Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion,

Steven
Gimbel
,
Johns Hopkins U. Press
,
Baltimore, MD
, 2012. $24.95 (245 pp.). ISBN 978-1-4214-0554-4

The Practical Einstein: Experiments, Patents, Inventions,

József
Illy
,
Johns Hopkins U. Press
,
Baltimore, MD
, 2012. $60.00 (202 pp.). ISBN 978-1-4214-0457-8

Especially since the Einstein centennial of 1979, the secondary literature on Albert Einstein has grown to where it now fills a good 30 linear feet on my bookshelves. Much of the best of that literature has been stimulated by progress on The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (Princeton University Press), which aims to present a complete profile of Einstein in 25 volumes. The most recent volume on my shelf, volume 12, takes that monumental project through 1921. In that 42nd year of his life, the then world-famous Einstein was working at the University of Berlin and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. It was the year when Einstein would make his first, much heralded visit to the US and would finally win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

One might imagine that everything important and worth saying about Einstein has by now been said. But then along come two delightful books reminding us that the history of such an important figure as Einstein is virtually inexhaustible, all the more so when we turn our attention away from the core work in physics that first earned Einstein his fame and instead focus on other aspects of Einstein’s life and work. It is good to be reminded that Einstein was more than just a theoretical physicist. His technical work ranged well beyond the physics of relativity and the quantum to include not only many other branches of physics but also a lifetime of tinkering in the laboratory and at the inventor’s bench. Perhaps more important is that by 1921 Einstein’s fame in physics had won for him a world stage on which to agitate for many social and political issues close to his heart, from Zionism and pacifism to world government, socialism, and civil rights.

By 1921 Einstein’s fame had also made him a target of increasingly violent public attacks, especially in a Germany seething with right-wing anger over its defeat in World War I, lost and occupied territory, crippling war reparations, the abdication of the Kaiser, and the establishment of the liberal, democratic Weimar Republic. Anti-Semitism was on the rise, encouraged by the radical right, and Einstein became one the most prominent victims of a propaganda campaign excoriating as damnable the “Jewish physics” that represented much of the best in the revolutionary new physics of the early 20th century. Relativity theory was a particular target both for its alleged repudiation of a “classical,” “German,” and “Aryan” physics, which was held to be rooted in experiment and common sense, and for its alleged encouragement of a more general relativism in morality, culture, and politics.

The ugly, public assault on Einstein in early 1920s Germany is the starting point for Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion. However, Steven Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College, does not write the book that one might have expected. The attack on Einstein is thoroughly and clearly described and placed in its historical and political context. There is no better English-language source on the topic. But Gimbel quickly turns the whole question upside down, asking with more than a little, deliberate irony whether there might not, in fact, be some truth to the characterization of Einstein’s physics as, in some sense, “Jewish.” What follows is a fascinating and enlightening discussion of many aspects of the scientific, philosophical, religious, cultural, and political history of the 20th century that examines the many different ways in which one might understand the suggestion that Einstein’s physics expresses or reflects something distinctively Jewish. The answer, in a few places, is a highly qualified yes, but in the end, not surprisingly, the answer is, for the most part, no.

Along the way, one learns about the history of Zionism; about the history of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism; and about modernism in literature and the arts. For comparison with the case of “Jewish” physics, Gimbel reaches further back in the past to ask whether there was something characteristically “Protestant” about the science of the scientific revolution. He commends a view well known in the history of science since the work of Robert K. Merton in the 1930s, according to which Protestantism did make a difference in 17th century science, much as Catholicism shaped medieval and Renaissance natural philosophy.

Gimbel has written a book that is, by design, highly provocative. The tension level is high. Other readers will, like me, want to argue with more than a few specific claims, as with Gimbel’s suggestion that there might be something distinctively Jewish in the history of invariant theory in the mathematics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But readers should bear in mind that some might well and with full justification want proudly to celebrate the fact that the father of relativity theory was a Jew. And few readers will disagree with Gimbel’s concluding sermon about how Einstein’s physics, philosophy, and larger worldview represent a model of cosmopolitanism in a world still grappling with problems of difference, discrimination, and persecution.

Almost with a sigh of relief, and certainly with a lessening of the level of tension, one turns to József Illy’s lovely little book on Einstein the experimenter and inventor, The Practical Einstein: Experiments, Patents, Inventions. Illy is a senior editor on the Einstein Papers Project. With a lean and matter-of-fact prose, he takes us through a long history of such things as Einstein’s many expert opinions on everything from gyrocompasses and pile drivers to an “electrophonic piano” and a makeup mirror. We learn about Einstein’s own inventions, ranging from an airfoil and a refrigerator to an altimeter and a light-intensity self-adjusting camera. The book concludes with the most complete history ever written of Einstein’s work for the US Navy during World War II on magnetic-influence proximity fuses for torpedoes—work that also involved another Nobel Prize recipient, John Bardeen.

Both books were published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, to which we owe a debt for its continuing commitment to publishing high-quality history of science in an ever-more challenging marketplace. All the more unfortunate, therefore, that I must record that Gimbel’s is the most poorly copyedited book I have read in many years, the errors and infelicities being so numerous as seriously to interfere with one’s enjoyment of what is, otherwise, a very nice book.

Don Howard is a professor of philosophy and director of the John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. He was an assistant editor for early volumes of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (Princeton University Press).