How important was religion to Einstein, how much did that inform his worldview?

Religion helped Einstein in many, many ways — one was just being an outsider. His family was sort of assimilated German Jews and they weren’t entirely accepted. Thorstein Veblin was a Norwegian economist in America — late 1800s, early 1900s — he wrote a wonderful essay on what it takes to be really, really creative in a field. He said it helps if you’re brought up in a family that teaches you one thing kind of dogmatically. Outsiders, minorities in England or America, Jews in Germany, if you’re a total outsider you don’t have any education. If you’re a total insider it’s tempting to complacently just accept what’s there.

It helps to have a little bit of a problem, minor prejudice against you, not major — that blocks everything — but not total acceptance. So Einstein just was a little bit critical when he was taught at university that this is the way things are. He would say, ‘Maybe. Let’s look at it afresh’.

There are certain asymmetries, for example in Maxwell’s equation, that people would say, ‘It doesn’t mean anything’, he’d say, ‘Maybe. Let’s look at it afresh’. So that was one thing: the outsider.

Another thing that helped a lot was that although Einstein himself didn’t study the Talmud a lot — which is a book of commentary on the Bible — he had a strong Jewish education until he was about 12 or 13, and of course he read widely in Jewish matters. Those of you who perhaps didn’t study the Talmud this morning might be pleased to know that a page of the Talmud looks like this. In one corner here they’ll have a little bit from the Bible. Around that will be commentaries that some people wrote about it, say, 800 years later, around that there’ll be commentaries that people wrote about those commentaries later. And it was on and on and on, and was closed with Rashi in the 12th century.

So Einstein grew up with those notions, and his principles behind relativity are higher-level principles. It was incredibly useful in the patent office where Einstein worked in his 20s. If people would come in with something, say, ‘There’s all these gears and mechanisms and it’ll do such and such’, Einstein would ask them, ‘Does it create perpetual motion?’, which he knew was impossible, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, it creates perpetual motion’, he said, ‘Then it can’t work’. He would use a higher-level principle — ‘If it violates the laws of thermodynamics, I don’t care what the gears and stuff are, it doesn’t work’.

So Einstein got that very much from his religious background and from his technical training. His work is repeatedly judging things. Relativity isn’t a detailed law, it’s an approach to things.


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