Few people think Einstein is under-appreciated But applied physics professor A. Douglas Stone argues that Einstein contributed much more to the field of quantum physics than previously believed. In his new book, titled “Einstein and the Quantum: The Quest of the Valiant Swabian,” Stone sources many of Einstein’s early writings to uncover a picture of Einstein as a rebellious, irreverent genius who famously distanced himself from a quantum physics theory he helped create. Stone sat down with the News on Friday to discuss the things he learned about Einstein as he put this book together.
Q When did you start working on your book and why did you feel that it needed to be written?
A I was doing some research in quantum physics that related to a paper of Einstein’s that isn’t so famous. For many years I’d heard about this paper, but I’d never read it. And finally at some point, a student and I were struggling and we said, “Let’s see if Einstein actually figured this out for us.” We found the paper, and it actually did a very good job of figuring out the thing we wanted, which was a simple explanation of what the problem was. By my standards, this was a really brilliant thing that he had done. But it isn’t historic. It’s not something that has lived on in the field of physics that thousands of people still refer to, but it’s still really brilliant. I had no ambition to be an Einstein expert or biographer. I was more or less trying to explain this problem called quantum chaos, and I thought using Einstein would be a good way to get people’s attention. But I thought maybe, if really nobody knows this stuff, maybe it’s worth a book — because he’s Einstein. It’s like Shakespeare — if you find something out about Shakespeare that people don’t know, you’re asking yourself, “Why don’t they know it?”
Q You read a lot of Einstein’s letters in researching this book. What was Einstein’s personality like? What were some stories you found that you didn’t know about before?
A It was really fun to read his letters. He’s got a great sense of humor. I literally would find things and laugh out loud and then I’d call my wife and say, “Listen to this!” He was kind of an excitable guy, particularly when he was young. The thing that I thought I could shed a little light on in terms of his personality was that he’s sort of seen as this grandfatherly guy and this very modest, saintly figure. He says very modest things like, “I have no special talent, I’m just very curious.” He was really kind of a hell-raiser, when he was younger at least, in the sense that he really didn’t respect authority.
Being a university professor, the thing that I found to be the most striking anecdote was in his lab course in college, they would hand out a little page of how you were supposed to do the experiment. Einstein would take the page and without looking at it he would drop it in the wastebasket and then just start doing the experiment by himself. He would skip classes and so on. In fact, he skipped all the advanced math classes, and later one mathematician said, “We were all so surprised by this Einstein, he was such a lazy dog in his student days. He wouldn’t even take any of our classes.”
He was always arguing with the authority figures. All his contemporaries loved him and they were grateful to him. He was very generous and very funny. He was very unpopular with the faculty and the authority figures who could help him get a job, but he wasn’t a bad student. He was brilliant. Halfway through his college career, he was the top student in his section of physics. Everybody knew he was the brightest guy there. And then, in his second two years he stopped going to class and started insulting people and causing explosions in the lab. And so they wouldn’t give him a job afterwards because he annoyed them, and they thought he wasn’t a hard worker. If you put the whole picture together, you imagine someone who was a leader, very charismatic, but also kind of a bane of the older generation.
Q In your book, you discuss Einstein’s role in developing quantum theory and how he ended up rejecting the theory later in life. Why didn’t Einstein ever accept the theory he helped develop?
A Most people who know about Einstein and quantum mechanics know about the rejection. That’s the thing they know about it. But this isn’t the rejection of someone who didn’t understand it, who was too stuck in his ways to understand his theory. This is the understanding of someone who developed most of the theory and then decided it just wasn’t good enough. And if you really go through what he did and how brilliant he was and how ahead of his time he was and none of the physicists in that time were thinking about this. That’s the main point of this book. Einstein decided that it wasn’t the full theory because there are certain things that it doesn’t explain. Uncertainty in the macroscopic world — gambling, cards, dice, etc. — is based on the chaotic behavior of macroscopic objects. There’s no philosophical problem. We just don’t have enough information. In quantum mechanics, you have a different kind of ignorance or uncertainty. There is nothing to know. In other words, quantum mechanics says there is no answer to why this atom radioactively decayed. The world doesn’t have any cause for that. There’s no amount of information we can gather. The thing he didn’t like is that it then seems like physics can’t fully describe reality. He really felt that his mission in life was to lift the veil to objective reality — that’s what gave his life meaning. So therefore, he didn’t want to accept that this is the most physics can do.
Q What is your hope for this book?
A My hope is that it’s read by some reasonable fraction of laypeople who are not trained in physics. However, I’m also trying to tell this story to the science community because most scientists don’t know it. In fact, almost none of them know it. Anyone who’s interested in genius and how somebody can have out-of-the-box ideas would find this book interesting.