An amusing pair of letters to the editor appeared recently in the New York Times Book Review, responding to a review of a book about the science of human reproduction.
Both letters were withering critiques of the illustration that accompanied the review, a graphic of a large, oddly shaped, complex organic molecule, featuring atoms of various elements and bonds of many sorts. One of the letter-writers, a professor of chemistry, sniffed that the graphic contained a "dozen brazen errors" and deemed it "a lesson in aberration." The second, a graduate student in chemistry, denounced the drawing as "nothing short of atrocious" and upped the error count to more than two dozen.
It must have been difficult for the editors to quash the urge to respond mockingly, but somehow they managed understatement. "Our correspondents' knowledge of chemistry," they wrote, "may have kept them from noticing that the molecular entity [depicted]… spells out a familiar three-letter word."
The letters and response are entertaining evidence for how limited scientists can be in negotiating the world outside their labs. It is a truism brought to mind too by the recent sale at auction of a 1954 letter written by Albert Einstein, in which the brilliant physicist described Judaism as "like all other religions, an incarnation of the most childish superstitions." The letter, which fetched $404,000 from an unidentified buyer, also scoffed at the idea of the Jews as a chosen people.
In a 1950 letter, Einstein called himself a "deeply religious man" in the sense that his mental exploration of the universe had provided him "a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate… the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms." Yet, in that same letter he claims to be "agnostic" about i.e. neither affirming nor denying the existence of a Supreme Being.
So Einstein, awe-filled as he was by creation, rejected his religious heritage. Or maybe not. In a 1940 paper in Nature, he was not as dismissive as in the later, expensive, letter. In that paper, he admitted that "the doctrine of a personal G-d interfering with natural events could never be refuted… by science, for [it] can always take refuge in those domains in which scientific knowledge has not yet been able to set foot."
As Oxford professor emeritus of science and religion John Brooke recently noted, "Like many great scientists of the past, [Einstein] is rather quirky about religion, and not always consistent from one period to another."
What is more important, like many great scientists, when he wandered afield in his case, from physics to metaphysics he easily got lost.
The celebrated University of London Professor of Psychology H.J. Eysenck put it bluntly. "Scientists," he wrote, "especially when they leave the particular field in which they have specialized, are just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous…"
"Pigheaded" doesn't seem like an adjective suited to Einstein, even rambling outside his field of expertise. Wrongheaded, though, might not be terribly off the mark.
Take his political philosophy. The thinker who presented the world with the subtle brilliance of the General and Special Theories of Relativity was a resolute socialist, considering capitalism to be "a source of evil." He lobbied to end American nuclear testing and advocated supplying the United Nations with nuclear weapons. He insisted that a Marxist be appointed the president of a university to which he was to lend his name. (And when his partner in the enterprise objected, Einstein refused to be associated with the school, which became Brandeis University.)
Not that there's anything wrong with Marxism, of course. No, wait! There is! Wasn't that the political system that brought us the Soviet Union and its gulags, East Germany and the Berlin Wall, the curtailment of human rights in the People's Republic of China and the cruel deprivation of the citizenry in North Korea? No, not so smart, that Einstein, at least not regarding politics.
Not regarding G-d and Judaism either. Like his forbear Abraham the Jewish patriarch (as described by Jewish tradition), the professor perceived the impenetrable "profoundest reason and… most radiant beauty" of the physical universe and was filled with wonder. But, unlike Abraham, Einstein did not come to recognize what it all pointed to, and what it required of him.
That latter point is key. Jewish ethical texts explain that only one who has overcome the human desires and imperfections of character with which we are all born can perceive the Divine clearly. The rest of us are hampered by the little voice in the back of our heads not physically audible but clearly heard that reminds us how confronting our responsibility to the Creator may seriously interfere with our personal wants. It is telling that many brilliant people and Einstein is, sadly, no exception here who were atheist or agnostic were not beacons of morality in their personal lives and relationships.
So it is ironic that Einstein considered religion "childish." What prevented him from not only understanding light but seeing the Light may well have been his own childishness, the self-centeredness that he retained from babyhood.
Abraham transcended himself and so, fathoming nature's sublimity, he perceived Divinity. Sadly, Einstein saw the pattern, the beauty, the subtlety and the power, but, humanly flawed, he missed the big picture.