On March 4, 1879, in the city of Ulm in Wurttemberg, Germany, a person was born who would shake the foundations of Newtonian physics Albert Einstein. Julian Schwinger writes, “Just as Isaac Newton dominated the scientific scene in the seventeenth century, so Albert Einstein dominates that of the twentieth century.” However, it was not obvious from the first that this man would become such an influential figure; in fact, Ronald Clark writes in his biography of Einstein, “Nothing in Einstein’s early history suggests dormant genius. Quite the contrary. The one feature of his childhood about which there appears no doubt is the lateness with which he learned to speak.” Einstein himself admitted, “I have no particular talent, I am merely extremely inquisitive.”
Clark says Einstein was “German by nationality, Jewish by origin”, but Einstein was first enrolled at Luitpold Gymnasium, a Catholic school. It appears that the Einstein family was Jewish by name only. At the age of sixteen, Einstein tried to get into the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Zurich, which would “qualify him for a post on the lowest rung of the professional teacher’s ladder.” After failing the entrance examination once, he was accepted and got his degree, but he could not find a post. He eventually got a job working in a patent office as a technical expert. When he was not working, he was writing papers on theoretical physics, and in 1905 he wrote three particularly brilliant papers. Schwinger says, “The year 1905 was a miraculous one for science. A totally unknown physicist produced not one but three revolutionary papers in physics that year.” One of those papers written in 1905 was “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”, in which Einstein presents the special theory of relativity.
Einstein contributed to the sciences with his two major works on relativity: his special theory and his general theory.
Einstein’s special theory of relativity says that space and time are relative. In other words, if two people observe the same event, both of their perspectives are equally true. This theory ran right in the face of Newtonian physics, which taught that space and time are absolute frames of reference. The special theory is where Einstein presents his famous equation, E=mc2. Einstein said that this means “Energy has mass and mass represents energy.”
The special theory of relativity applied to uniform motion. His general theory of relativity was created to broaden his argument to include accelerated motion. He chose to focus on gravity because it is an important foundation of Newtonian physics. Could Einstein relativise the law of gravity?
Einstein said that acceleration is the opposite of gravity, and there is no experiment that can be performed to separate the two. For example, if you are in a spaceship accelerating at one “G” (the same as the earth’s gravity), you would not be able to tell if you were on earth or in space, because acceleration would imitate gravity. However, Einstein went further than this. He said that gravity does not even exist. Instead, “mass has the property of bending the space in its vicinity so that objects close by are accelerated.”
Regardless of the complexity of Einstein’s theories, his contribution to science is clear: he destroyed Newtonian physics mathematically. Gamow observes: “Einstein was probably the first to realize the important fact that the basic notions and the laws of nature, however well established, were valid only within the limits of observation and did not necessarily hold beyond them.” Pearcey writes: “The Newtonian faith splintered upon the rocky shores of the new physics.”
Einstein’s work was not inspired by a Christian worldview. He believed in a god, but a very different god from the God of the Bible. Clark says that Einstein believed “in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of men.” Pearcey writes: “Einstein did sometimes speak of God as a distinct Being, yet he made it clear that in his view God was completely bound by rational necessity . . . In other words, God had no choice; the laws of science reveal the only possible way He could create the world.” Einstein himself said, “Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much of the stories in the Bible could not be true… Suspicion against every kind of authority grew out of this experience.”
While Einstein was neither for or against the Christian worldview, he did challenge it unintentionally. Not taking the time to correctly understand it, his theory of relativity gave many people the “scientific” justification to embrace relativism. Pearcey writes: “Few had any clear idea of the scientific content of relativity theory, but the term itself struck a responsive chord in a society already leaning toward relativism-already questioning traditional certitudes. If Einstein’s theory rejected Newtonian concepts of absolute time and space, what did that imply about absolutes in morality and metaphysics?”
It is important to note that, correctly understood, Einstein’s theory does not lead to a postmodern worldview. Pearcey writes: “No one was more distressed by this public misapprehension than Einstein himself . . . Einstein did not discard absolutes in science . . . he merely replaced Newtonian metaphysical absolutes (time and space) with a material absolute (the velocity of light).” Even Bertrand Russell could not come up with any anti-Christian slant to the theory of relativity: “The philosophical consequences of relativity are neither so great nor so startling as is sometimes thought . . . The final conclusion is that we know very little . . .” Francis Schaeffer agrees that Einstein’s theory does not call for a re-examination of fundamental beliefs: “But we may ask, ‘Isn’t science now in a new stage, one in which the concept of an orderly universe is passe?’ It is often said that relativity as a philosophy, as a world view, is supported by Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. But this is mistaken because Einstein’s theory of relativity assumes that everywhere in the universe light travels at a constant speed in a vacuum. In other words, we must say with the utmost force that nothing is less relative philosophically than the theory of relativity. Einstein himself stood implacably against any such application of his concepts. We can think of his often quoted words from the London Observer of April 5, 1964: ‘I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos.'”
Yet people did interpret Einstein’s theory to be relativistic. Pearcey quotes Johnson, who says: “Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. . . . It formed a knife . . . to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture.” Bernard Shaw cries out, “‘And now now what is left of it? The orbit of the electron obeys no law, it chooses one path and rejects another. . . . All is caprice, the calculable world has become incalculable.'” Unwittingly, the man who simply wanted “just to draw His lines after Him” helped to erase the lines and usher in postmodernism.
Clark, Ronald. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing, 1971.
Gamow, George. Thirty Years that Shook Physics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1966.
Pearcey, Nancy and Charles Thaxton. The Soul of Science. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994.
Russell, Bertrand. The ABC of Relativity. New York: New American Library, 1958.
Schaeffer, Francis. How Should We Then Live? Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976.
Schwinger, Julian. Einstein’s Legacy. New York: Scientific American Books, 1986.