Online Edition: Spring 2005

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Einstein Defiant

Genius versus Genius in the Quantum Revolution

Edmund Blair Bolles

Joseph Henry Press ($27.95)

by James Ervin

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Though he continued to work on theoretical physics for decades after completing his general theory of relativity in 1915, Einstein's refusal to accept the implications of quantum mechanics, the great physical theory he himself helped create, caused many physicists to label his later years “a great tragedy.” In this accessible scientific biography, Edmund Bolles explores the philosophical sources of Einstein's defiance, challenging the notion of his decline.

Quantum mechanics describes the behavior of subatomic particles with incredible precision, yet has a non-intuitive quality which led Richard Feynman, a prominent later theorist, to quip that “nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Niels Bohr clashed with Einstein over the proper interpretation of quantum theory for years, culminating in the famous Bohr-Einstein debates at the 1930 Solvay Conference, widely viewed as Bohr's victory. This long-running feud occupies the majority of Bolles's narrative, beginning with the struggle over Einstein's theory of “light quanta,” the packets of light known today as photons.

Einstein's 1921 Nobel Prize was awarded not for relativity, but for his work on the photoelectric effect, which occurs when light strikes metal, producing an electric charge. His original 1905 paper proposed that, in this instance, light worked “like soccer balls,” knocking electrons out of the metal. By 1925, Bohr's rival hypothesis, a statistical treatment of light as waves, was discredited by several experimental results, and the photon was accepted as fact.

However, light still exhibited characteristics of both waves and particles, and Einstein “could not reduce the paradox to one experiment that brought the contradictory measurements together”—no vivid mental image akin to the soccer balls presented itself. Bohr and his colleagues soon formulated the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum mechanics, which embraced the wave-particle paradox. Only the probability of the outcome of an atomic collision can be calculated, and measurement can only capture one aspect—wave or particle, but not both—of this interaction.

In the Copenhagen interpretation, reality is indeterministic, and the laws of physics no longer purport to describe physical reality in terms of mechanical causes and effects, but are merely useful mathematical abstractions. “Something new was afoot when scientists no longer believed that physical events lay behind physical laws.” Einstein resisted the new orthodoxy. Believing that “quantum mechanics was both right and a dead-end,” he never ceased searching for the reality underlying the mathematics.

Though the literature on Einstein is immense, Bolles's book stands out among the popular expositions. Lucid yet substantive explanations of Einstein's earlier work on molecular motion and relativity admirably demonstrate the constancy of Einstein's belief in physical processes explicable by natural laws. Bolles also depicts the intellectual climate in Europe between the wars convincingly, with informative and humorous anecdotes about the Dadaists, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and other cultural figures.

The 1930 Solvay Conference in Brussels was to be the last of significance, as the German scientific community soon dissolved under pressure from the Nazi regime. Many of quantum mechanics's founders abandoned the field, perhaps finding its strangeness unsettling. Bolles ends on a note of elegy, not for Einstein, but for physics itself: “Bohr had won, scientific realism had fallen, and with it the belief that the world is objectively comprehensible… [yet] Einstein never saw himself as tragic, nor his defiance as futile.”

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Spring 2005 Table of Contents