In Memoriam Einstein

In Memoriam Einstein

by Roy Lisker


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Literary Nonfiction. Memoir. Science. By a singular ruse, the author of this account obtained entrance to the most exclusive party in the scientific world of the 20th century: The Einstein Centennial Symposium at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, on March 14-18, 1979. Admission was denied to all but a hand-picked group of celebrities: Nobel Prize winners, surviving members of Einstein's family, renowned Einstein scholars and historians, and journalists. Unbeknownst to the organizers of the event, Mr. Lisker turned out to be the only journalist present with the scientific competence to cover the entirety of this unique event. The result is a gripping and fascinating story that is both informed and humane, scientifically credible and politically aware.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780986144592
Publisher: Sagging Meniscus Press
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Pages: 98
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Roy Lisker was born in 1938. In 1954 he entered the University of Pennsylvania school to work on an advanced degree in mathematics. Within two years he discovered that the call of arts and letters was stronger. He began working at fiction and non-fiction in 1958, returning to the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. He has been published in the United States, France, England, Canada, and Ireland. He has worked in fiction, science writing, math and physics research, criticism and journalism. Since 1980, he has been the author and editor of several privately subscribed newsletters, culminating in 1985 with Ferment, which existed for twenty years as a paper publication before going online as Ferment Magazine.IN MEMORIAM EINSTEIN, written in 1979 and first published in French in 1980 by Les Temps Modernes, the magazine of Jean- Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, was the first of a series of Voyage-Projects. These spontaneous journalistic adventures, undertaken usually with very little financial backing, formed the substance of much of the material for Ferment.

Read an Excerpt

In Memoriam Einstein

The Einstein Centennial Symposium at the Institute for Advanced Study March 14-18, 1979

By Roy Lisker

Sagging Meniscus Press

Copyright © 2015 Roy Lisker
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-9861445-9-2


The Event Horizon

History and Geometry

The study of history might benefit through adopting the viewpoint commonly held in General Relativity. The hypothetical historians interested in this approach should have the requisite training in mathematics and physics. That this programme be more than a fatuous exercise it needs to be applied both to the investigation of the historical forces that shape collective behavior, and (analogous to General Relativity's treatment of matter and space) to the reciprocity between personal ambitions and national destinies. The principle of equivalence asserts that what we measure as a gravitational force between massive objects can better be understood as a distance measurement in an immutable 4-dimensional space-time geometry. Although this geometry is described by Einstein's field equations, there is no consensus about the shape of its universe. Many candidates exist, the so-called models of Einstein's gravitational equations: the "special" approximation of Minkowski Space; de Sitter Space; anti-de Sitter Space; Reissner-Nordstrom Space; Robertson-Walker Space; the Schwarzchild Space; Taub-NUT Space; Kerr Space; Gödel Space. Time is "static" in Gödel space, which is what one might expect from the Master of Undecidability.

The "plumed serpent" Quetzalcoatl, found this out to his cost:

The Mexican snake Quetzalcoatl
Got stuck in an open Klein bottle
My word, am I dotty?
I've gone through my body!
And feel like a theorem by Gödel!

In these models (of which the Robertson-Walker and the Schwarzschild are the only ones used in most applications), massive objects no more "attract" each other, than does the fact that one side of a triangle has to be shorter than the sum of the other two indicate that there is an "attraction" between the triangle's vertices.

From this Parmenidian perspective, the illusion of activity cedes place to the permanence of inviolable principles. In a relativistic theory, things appearing to move are in reality gliding down a slope of least resistance, the so-called geodesic in spacetime. This isn't motion to relativists: such paths are called flat.

Applying this viewpoint to a theory of history, isolated events (individual, collective, national, even global) would be described in terms of distances of a static history metric. World-shaking events, mass movements, revolutions, even fads and fashions, could be examined as curious geometric shapes in history space. Phenomena as disparate as the emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity and the building of the giant statues on Easter Island could be "deduced" from a small set of postulates similar to those of Euclidean Geometry:

• Triangles are congruent if two sides and included angle are equal;

• The area of a circle is 3.14159 ... times the radius;

• The square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides....

This way of looking at the world has entered into my own speculations concerning the roots of my decision to hitch-hike to the Einstein Centennial Symposium, the festive conference in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Einstein's birth, between March 14th and 18th at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. How could I place my personal decision into the wider historical context? Were my decision and subsequent actions somehow inevitable, given the circumstances of my life and the political realities of the 20th century? Although this decision was quickly made after browsing over an article in the New York Times on the opening day of the Symposium, subsequent events demonstrated that it arose from a profound source.

Could I have done otherwise? Was the eventual publication of this report in a prestigious French magazine as inevitable as the Symposium itself, as my attendance there, as, ultimately, Einstein's creation of Relativity itself? These reflections are the beneficiaries of hindsight, in which all things fall into place. It is not surprising that I picture all the occurrences surrounding the event as a geometry diagram in historic space-time.

Yet, on the morning of Sunday, March 14th, 1979, when I came down for breakfast in the dining-room of the commune in the Hudson Valley where I'd washed up in the late 70's, I had no idea that this date was the 100th anniversary of Einstein's birth. My previous sojourns in Princeton were decades in the past: there was no-one, to my knowledge, either on the campus or in the town to whom I could turn for help.

After reading through the article explaining that a host of famous and prominent people would be gathering at the IAS for the Symposium, I called up a friend, the physicist Peter Skiff, teacher at Bard College a few miles down the road, to ask for his opinion. He tried to discourage me from going. He liked me, he said (I'd never thought otherwise) and didn't want my feelings to be hurt. Even if I somehow managed to gain admission (which he believed most unlikely) I would be snubbed by all. To his mind the whole extravaganza was a media event, an exercise in self-aggrandizement by an elite, self-infatuated club of winners, runner-ups and would-be winners of Nobel Prizes. Their only reason for coming together was to hype each other's reputations. They would have little time to waste on outsiders. Dr. Skiff was wrong, though one could understand and empathize with his bitterness. What I discovered was a world not bereft of humanity, though with its own peculiarities, of which you are about to learn.

I had no money. This is not a metaphor: the commune frowned on this widely dispersed technology. A sympathetic friend passed me $5. At around 10 AM, carrying briefcase and backpack, I walked out to Route 9E and put out my thumb. It was as simple as that. Well, no, I also held a piece of cardboard on which I'd written, in block letters with a felt pen:


There was a light rain that persisted at more or less the same intensity throughout the 5 hours I was on the road. It let up soon after my arrival in Princeton. I'd been out of touch with the world scientific community for a good 15 years. The normal questions which would trouble anyone also occurred to me; I just didn't let them get to me: Where would I stay? Wouldn't I have to eat? Gaining admission at the Symposium wouldn't be easy. What would happen if I were discovered? What if the journey took all day and was unable to get beyond New York City before nightfall?

Insights into the Author's Past

Under normal circumstances any one of these stumbling blocks would have prompted me to cancel the journey. But these were not normal circumstances. I wasn't actually making a journey, rather the journey was making itself with me as agent, a spacetime geodesic like the motion of the Earth in orbit around the sun. Dominating my consciousness was the spiritual state that characterizes all of the hardship-ridden pilgrimages of the devout, the fanatical, and the benighted throughout human history. One finds nothing far-fetched in the tale of a pious Moslem who, for no apparent reason, abandons all concern for his life, family or business and starts out on his long delayed pilgrimage to Mecca!

As with many scientists, my veneration for Einstein began at an early age. But despite my growing up in Philadelphia, a city less than 40 miles from Princeton, it never occurred to me to go out there and try to meet him. One doesn't want to meet one's idols, either from fear of misbehaving or fear of tarnishing the mystique. Once however I did come very close to meeting him.

The court is out, and may always be so, as to whether I really was the whiz-kid that the University of Pennsylvania mathematics department saw in me. The important point is I was thought to be one, because of which I was skipped, at age 15, short a year and a half of graduating high school, and enrolled into a graduate program in mathematics at Penn in the Fall Term of 1954.

The question of whether Lisker would ever do first-rate research became moot when, in my sophomore year, he developed a revulsion towards everything having to do with math that lasted 25 years. Curiously, it was through my attendance at the ECS that my interest in math and physics was rekindled, by which time however I was well past the age at which 90% of all mathematicians produce 90% of all major results. That doesn't upset me overly much. Mankind had little use for mathematics between the 3rd and 13th centuries AD, which seems to indicate that other things may also be important.

As a way of hedging its bets, the Penn mathematics department sent me out to Princeton to be interviewed by Bruria Kaufman. She was Einstein's mathematics secretary at the time, wife of the well-known linguist Zellig Harris. She interviewed me, decided that I knew enough by age 15 to be in Penn's graduate program, and probably fairly smart as well, (though there is no guaranteed way of knowing that). So she sent me back to Penn with an "A" on my forehead. The source of all my future woes!

There is no doubt that I could have arranged a meeting with Albert Einstein through her. Age 15 is not a time for encountering living legends, not for most of us. Hero worship is a universal vice, and I can report that I did experience a certain amount of awkwardness sitting down at a table for lunch in the company of some of the superstars at the ECS. This handicap wore off after a few days, after which I was able to chat with them with the same nonchalance I customarily brought to the motley crew of truck drivers, clerks, students, cops and prostitutes in the local restaurants which I frequented at the time.

My hitch-hiking took me down the New York State Thruway and the New Jersey's Garden State Parkway for all of that grey March afternoon. I recall having been picked up by 5 drivers. Half an hour was the usual wait between lifts, though I was stuck for over an hour at a location the Garden State Parkway. Unrealistically I'd imagined that I would be in Princeton by 1; it was close to 4 when my final driver dropped me off in front of the Princeton Inn.

Impervious to the rains, I was fired up by the thought that the handiwork on my cardboard sign flashed around the world much like the marathon torch that precedes the opening of the Olympics. Was it not self-evident that all who saw me on the highways realized that we were living out the final day of the Einstein century, their acknowledgements shooting like telegraph messages through the collective consciousness of the human race?

Eventually even I was forced to recognize that few persons took notice of the date March 14th, 1979. Can one imagine it, there are probably millions of souls out there to whom the very name "Einstein" means little or nothing!

The Einstein Revolution

Which is beside the point. The revolutions in physics (and all the sciences) since the turn of the 20th century have profoundly affected the lives of everyone on earth, the continuation of a process that has been going on for over 300 years. No educated person need be reminded of the powerful upheavals in politics, ideology, technology, economics and life expectancy associated with the names of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Darwin, Marx, Planck, Einstein. With each major increase in mankind's power over nature there has been a corresponding belittling of Mankind's stature relative to the cosmos.

In some ways the revolutions precipitated by Relativity and the Quantum Theory and Relativity are unique. Previous to them no-one thought to question the objectivity of the observer relative to the observed: neither Copernicus' displacement of the center of the solar system to the Sun, nor Newton's magisterial explication of the Natural Order, nor Maxwell's Fields, nor the ultimate humiliation (to some) of Darwin's revelation of biological evolution.

However great the offense to anthropocentrism, every scientific theory up until 1900 continued to assume the existence of Observation as being independent from the Observer. Newton defined Force as a composite of space, time and matter. Dalton explained chemical properties by appealing to small, very hard atoms that would ultimately, whether directly or indirectly, become visible. Since waves have to propagate through something, James Clerk Maxwell and those before and after him up to Einstein assumed that there had to be a medium for light, which was christened the ether. Light itself had to be either a wave or a particle; it could not be both. Newton's particle paradigm had a brief life before being replaced by Huyghens' waves, which explained more.

The middle of the 19th century saw the introduction of a new mode of thinking. There were things that could never be known pragmatically; then things that could never be known theoretically. Carnot showed that the work involved in producing heat could not, even in theory, be recovered. Gauss showed that most angles cannot be trisected by ruler and compass. Galois showed that the roots of the general algebraic polynomial of the 5th degree and higher could not be written down as an expression in fractions and radicals. Cantor confounded our commonsense notions of infinity, replacing them by hierarchies without end. Darwin showed that the human race is merely an effect in a long chain of causation through the animal kingdom going back billions of years. Then, at the turn of the century, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg proclaimed that whether we see a wave or a particle in the sub-atomic universe depends on the way we look at it.

Among all those who have led the way towards the cognitive paradigm that has since become customary in all the sciences, Einstein was unquestionably the leader. Einstein, and those who have followed in his footsteps, began describing the universe in terms of entities that "exist" only in the mathematics!

The time coordinate of Special Relativity is represented by a purely imaginary parameter, ict, where i = [square root of -1] the square root of minus 1. Length and time are not independent; the rate at which the hands of a clock move (as seen by someone at rest) is affected by the motion of the clock itself through space. Borrowing a page from René Descartes (who rejected the possibility of action at a distance), only collisions are simultaneous; there is no before and after. All velocities less than that of light are relative, but light moves at an absolute speed, independent of reference frame. To draw a consistent picture that includes these seemingly contradictory features, one must develop a new geometry, one with lines and points that don't "exist," properly speaking, in our everyday world, but which tell us what is happening in it. Even rigid bodies, a mainstay of the old physics, no longer exist, properly speaking, in Special Relativity. (They are returned in a sense in General Relativity, their rigidity considerably mangled!)

In the General theory of Relativity, developed during WWI, Einstein replaced both matter and energy by a Matter-Energy Tensor. Tensors are purely mathematical objects, generalized vectors compounded with so-called dual vectors or co-vectors. All of these things derive out of Nature and lead back to Nature, but they do not exist in Nature.

The propagation of light-waves through empty space is counter-intuitive; yet it is much easier to describe the behavior of light in the language of Special Relativity, than it is to describe the propagation of ordinary sound waves through water or air. One doesn't have to worry about the quantities that specify the kind of water or air.

This predilection for replacing virtually everything we see and touch by purely mathematical abstractions also became the programme of Quantum Theory, leading to a host of arcane subjects in which Quantum Theory, Special Relativity and General Relativity are blended as alloys: Gauge Theory, Quantum Electrodynamics, Quantum Chromodynamics, Quantum Field Theory, Axiomatic Quantum Theory, Quantum Gravity....


Excerpted from In Memoriam Einstein by Roy Lisker. Copyright © 2015 Roy Lisker. Excerpted by permission of Sagging Meniscus Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


The Event Horizon,
History and Geometry,
Insights into the Author's Past,
The Einstein Revolution,
Arrival in Princeton,
I am Arrested,
I Become a Journalist,
Finding Room and Board,
The Symposium,
The Opening Ceremonies,
Historical Illiteracy,
Some Strangeness in the Proportion,
Einstein, Where Were You?,
Blueprint for a Symposium,
The Einstein Age: 1900 - 1926,
Max Planck Defenestrated; Wigner to the Rescue,
Albert Einstein Defenestrated; Dirac to the Rescue,
Dinner with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar,
Lunch With the Bureaucrats,
Experimental Relativity: Irwin Shapiro,
The Cocktail Party,
Social Responsibility at the IAS,
Sciama's Visit to Cygnus X-1,
The Battle of Princeton,
Upstairs, Downstairs at the IAS,
Black Hole Phrenology,
Eternal Life and the Baryon Number,
Fields and Particles,
Isaac Rabi Resuscitates the Media,
The Cosmological Principle: Martin Rees is Miffed,
Summary of Cosmology,
Einstein on the Lunch Menu,
Quantum Gravity; Supergravity,
Relativity's Future, in a manner of speaking,
I Become a Filmmaker,

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