Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Subtle is the Blurb…

This post might be a little disjointed. I’m weaving together several different thoughts I’ve been having lately, but I think it’ll come together.

So I’ve been reading an Einstein biography, the classic ‘Subtle is the Lord…’ by Abraham Pais. While a little dated, it’s considered one of the more definitive accounts of Einstein’s scientific development.

Anywho, as accords such a renowned book, there are blurbs from other Nobel laureates on the back flap. When I picked the book up in the library, one in particular popped out at me:

I found it fascinating to read about the development of Einstein's ideas, particularly those connected with relativity. The various steps are clearly presented and the influence of other physicists and their reactions are described and coordinated, to provide a very readable narrative. – P.A.M. Dirac

I couldn’t help but laugh after reading this blurb, despite being in a library. The praise here is not exactly effusive. In fact, the whole thing is rather stilted. But more than that, Dirac mainly compliments the book’s clear steps and coordinated narrative, rather than any insight it provides into Einstein the man.

The reason I found the blurb so amusing is that Dirac is often mentioned by those who like to diagnose dead people with psychiatric disorders. Specifically, there are many who believe Dirac was autistic to some degree or another. Anecdotes to that effect abound.

I don’t really go in for that sort of post-mortem diagnosis, but surely Dirac could have sounded a little less like an emotionless robot in that blurb. (That said, I have an autistic friend who is one of the finest writers I know. It’s not the quality of the text I’m harping on but the focus on logic.)

Where this is leading is the notion that geniuses (of which Dirac most certainly was one) and scientists generally are viewed as being out-of-touch geeks who pay more attention to beakers than breasts. We only have to look at the stereotypes presented in the Big Bang Theory to see how common such a view is. But of course, there are equally extreme counterexamples. Feynman certainly got around, and Heisenberg was having an affair with a colleague’s wife when he formulated the first good model of QM.

The truth is, as it always is, somewhere in the middle. Scientists are just people, as Chad Orzel frequently points out. The most significant difference between scientists and non-scientists is that scientists do science for a living. That’s really all there is to it. There are certainly correlations that come with choosing science for a career, but no hard and fast rules. The closest I’ve found to a universal trait amongst scientists is that they (or at least the Scottish ones) realize that humans are prone to error, and that the only way to account for that is rigorous application of the scientific method. But even those scientists who think this way screw up, too, because scientists are humans.

Which brings us back to Einstein. The basic outline you see in every account of Einstein’s life is that in 1905 he began two revolutions: one quantum and one relativistic. Eleven years later he completed relativity by introducing the general theory of relativity. The rest of his life, however, was spent on quantum theory, a theory with which he was never satisfied. The quote everyone brings up here is, “I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”

Einstein was dissatisfied with the intrinsically probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics and argued throughout his life that quantum theory had to be incomplete. His most cogent critique of the theory came in the form of the EPR paper. In it, Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen showed that two particles could be become entangled such that knowing the state of one particle instantly told you the state of the second particle, no matter how far away it was, without having to measure it. The two solutions to this apparent paradox were faster-than-light communication or hidden variables. Einstein and others believed the latter, that there was information about a system that we just didn’t know how to measure yet, and that this meant quantum theory was incomplete.

But Einstein was wrong. Decades later, John Stewart Bell showed that reality had to behave in a particular way if there were local hidden variables, and in a different way if quantum systems were non-local. Numerous experiments were carried out, and they confirmed that local hidden variable theories were incompatible with reality. Quantum mechanics, to the extent that it described the probabilistic behavior of quantum systems, was a complete theory.

(I should add that I have only a very surface level understanding of this stuff. I know that quantum entanglement has been carried out in labs. I also know that there are theoretical loopholes to Bell’s theorem that might vindicate Einstein but that most scientists think will not. I don’t really know the math and science behind this debate. Ask me again in a few years.)

Einstein was dead by the time all this happened, so we cannot know how he would have reacted to being proven wrong, but for as long as he lived he stubbornly refused to accept the reality of quantum mechanics. Despite it being an extraordinarily precise and well-tested theory, Einstein objected to it on philosophical grounds.

How could Einstein, a brilliant and revolutionary thinker who proposed that light waves were particles, that time could be stretched and space curved, fail to imagine that reality might be a bit random? Because he was human. And humans make mistakes.

Yet despite Einstein’s brilliance, despite his celebrity and his authority, most scientists eventually rejected Einstein’s notions about quantum mechanics and came to accept the non-local ramifications of the theory. They didn’t do so because they were smarter than Einstein or better scientists; they did so because no one individual is responsible for this thing we call science. Science is a process, a methodical and ruthless tool for separating fact from fiction, and it has proven enormously successful.

Individual scientists can screw up, entire generations can dogmatically subscribe to an incorrect theory, and charlatans can purposefully promote bad science, but science carries on. Eventually, the scientific method works itself out. This process we have discovered, of rigorously testing theory against observations, is perhaps the closest we humans have come to transcending our biological limits.

For reasons I don’t really want to get into right now, I can think of nothing more important for us to do. But the essence of it is that I believe becoming something greater than ourselves, greater than the sum of our parts, is the only way we can truly understand the universe. And that’s why I’ve decided to become a scientist.


  1. Odd that you raise the issue of scientists not keeping their pants on in an essay about Einstein and passed on using him as an example of just that. The nutty professor was pretty friendly if you know what I mean.


    I've seen "God does not play dice with the universe" quoted with so many different wordings that I have to ask - did he say it in German and I've only seen translations?

  2. Yeah, Einstein is certainly a fine example. But the point is there are lots of examples, because scientists do everything regular humans do (because they're regular humans, too). Also, I don't remember how much of Einstein's personal life I was aware of three years ago...

    My understanding is that Einstein originally said the dice thing during correspondence with Max Born, another German physicist. So yeah, he probably said it in German. But it also appears he may have repeated this phrase a few times, so it's certainly possibly the wording morphed a bit as time went on.

  3. I only know enough about that part of his personal life to have a vague general sense that he was very friendly...