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Einstein vs. Quantum Orthodoxy, Revisited


Bob and Alice go spinning?Essential reading for all those reading the current Einstein biographies is a NY Review of Books article titled The Other Einstein by Lee Smolin. Smolin, a theoretical physicist, takes the biographers to task (although he does prefer Neffe’s biography, as I have - see my review) for not really answering the most essential questions about Einstein. One such question is whether Einstein’s childishness in later years was pre-meditated. Smolin writes:

The question that needs to be answered, although none of the biographers do so, is how this arrogant, charismatic revolutionary turned into the otherworldly sage who was said to be an "emblem...of the mature and reflective human being." The man who was once seen as childish became admired for being childlike. How did this happen? Had Einstein become resigned after facing political and personal tragedies, or was his new character, as Overbye and Neffe both suspect, at least partly an act? "Einstein the lonely genius," as Neffe writes, "was partly a creation of his own making."

Smolin does provide some fascinating stories that lend credence to this suggestion. He also has a very interesting take on Einstein’s later years - years though to be "wasted" by many scientists and biographers because of Einstein’s failed attempt to find a unified theory, and his stubborn battle against the probabilistic and non-realistic view of quantum mechanics in the Copenhagen Interpretation. According to Smolin, Einstein’s "act" worked against the acceptance of his fight against quantum orthodoxy:

Paradoxically, it appears that the myth of Einstein may have diminished the influence he might have had. To understand how and why this happened, we should ask who benefited by the diminishment of Einstein's legacy from that of the greatest scientist of the last two centuries to the gentle and wise clown of popular imagination.

Smolin goes on to provide a thorough account of just what Einstein’s problems with quantum theory were, and an excellent discussion of the EPR Paradox, Bell’s Theorem, and the Aspect experiment (this discussion is actually in a follow-up discussion Smolin has with Jeremy Bernstein. The link to this discussion appears at the end of the Smolin review.) Smolin is much more laudatory of Einstein’s efforts, and his distrust of quantum theory as currently "understood." It is well worth reading because the detail is much more than one will find in any of the Einstein biographies. And it is sure to be controversial. (See the aforementioned Bernstein response for a strong sample reaction.)

Of course, Smolin is no stranger to controversy himself. One of the founders of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, he is probably best known for his attack on string theory, and his opinion of the current state of quantum theory in his book The Trouble With Physics. Check out the Perimeter Institute site to read more about the research there. From their mission statement:

The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics is an independent, resident-based research institute devoted to foundational issues in theoretical physics at the highest levels of international excellence. We strive to create a lively and dynamic research atmosphere where many approaches to fundamental questions, both orthodox and unorthodox, are pursued simultaneously and where a balance between formal and phenomenologically-oriented research is established.

Unorthodox is the operative word here. How can anyone who is trying to tell the complete tale of Einstein be otherwise?