the wider public.

In the community of physicists, Einstein’s century-old theory of special relativity—explaining how a four-dimensional object can be viewed through our three-dimensional eyes—is considered to be a work of a genius even up to this day and is labeled by many of his contemporaries as a radical shift of interpreting relative motion. His famous equation, E=mc2, which relates the amount of energy in matter is the cornerstone of our understanding of nuclear energy.

His general theory of relativity which deals with gravity predicted that three-dimensional space can be “curved” resulting in the bending of light passing through it. This is now being used to get images of far away galaxies using gravitational lenses.

The implications of his Nobel-winning work on photoelectric effect which represents light as a particle or a quantum of energy was so radical in his time that even he himself had a hard time believing it later on. This work would also helped usher in our quantum understanding of the universe and would be the basis for solar energy panels and electronics.

Einstein’s radical mindset, a characteristic noticeable in his physical theories, prompted him to think out of the box and, in the process, contributed to his discovery of several laws of nature. One of his biographers even attributed “[Einstein’s] cocky contempt for authority” as one big reason for the way he thought. This same radicalism is also manifested in Einstein’s views on social issues of the day, views, which earned him a label “left-wing scientist” by some biographers.

Just how radical Einstein’s thinking was in relation to social issues is less popular even among physicists. How Einstein managed to focus on his scientific endeavors despite many distractions around him—family problems, war, and political upheaval—is not very much talked about even within the scientific community.

During his first years as a professor in Germany, Albert Einstein opposed World War I that was raging within Europe in disagreement with the majority of German scientists. His protest against the production and use of the nuclear bomb during the Second World War is well-known.

Einstein showed his civil libertarian and pro-human rights stance in 1940s through his constant media warnings on the imminent danger to American liberty brought about by the government-sponsored hysteria about the alleged Red menace. The McCarthy hysteria resulted in the labeling as “communist” of many scientists and reform advocates in the US who voiced against certain government policies.

His support for socialist economic policies and civil liberties was consistent throughout his life. He befriended several socialist leaders and intellectuals in British and America, and his 1949 article “Why Socialism?” influenced many political figures and scientists across the globe.

At this time of surging economic and political crisis worldwide, one wonders what Einstein would say about the rising prices of oil and commodities, unemployment, and global economic slowdown? In his 1949 essay, he pointed to the mode of production motivated by profit as the one “responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital, which leads to increasingly severe depressions.” His arguments resonate with the argument that the current trend of monopoly globalization is one of the major causes of our sufferings.

Albert Einstein is an epitome of a socially conscious scientist. For AGHAM, Einstein’s image can be seen in our many posters and T-shirts. Being a national organization advocating science and technology for the people, AGHAM has been organizing the ranks of Filipino science and technology practitioners since 1999 for them to apply their talents and skill in solving the social and economic problems of our people.

It might seem at first that facing these challenges is less appealing than research work within the laboratory but Einstein may have had the answer to why this is so. In a 1949 article, he said that “one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and sciences is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness,” to which he added that “Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.”

Kim Gargar has a Master of Science in Physics from UP Diliman and now teaches at the Mapua Institute of Technology. He has been active in AGHAM since 2001.


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