Einstein Promises an Enjoyable Challenge

He used metaphors to explain his theory to the general public, and invited them to participate in the thinking process. The head of the Einstein Center in Jerusalem explains how Einstein made his work accessible to the masses, and how he became a brand name.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Albert Einstein in 1947.
Albert Einstein in 1947.Credit: Orren Jack Turner, Library of Congress
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In November 1915, 100 years ago this month, Albert Einstein sent the final version of his revolutionary General Theory of Relativity to the printer. Israeli physicist Prof. Hanoch Gutfreund, current head of the Einstein Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was born 20 years later. “The greatest physicists of his day were unable to do what this young man of 26, who had never worked in a university, was able to do in his spare time from a job in a patent office – with a baby sitting on his knee,” Gutfreund told Haaretz. “It was not only what he did that was amazing, but the conditions under which he did it.”

One of the important qualities that Gutfreund attributes to Einstein was his lifelong “lack of respect for authority,” which freed him “to develop independent and original – different! – thinking,” he explained.

“It gave him the courage and the ‘chutzpah’ to postulate hypotheses that demanded abandoning the dogmas that had been accepted unconditionally by the world of science for 250 years, since Newton. Leading scientists lacked the courage and daring to think outside the box, as we say today. Einstein was the one who did it.”

“Einstein’s legacy is still very much alive and well,” says Gutfreund. “The interest in him, and not only in his scientific work, has not receded into history, but only grows with time.”

It was not only Einstein’s genius that made him a legend and a symbol. The fact that he lived in such a turbulent period – the first half of the 20th century – was relevant.

“He lived in an especially dramatic period, between two world wars,” says Gutfreund. “He witnessed the collapse of empires and the rise of Zionism. He took an active role and expressed himself on those subjects as well.”

The Einstein Archives, housed in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was entrusted to that institution by the scientist himself.

“It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the collection,” says Gutfreund. “It is a cultural treasure containing 80,000 manuscripts, notes, articles, jotted-down thoughts and an enormous correspondence, which sheds light on his scientific, political and public activity, as well as his Jewish identity and his worldview.”

Gutfreund likes to show his students a slide with the faces of the great scientists of history. Their names are familiar to every first-year student, but there is only one whom everybody recognizes instantly: Einstein.

“Some students recognize Newton as well, but no one else,” he says. “Einstein’s face is the best-known in the world, in every country, by every age group.”

Apart from the rich archives, the university also owns the Einstein brand name.

“There is a lot of demand by advertising agencies for the use of his name, for which we get paid royalties. But we’re not greedy. We won’t permit the use of the Einstein name if we think the use is inappropriate,” says Gutfreund.

Most requests are approved, he acknowledges, but “we won’t permit the use of the Einstein brand for smoking ads or for underwear.” A company that wanted to print the equation E=mc on underpants was turned down, but printing it on hats was approved.

“And we won’t allow manipulation of pictures of Einstein,” adds Gutfreund. For example, a commercial company wanted to use the famous picture of Einstein writing his equation on a blackboard; but instead of the equation, the company would print “Drive a ” adding the well-known name of a car they were advertising. The Hebrew University committee rejected the request because “it wasn’t authentic.”

When Gutfreund was asked whether the university earned a lot of money from the brand, he replied: “It’s all relative!” but added: “It won’t solve our budgetary problems.”

Commemorative edition

This last summer saw the release of the centennial commemorative edition of “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory,” the book Einstein wrote immediately after the publication of his General Theory of Relativity in order to summarize and explain his theories to the general public.

In 1926, Jacob Greenberg, a translator, approached Einstein, offering his services to translate the book into Hebrew. He introduced himself as a doctor from Heidelberg University, where he had studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, of which Einstein himself was a founder, had opened one year earlier. “It’s no wonder,” muses Gutfreund, “that Einstein agreed.”

The first Hebrew edition of the book was published in 1928 by the Dvir publishing house. The cover carried Hermann Struck’s etching of Einstein, as does the new edition, published by the Hebrew University Magnes Press. Gutfreund, who wrote the introduction to the new edition, explains that “Einstein believed that the laws of nature could be formulated in a number of basic principles. He believed it was his obligation to explain those principles in simple terms to the general public, and give them the joy and satisfaction that understanding those principles can bring.”

The translator’s preface to the Hebrew edition is reprinted in full in the new edition. It speaks of the historic and national importance of translating this book into the sacred Hebrew language. “Einstein’s book achieved a fame never before seen in the literature of the exact sciences,” wrote Greenberg. “Apart from its extensive distribution in the original German, the book has been translated into almost every language in the world. Among those translations, however, the place of one language has thus far remained unfilled: the translation into a language that has the special privilege of being the repository of Einstein’s thought, and which he regards not only as ‘the language of [our] forefathers,’ but also as the language of [Jewish] revival, ‘an important factor for forging an independent cultural existence.’”

Greenberg added a personal note: “Therefore, when I came to present Hebrew readers with the Theory of Relativity as written by its brilliant creator, my heart was filled with a special joy that it had fallen to my lot to put the matter right and complete what has been missing until now.”

In relation to his work, Greenberg detailed the difficulties involved in translating a complicated scientific text written in German into Hebrew, while at the same time making it accessible to a general audience. “Many were the obstacles that lay in my path when I set out to prevail over this material, the entire essence of which is dependent on its clarity and precision, and [translate it] into a language that had never been a permanent home for the exact sciences and had not excelled in refining them,” he wrote.

In 1928, he described Hebrew as “poor in appropriate concepts and terms, and those that do exist have lost their special character through misuse and appear as synonyms.” He continued: “I thus needed on several occasions to seek and pick through the treasures of the language until I found the proper name for this physical concept, or the appropriate term for that geometric form As far as possible, I did not allow myself to use unnecessary linguistic ‘innovations,’ except in dire moments when I was forced to do so by absolute necessity.”

Greenberg affirmed that the book was intended for readers who had no expertise in physics, but emphasized that “it is not ‘popular’ in the usual sense, for there is not the slightest departure from scientific exactitude. It is only popular in its ‘wrapping’ – the style of dialogue with the reader, the use of examples from real life and the exclusion of formulae of higher mathematics – but the inner core, the subject matter itself, is developed in all its depth and with meticulous scientific precision.”

Einstein promised the reader “a few hours of enjoyable challenge.”

“He addresses the reader without assuming any prior knowledge of the subject,” explains Gutfreund. “He uses familiar metaphors like railway cars and platforms. He often invites the reader to participate in the thought process by raising a question – which he himself answers, or answers in the reader’s name. These sections of the text seem like a one-sided platonic dialogue, drawing in the reader as an active participant.”

Nevertheless, whoever picks up this book today quickly discovers that it demands a great deal of intellectual effort to follow Einstein’s stream of thoughts and arguments. The task is easier for readers like Gutfreund: “The book is written with sophistication and elegance. The road from Newtonian mechanics to the Special Theory of Relativity, and from there to the General Theory, with its immediate ramifications, is revealed as an exciting intellectual odyssey. The book scarcely mentions the bumpy road Einstein traveled, and the difficulties he faced on the way to this achievement,” he said.

The idea of writing the book, as Einstein himself put it, was to make his theory accessible to the general public. As he wrote to his close friend Michele Besso: “As with anything that is not backed by passionate will, I am finding it hard to begin. But if I don’t do it, the theory won’t be understood as simple, which it basically is.”

Einstein was not pleased with the result. In another letter to Besso, he wrote: “The description, it transpires, is too dry. In future I’ll leave the writing to someone whose speech flows more easily and whose sense of structure is better than mine.”

Despite Einstein’s self-criticism, the book was an enormous success. Between 1917 and 1922 it went through 14 editions in German, and was later translated into many other languages. In 1947, a short while after the end of World War II and a quarter-century after the last German edition, the German publisher who owned the distribution rights ever since the first edition approached Einstein about publishing a new edition in his native language.

“In a two-sentence response, he rejected the offer out of hand,” says Gutfreund.

“After the mass murder of my Jewish brethren by the Germans,” Einstein wrote to the publisher, “I have no wish for any of my writings to be published in Germany.”

But Einstein’s attitude softened over the years, relates Gutfreund, “and he consented to the publication of the German edition in 1954, the last edition to appear in his lifetime.”

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