Science: Crossroads

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Albert Einstein did not work directly on the atom bomb. When the serpent of necessity hissed, the men and the woman who bit into the apple of scientific good & evil bore different names: Dr. Arthur Holly Compton, Dr. Enrico Fermi, Dr. Leo Szilard, Dr. H. C. Urey, Dr. Niels Bohr, Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer, et al. The woman was Dr. Lise Meitner, a German refugee.

But Einstein was the father of the bomb in two important ways: 1) it was his initiative which started U.S. bomb research; 2) it was his equation (E = mc2) which made the atomic bomb theoretically possible.

Late in 1939, after the German Panzers had driven through Poland, and the citizens of Hiroshima were still going quietly about their daily tasks, the little man who hates to write letters wrote a letter to Franklin Roosevelt. In it he stated his conviction that a controlled chain reaction of atomic fission (and hence the atom bomb) was now feasible, that the German Government was working on an atomic bomb, that the U.S. must begin research on the bomb at once or civilization would perish. Einstein enclosed a report by his friend, Dr. Leo Szilard, describing in more technical language how & why the bomb was possible. Franklin Roosevelt acted. Result: the Manhattan Project (TIME, Aug. 15), the bomb, the 125,000 dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the biggest boost humanity has yet been given toward terminating its brief history of misery and grandeur.

If any future civilizations should be left to con the records of the modern world, they will probably declare Albert Einstein the 20th Century's greatest mind. Among 20th-century men, he blends to an extraordinary degree those highly distilled powers of intellect, intuition and imagination which are rarely combined in one mind, but which, when they do occur together, men call genius. It was all but inevitable that this genius should appear in the field of science, for 20th-Century civilization is first & foremost technological.

Pathetic Paradox. It is typical of the dilemma of this civilization that masses of men humbly accept the fact of Einstein's genius, but only a handful understand in what it consists. They have heard that, in his Special and his General Theories of Relativity, Einstein finally explained the form and the nature of the physical universe and the laws governing it. They cannot understand his explanation. To a small elite of mathematicians and physicists, the score of equations in which Einstein embodied his picture of the universe and its functioning are as concrete as a kitchen table. To the layman they are as staggering as to be told, when he is straining to make out the smudge which is all he can see of the great cluster in the constellation Hercules, that the faint light that strikes his eye left its source 34,000 years ago.

Hence the pathetic paradox that Einstein's discoveries, the greatest triumph of reasoning mind on record, are accepted by most people on faith. Hence the fact that most people never expect to understand more about Relativity than is told by the limerick:

There was a young lady called Bright,

Who could travel much faster than light;

She went out one day,

In a relative way,

And came back the previous night.

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