He was unknown, just a low-level government clerk in the Bern, Switzerland patent office with big dreams, and a big ego to match. Every morning he would arrive at his desk early and hurry through his day's work in the first few hours. Then he would remove a sheaf of papers from the drawer, spread them across the desk and lose himself in musings about some of the deepest mysteries in theoretical physics.
He had his "ah-hah" moment in 1905 when one by one the pins of the tumbler dropped into place and he could see the solutions as clearly as a photograph. Historians ever since have called this the "miracle year," when 26-year-old Albert Einstein submitted four scientific papers that would crack the Newtonian foundations of physics and open the door to the atomic age.
...science had not seen [such a creative outburst] since 1666, when Isaac Newton, holed up in his mother's rural home in Woolsthorpe to escape the plague that was devastating Cambridge, developed calculus, an analysis of the light spectrum, and the laws of gravity. — Einstein: His life and universe, Walter Isaacson, pp. 93
His first paper proposed a new theory of light, which Einstein correctly argued consisted of a stream of particles, or quanta, each containing a fixed amount of energy. This paper later earned him the 1921 Nobel prize in physics.
His next paper proposed a mathematical technique for calculating the number of molecules in a liquid, a problem that had not been successfully analyzed before.
His third paper examined the phenomenon known as Brownian motion, and from that analysis added new evidence for the existence of atoms, which were still a subject of debate at the turn of the century.
His final paper, on special relativity, produced the famous equation E=mcÂ². It was the most daring of the four, making the dual claims that light always moves at a constant velocity of approximately 186,000 miles per second, and that time is elastic. This latter insight overturned the belief, going back to Isaac Newton, that time was an absolute, universal constant.
The obscure patent clerk was suddenly a very hot topic in the world of physics.
Einstein's name has become synonymous with genius, but it was not primarily his intelligence that made him a successful theorist. He was a prodigious reader, not only in the sciences but in history, literature and philosophy. He had amazing powers of synthesis, enabling him to grab an insight gained in one discipline and apply it to another. He was skeptical of conventions and relished the chance to challenge the status quo. And, he had remarkable powers of imagination, which enabled him to engage in thought experiments where he could often visualize solutions to the theoretical problems he was working on.
Supporting those prodigious mental gifts was a firm belief that the universe was orderly, not arbitrary. "God does not play dice," he famously exclaimed. He did not actually believe in a personal God, but he was convinced that a creative authority of some sort had built the universe on a system of laws. The structures that govern physical phenomenon were not hidden, Einstein believed, but plainly evident in the behavior of all things. The nature of things could be deduced by careful observation, and by freeing the mind of preconceptions about what might be true or false.
Einstein's parents were non-practicing Jews. At some point in his childhood, young Einstein demonstrated his free-thinking nature by throwing himself into Judaism, strictly observing its laws and practices. He abandoned his faith in his teens and seems to have concluded that religion was incompatible with the secular rationalism of his time.
As an adult, Einstein was famously Bohemian and drew on the works of Spinoza, Hume and Ernst Mach for his worldview, philosophers who doubted anything that the senses could not confirm. He fell in love with a fellow student while studying at the Zurich Polytechnic. They had a child out of wedlock, a daughter that Einstein professed to love but never met, and who was later put up for adoption. Einstein's letters from that time suggest an infatuation with the idea of love and family, but an inability to make the emotional commitment required of a husband and father. Some have suggested he may have suffered from a mild form of Asperger Syndrome, but it seems more likely that he was just emotionally immature. Einstein was the Sun, and his most successful relationships orbited around his needs, his agenda, his prodigious ego. He never seems to have been able to return the favor.
Although he was convinced of the universe's meticulous design, it's interesting that he was just as certain that there could be no God behind it all. In that, he has much in common with brilliant modern skeptics like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Einstein was forever curious about the mechanics of the universe and was willing to take knowledge wherever it might lead, so long as it didn't lead to the possibility of the existence of God.
Perhaps this closed-mindedness grew from a failure of courage? Having thrown himself into Judaism as a child, he would have known better than most that the existence of God would create certain inescapable obligations on his part, obligations of the creature to the Creator.
Einstein was not without his failures of courage, in relationships as we have seen, but also in the arena of science. While writing his 1917 paper on general relativity, he realized that the equations he was proposing predicted an expanding universe, which meant that there must have been a beginning to all things, as well as a distant end when the stars accelerate away from each other. The Big Bang theory had not yet been proposed. Conventional wisdom in Einstein's day asserted that the universe was static and unchanging: it had always been and would always be pretty much as it was.
Faced with such a frightful insight, Einstein lost his nerve. He could not let himself go where his intuition wanted to take him. He solved the dilemma by introducing what has been called a fudge factor, the cosmological constant, an extraneous factor whose only purpose was to lock the universe into the steady state he was most comfortable with. He resisted the idea of an expanding universe for many years until, faced with overwhelming evidence, he gave in and called the cosmological constant his greatest blunder.
The dilemma of the cosmological constant may give us an insight into Einstein's humanity. His theories had brought him face to face with the possibility of a Creator. When he realized what he was seeing, the great Albert Einstein blinked. We can all sympathize.
For all his dedication to a universe without God, for all his genius and remarkable insights into the nature of the cosmos, nothing Einstein ever discovered weakens the case for God. On the contrary, his discoveries and those that came from his groundbreaking work reveal a universe that is exquisitely ordered, inexplicably fine-tuned and so mysteriously complex that the claim that it all happened by chance is, frankly, preposterous.
"God does not play dice." The universe did not come into being through several billion years of rolling seven after seven after seven after seven after... Einstein could not bring himself to embrace a Creator, but neither could he believe that all of this beautiful complexity had happened by a very lucky roll.
The question for Einstein and all of us is this: If there is no Creator-God, just how do we explain such a beautiful mystery as the infinite night sky, life, and the remarkable human capacity to make sense of it all?
Photo credit: The Crab Nebula, from Hubble. This essay has been inspired by Walter Isaacson's excellent book, "Einstein: His Life and Universe," Simon & Schuster, 2007.