Einstein, Moses, My Father and Me

In September 1905 Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 appeared in the German Annalen der Physik in a paper titled, “Does the inertia of a body depend upon its energy-content?”  The equation appears in a different form on the last page of the article but it’s still the same equation:

If a body gives off the energy L in the form of radiation, its mass diminishes by L/V2.  The fact that the energy withdrawn from the body becomes energy of radiation evidently makes no difference, so that we are led to the more general conclusion that: The mass of a body is a measure of its energy-content; if the energy changes by L, the mass changes in the same sense by l/9 x 1020, the energy being measured in ergs, and the mass in grammes. It is not impossible that with bodies whose energy-content is variable to a high degree (e.g. with radium salts) the theory may be successfully put to the test.

Einstein is probably the most famous scientist who ever lived and this equation one of the most widely recognised mathematical expressions in the world.  A powerful related theory, Einstein’s General Relativity, has now passed enough crucial tests to be considered a scientific fact.[1] However, among the millions of us Christians who recognise Einstein’s face and formula, how many know what the expression really means or what General Relativity signifies for our lives and Christian beliefs?

I grew up with physicists and other scientifically-minded relations who took delight in explaining Einstein’s theories to me.  My father and his closest brother were experimental nuclear physicists who clearly understood General Relativity.  They also knew Einstein personally but in those days experimenters and theoreticians tended to understand each other’s work better than they understood each other.  I was eager to know all about the personal life of a genius like Einstein but my father and his friends rarely concerned themselves with such trivia.  They only worried about getting along when they had to work together.  My father complained that many of the best and brightest were “difficult” and some, “impossible”.  The way Einstein dressed, for example, was a problem in those days.  At one point the security guards at Westinghouse where my father worked thought Einstein was the gardener and my father had to go down and rescue him at the entrance.  All the while, Einstein and other theoreticians needed hands-on experts like my father who joked that “theory guys” couldn’t do anything but write on blackboards.  Their relationship was not dissimilar to that between an author and a publisher or an architect and a builder.

In the nineteen forties, these mathematicians, physicists, chemists, engineers and the like were all required to cooperate on by far the largest, most expensive and most secret research-and-development effort to date: the Manhattan Project.  Before its nuclear devices were exploded, the public and the media, ignorant of earth-shaking events to come, misunderstood and ridiculed brainy “eggheads” and “boffins” for their esoteric talk and absent-minded behaviour.  Even nerdy teens (like me) got bullied.  A popular comic strip “Alley Oop” featured a dome-headed character named “Dr. One Mug” (English for Ein Stein).  After the first nuclear device exploded in July of 1945, ridicule turned to awe but misunderstandings did not entirely abate.  Not surprisingly, my father had no respect for public opinion (and little for social psychology, which I studied against his advice).  He would have been shocked at the thought that a mere actress like Jane Fonda could impede peacetime development of nuclear power.  Still, the big corporations certainly believed in a nuclear future: after constructing an atomic engine to power the famous Nautilus submarine (using my father’s basic design), Westinghouse sold off their appliance divisions to concentrate on designing, building and servicing reactors.

Before I was ten years old, my father began to teach me some implications of E=mc2.  He said that the energy contained in a spoonful of dirt could light New York City for weeks if we only knew how to get it out.  When I told the neighbourhood kids the things he said, they thought I was strange.

Born in 1901 four years before E=mc2, my father got his PhD at Columbia University in New York City and matured as a nuclear physicist while General Relativity was being tested and proved.  He dreamed of being an astronomer but in the Great Depression industrial physics was a more practical alternative.  He worked within the theory, inventing uranium-based X-ray equipment, and eventually designing nuclear reactors.  His department at Westinghouse refined all the raw uranium used to make the first bombs.  Because he breathed beryllium molecules from crucibles in which uranium was melted, he died from beryllium poisoning in 1970.  He was unfortunately not a Christian but like Einstein he said he had to admit that the universe had not always existed but that all time, space, matter and energy had suddenly come into being from nothing/nowhere/no time.  Since the universe had an absolute beginning, it might well have had a Beginner or even a Creator.  He could not rule out that possibility.  Agreeing with Moses in this limited sense, my father and Einstein could possibly be called “creationists”.

From 1946 to 1955 I lived in Princeton, New Jersey where Einstein migrated in 1933 to escape the Nazis.  Retail magnate, Louis Bamberger, had financed the first intellectual “think tank”, near Princeton University but not officially a part of it, The Institute for Advanced Study (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Advanced_Study).  Einstein was one of the Institute’s first permanent members with a stipend reported to be $5,000 per year.  I was an undergraduate, graduate student and finally an instructor in the Psychology Department at Princeton from 1946 to 1955.  Like nearly everyone I knew in town, I had conversations with the great man but, unlike my father, I wanted to delve into his personal life.  He didn’t reveal much but he did give me advice to simplify my life.  Because of him, I read Louis Fischer’s Life of Mahatma Gandhi.[2] Einstein revered Gandhi and had two lithographs on his coffee table, one of the Mahatma[3] dressed in a simple homespun loincloth and the other of the Archbishop of Canterbury dressed in robes of gold and silver.  It was clear which one Einstein admired.

I found Einstein to be a minimalist.  He simplified his life so as to make time for thinking.  He created time and space for himself rather than just filling them up.  He believed empty space and free time were not “nothings” but dinge an sich to be understood and appreciated.  However, he was, in my opinion, an unhappy man. His first marriage had ended in divorce, his second wife was deceased and he had a schizophrenic son.  However, I suspect the primary cause of his dejection was the problem of “quantum gravity” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_gravity): quantum mechanics was proving to be incompatible with general relativity, especially at the beginning of space/time.  The proposed solutions to this difficult problem were incomplete, multi-dimensional, extremely complicated, and inelegant in Einstein’s terms.  Einstein was unhappy because something was wrong and he couldn’t fix it.

He’d been wrong in theory before.  He’d originally doubted his own equations of general relativity that trace the origin of the universe backward in time to a singular originating event.  His own General Relativity said the universe was not created in time (nor on time), but that time and space all began at once.  At first Einstein found this repellent.  So before publishing his cosmological inferences, he introduced a cosmological constant, a “fudge factor,” to yield a static model for the universe. Einstein later considered this to be the greatest blunder of his scientific career.  Einstein accepted what he called “the necessity for a beginning” and “the presence of a superior reasoning power.” But he never did accept the reality of a personal God.  (http://www.leaderu.com/real/ri9404/bigbang.html)

British Royal Astronomer Fred Hoyle was another who disliked the religious implications of an absolute beginning.  He hung onto belief in an eternal, steady-state universe despite the evidence and he called the opposing viewpoint a “Big Bang”.  It was nothing but a pejorative, he and other atheists ridiculing their colleagues for joining “the church of Christ of the Big Bang” (http://www.connectionmagazine.org/2002_05/co_colson.htm).  The ridicule subsided when Einstein’s theory proved to be correct – but the nickname stuck.

Today scientists tend to think the Big Bang alone might possibly imply a Creator.  Because of this implication, some scientists have difficulty accepting it.  Others have become Deist or even Christian because the scientific evidence increasingly indicates a mighty intelligent designer who created the universe specifically for human life to survive and thrive and who transcends his creation, not being bound by it in any way. (http://www.reasons.org/resources/publications/facts-faith/2000issue03#big_bang_the_bible_taught_it_first).  Still others are working hard to find ways around this obvious, but religious-sounding, conclusion.

So the Big Bang is neither “big” nor a “bang” but rather an incredibly finely tuned, extremely high-energy, ex nihilo creation event that strongly implies the existence of an Agency, a First Cause, a Causer, a Designer, a Creator, a Supreme Intelligence, an Observer or without stretching the imagination, a Loving Personal God Who Cares Deeply About The Human Condition. [4] This last thought stems from a miracle called “the anthropic principle”: many parameters, constants and events that define our entire universe seem precisely predetermined (chosen) to permit and sustain life, including advanced life (us and our civilizations) (http://s8int.com/anthropic.html) and to permit us to observe this marvellous universe in which we live. (http://www.privilegedplanet.com/)  The Bible says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

Like many scientists, Einstein and my father (and I before I accepted Jesus as my Saviour) found the idea of supernatural miracles repugnant – contrary to the spirit of natural science – but could not see where Science had a natural explanation for the origin of the universe.  As the vast complexity of even the simplest possible living cell became obvious, the origin of life also began to appear miraculous.  At one psychology seminar, I heard the great physicist Niels Bohr say, “Life, is a given”, meaning we must accept it without complete explanation.  I now believe it is, rather, a gift.

Because life is so abundant on earth, some scientists hope to find it elsewhere but increasingly, it seems the chances are getting smaller.  (http://www.reasons.org/tcm-life-design/exotic-life-sites-feasibility-far-out-habitats)[5] It can also be said that for life to simply emerge from non-living matter during the time available is highly improbable. Hypotheses are continually being proposed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis) but none has achieved significant validity or consensus.  Most secular biologists don’t want to admit it but how life could have originated completely naturally anywhere in the universe, including the planet Earth, remains a mystery (http://www.strengthsandweaknesses.org/evol_quotes.htm). [6]

Likewise “multiverse” theories proposing that our universe is just one out of a huge number of various others – are constantly being put forward.  If there were an infinite number of universes, life would be possible by chance or other natural causes.  However all manner of impossible events would also be possible and no miracle, no matter how strange, could be completely ruled out.  The proponents of multiverse theory have yet to propose a number for how many universes may exist or even a ballpark figure other than “very large” and “nearly infinite” – (although nothing natural can actually ever be near to infinity which is not a “natural” concept).  Saying there are an infinite number of different universes is equally non-natural or “supernatural” as saying there is only one universe designed by a creative Being.

The religious implications of Einstein’s theory of the expanding universe are now clear to most professional cosmologists, astrophysicists, and astronomers.  They may not like it but a Creator is a real possibility.  Since time did not exist before the absolute beginning, there can be no natural or physical cause of the universe.  Some quantum events are “uncaused” in the ordinary sense but these require an “observer” in order to become anything other than a distribution of probabilities.  An obvious remaining possibility is that of a living “agency”.  An event that cannot be attributed to natural or physical possibilities including chance must be attributed to such an entity acting “at will”.  In this case the God of the Bible is the prime suspect.

The Bible is the only holy book that says God existed before time began, that He created time.  Einstein’s theory says the universe was not created in time (nor on time), but that time and space all began at once.  From nothing!  Just like Genesis 1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  (The Hebrew words translated “heavens and earth” actually mean “the totality of the universe and everything in it.”)

Hugh Ross, Ph.D., who is both an astronomer and an evangelical Christian pastor, asks the question, “Who should get credit for discovering the Big Bang?”  Hugh says the answer is not “Einstein” but “Moses”.[7]

[1] See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tests_of_general_relativity and http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/Cyberia/NumRel/EinsteinTest.html. Astronomer and Christian Pastor, Hugh Ross, in his book “The Creator and the Cosmos”, Copyright 1993 by Reasons to Believe (and later editions).  NavPress summarises the extensive proofs of General Relativity.  See http://www.reasons.org.

[2] I believe that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born just two weeks after me in 1929, also learned of Gandhi’s methods from reading Fischer’s bio while attending Morehouse College in Atlanta Georgia.  Gandhi gave credit to Jesus for his Passive Resistance tactics.  He said they were derived from the Sermon on the Mount.

[3] “Mahatma” is Sanskrit for “great soul”.

[4] Shaeffer, Henry F. (Fritz) III, http://www.leaderu.com/real/ri9501/bigbang2.html, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_F._Schaefer,_III

[5] Ross, Hugh, Follow the water to life? Connections Linking Science And Faith, Vol 6, 1, First Quarter 2004, page 6. Reasons To Believe, Inc. PO BOX 5978, Pasadena, CA 91117.  http://www.reasons.org

[6] See, for example, Davies, Paul C. W., How Bio-Friendly is the Universe? International Journal of Astrobiology Vol 2 2003 Pages 115-120.  Also Hugh Ross at http://www.reasons.org/probability-life-earth-apr-2004.

[7] Or perhaps Job.  See Hugh Ross and John Rea, Big Bang – The Bible Taught It First! http://www.reasons.org/cosmic-design/big-bang-bible-taught-it-first.