Why There Will Never Be Another Einstein

Source: Scientific American, Aug 2015

Einstein is the most famous and beloved scientist of all time. We revere him not only as a scientific genius but also as a moral and even spiritual sage. Abraham Pais, Einstein’s friend and biographer, called him “the divine man of the 20th century.” To New York Times physics reporter Dennis Overbye, Einstein was an “icon” of “humanity in the face of the unknown.” So to rephrase my question: Will science ever produce another figure who evokes such hyperbolic reverence?

I doubt it. The problem isn’t that modern physicists can’t match Einstein’s intellectual firepower. In Genius, his 1992 biography of physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick pondered why physics hadn’t produced more giants like Einstein. The paradoxical answer, Gleick suggested, is that there are so many brilliant physicists alive today that it has become harder for any individual to stand apart from the pack. In other words, our perception of Einstein as a towering figure is, well, relative.

For the first half of the last century, physics yielded not only deep insights into nature–which resonated with the disorienting work of creative visionaries like Picasso, Joyce and Freud–but also history-jolting technologies like the atomic bomb, nuclear power, radar, lasers, transistors and all the gadgets that make up the computer and communications industries. Physics mattered.

Over the past few decades, many physicists have gotten bogged down pursuing a goal that obsessed Einstein in his latter years: a theory that fuses quantum physics and general relativity, which are as incompatible, conceptually and mathematically, as plaid and polka dots. Seekers of this “theory of everything” have wandered into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality.

Over the past few decades, biology has displaced physics as the scientific enterprise with the most intellectual, practical and economic clout. Of all modern biologists, Francis Crick (who originally trained as a physicist) probably came closest to Einstein in terms of scientific achievement. Together with James Watson, Crick unraveled the twin-corkscrew structure of DNA in 1953. He went on to show how the double helix mediates the genetic code that serves as the blueprint for all of life.

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