A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 2 Introduction and Chapter 1- Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of Nature
We are reviewing Alister McGrath’s new book, “A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God”. McGrath says, “Albert Einstein remains the world’s favorite genius. He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than six times and was lionized as its Person of the Century in 1999. Einstein’s equation E = mc2―along with his trademark hairstyle―has found its way onto T-shirts and billboards.”
Einstein was a favorite of photographers. One of the most iconic of his photos is Arthur Sasse’s shot of him sticking out his tongue. It was taken right at the end of his birthday party in 1951 at Princeton. A weary Einstein entered his chauffeured automobile to be driven home. Sasse, who had been covering the event, ran up to the open door and asked Einstein for one final shot. Einstein turned toward him and stuck out his tongue just as Sasse’s flashbulb went off. Einstein liked the resulting photo so much that he used it for greeting cards he sent to his friends.
McGrath points out that most of us rely on his theory of relativity when using a Global Positioning System (GPS) without realizing it. The light and warmth of the sun are the direct result of the conversion of mass to energy, first recognized by him in 1905, and expressed in the iconic equation E = mc2. The same principle lies behind nuclear power – and atomic bombs. McGrath credits Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939, warning of Nazi Germany progress in its development, for America’s race to build the bomb first. Imagine the destruction that would have been wrought on England, not to say the world, had Germany built the A-bomb first. It could have changed the course of history for the worse. McGrath delves more into this later in the book.
Nobody thinks a scientific genius is infallible. Still Einstein’s status makes him worth listening to. McGrath says he had a fascination with “big picture” questions and wove together science, ethics, and religious faith to yield a richer account of reality – as McGrath says, a theory of everything that matters. McGrath cautions that many sayings attributed to Einstein have no connection with him whatsoever, McGrath rigorously tries to sort those out. For example, one attributed to him is: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” It’s pithy, sure, and maybe even a great idea – but it’s not Einstein’s.
McGrath notes an authentic quote that sets up the agenda for this book: “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be” (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, page 45). Although the book explores Einstein’s scientific ideals, its real focus is how he attempted to develop a coherent view of the world – a grand theory of everything – that embraces both our understanding of how the world functions and the deeper question of what it means.
Chapter 1 is entitled, “Approaching Einstein: The Wonder of Nature.” McGrath notes the year 1919 followed the end of “the Great War” as well as the social revolutions in China (1911) and Russia (1917). There was a sense of an old order being swept away. On November 7th of that year, the London Times printed a headline, “Revolution in Science, New Theory of the Universe, Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” Newton, the scion of British scientists had been discredited and dethroned. And who dethroned him? An obscure German physicist, hitherto unknown to the readers of the Times – Albert Einstein. The Time headline propelled Einstein to international celebrity, so much so that in the early 1920s he had become a cult figure, an international icon of genius. It didn’t hurt that he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921. In 1930, security staff at New York’s American Museum of Natural History had to deal with a near riot when 4000 people tried to see a film offering to “demystify” Einstein’s ideas.
Einstein’s influence continues to this day. In 2016, a team of scientists reported they had recorded two black holes colliding. They had heard and recorded the sound of two black holes colliding a billion light-years away, a “fleeting chirp” that fulfilled the last prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. McGrath says:
But beyond his scientific discoveries, what I have come to find really interesting is Einstein’s spiritual significance. I write this book as someone who both encountered Einstein’s ideas and discovered the intellectual and spiritual riches of the Christian faith at Oxford University. Although I will be aiming to give as reliable and accessible an account of Einstein’s views on science as possible, I will also explore his ideas on religion and how he weaves these together. Yet perhaps more importantly, from my own personal perspective, I will also consider how his approach can be used by someone who, like me, wants to hold science and faith together, respecting their distinct identities yet finding a way of allowing them to enrich each other. My views are not the same as Einstein’s, yet he has been an important influence in helping me navigate my way towards what I consider a workable and meaningful account of how this strange universe works and what it – and we – might mean. Einstein opens the way to trying to develop a theory of everything that matters.
McGrath recounts how as a 13-year old he tried to understand the theory of relativity and a teacher gave him a book to read that went substantially over his head. He still never lost his fascination with Einstein’s theories as he went to Oxford in 1971, where he took up chemistry and specialized in quantum theory. Yet although he was thrilled at science’s capacity to explain how things worked, he could not shake the feeling it did not seem to be able to address deeper human longings and questions about meaning and purpose. And Einstein himself made clear the sciences have their limits. They are not equipped to answer questions of value or meaning, and they are not meant to. McGrath says:
As a teenager, I assumed that my love for science required me to be an atheist. After all, science and religion were meant to be at war with each other – at least according to the popular atheist tracts I had read. Yet is soon became clear to me that my teenage atheism was not adequately grounded in the evidence. It was mere opinion on my part, which I had mistakenly assumed was a necessary outcome of reason and science. There were other options available. If I might borrow some words from the novelist Salman Rushdie, I discovered that the “idea of God” is both “a repository for our awestruck wonderment at life and an answer to the great questions of existence”.
McGrath found himself drawn to the approach of Charles A. Coulson, Oxford University’s first professor of theoretical chemistry, who saw science and religious faith as offering complementary perspectives on our world. At the same time he proposed a greater vision that allowed engagement with questions that were raised by science yet which lay beyond its capacity to answer. McGrath was interested to note that Coulson regularly cited Einstein in his exploration of the relation of science and faith.
McGrath notes that Einstein was a complex and nuanced thinker, which made him vulnerable to ideologues who wanted to shoehorn his ideas into their own ways of thinking. He says perhaps the most ridiculous of these distortions is the suggestion that Einstein’s theory of relativity provides scientific justification for rejecting moral absolutes and adopting relativism. As a matter of fact, Einstein’s theory of relativity does not endorse relativism but affirms a regular universe governed by laws. McGrath quotes Einstein from conversation with William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet, page 132: “My God created laws… His universe is not ruled by wishful thinking but by immutable laws”. In a letter of 1921 (Letter to Eberhard Zschimmer, dated September 30, 1921), noting the cultural misunderstandings of the scientific term relativity, Einstein suggested his approach was better described as a “Theory of Invariance” rather than a “Theory of Relativity”. McGrath will expand on this point later in the book.
McGrath also says that Einstein has been conscripted by some propagandists as a mascot for their scientific atheism. He says that Richard Dawkins, in the God Delusion (2006), presents Einstein as a closet atheist who was “repeatedly indignant at the suggestion he was a theist”. Dawkins does not substantiate this incorrect assertion, offering instead a rather selective reading of some quotes from Einstein drawn from a secondary source. McGrath says:
What really annoyed Einstein, according to his own writings – which merit reading in their totality, rather than in selective snippets – was the repeated suggestion that he was an atheist, or being quoted by certain kinds of atheist writers as if he shared their views, particularly those he termed “fanatical atheists” with a “grudge against traditional religion” (Letter dated August 7, 1941, Einstein Archive, Reel 54-927. For comment see Jammer, Einstein and Religion, page 97).
It is easy, however, to see how a superficial reading of Einstein could lead to the conclusion he was an atheist. He did make it clear he did not believe in a “personal God”. But as Max Jammer, a personal friend of Einstein, and professor of physics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, points out in his book, Einstein and Religion, page 150, Einstein “never considered his denial of a personal God as a denial of God”, and was puzzled why anyone would even make the suggestion.
McGrath cautions that Einstein’s ideas about God and religion don’t’ fit our regular categories, and we need to listen to what he himself had to say about them, rather than forcing him into predetermined categories through selective quotation.
Since Einstein is often said to have “overthrown the views of Isaac Newton”, McGrath, in the next chapter, begins his assessment of Einstein’s significance by considering Newton’s approach – often, though not entirely accurately – described as a “mechanical universe”.