Habitues of middle school geometry will surely remember that Pi (or — the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter — is an irrational number which begins as 3.14159265 … and never stops! Albert Einstein’s birthday, 3/14/1879, shares the first four digits of Pi. And from so slim a coincidence, Pi Day, the closest thing we have to an International Science Holiday was born.
Numerology aside, it is ironic that we should recall the birth of Einstein (the eminently rational practitioner of the profoundly rational discipline of theoretical physics) with an irrational number.
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Although it is safe to assume Einstein would see the sardonic humor of this numerical pun on his birthday, his natal day circa 2019 begs the question, “What to get the genius for Birthday #140?” Before he blows out nearly a dozen-dozen candles or slips the rubber band strap of his pointy party hat under his chin, a few gift suggestions are in order:
1. A do-over of the A-Bomb
The FBI considered Einstein a security risk and he was never allowed to travel to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project. However, his iconic formula, E=MC², quantified the
devastating energy output of the fissile reaction of the Atomic Bomb. (Note: due to “inefficiencies” of bomb metallurgy, only a tiny fraction of the Hiroshima bomb’s U-235 mass could be converted to destructive energy).
Although Einstein realized the critical necessity of a call to arms against the rising tide of Hitler’s Germany, he was a lifelong proponent of pacifism and world government. Regretting his link to the A-Bomb, he intoned.” I do not know how the Third World War will be fought but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth – rocks.”
2. A happier first marriage
Einstein divorced his fellow Zurich Polytechnic student, Mileva Maric, in 1919 (after 16 years of a conflict-ridden marriage strained by the out-of-wedlock death?/adoption? of a daughter [Lieserl], schizophrenic younger son [Eduard], and disaffected eldest son [Hans Albert]). His second marriage to his cousin Elsa was happier but not distinguished by his fidelity.
For the most part, Einstein was “other-worldly” in his regard for riches. He never bought a car (and never got a driver’s license), lived in the same modest two-story clapboard house until he died in 1955, and any cursory review of his attire (baggy sweaters and no socks favored) will certify that his clothing budget was modest.
When he was hired by the Institute for Advanced Study in 1932, according to Walter Isaacson he was asked to name a starting salary and tentatively came up with $3000 per year. The Institute’s director, Abraham Flexner, looked “surprised” and Einstein asked, “Could I live on less?” Flexner was actually surprised by the lowball figure. Mrs. Einstein took charge of her husband’s salary negotiations going forward.
Einstein was fundamentally a modest guy who would sneak through a backyard gate to his neighbor’s (physicist Eric Rogers) house to escape the reporters occupying his front porch every birthday (which was yet to be designated “Pi Day”).
He turned down the offer of the presidency of Israel in 1952 and one year later after initially declining Dean Harry Zimmerman’s overtures he reluctantly consented to lend his name to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx. Of his adopted New Jersey home, he commented, “I have wished for this isolation all my life, and now I have finally achieved it here in Princeton.”
5. Virtuoso musicianship
Einstein began playing the violin when he was 6 years old and continued until he was 71 and switched to the piano. He adored Mozart’s music (“pure and beautiful … a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe”). He was a proficient and enthusiastic musician who did not shy away from playing in a quartet with the world-famous violinist Fritz Kreisler.
As discussed in my book Finding Einstein’s Brain, Dean Falk discovered that Einstein’s right hemisphere (like that of other string musicians) had additional motor cortex (a “cortical knob”) that may have provided the neuroanatomical substrate for left-hand dexterity applied to the violin’s fretwork. Einstein confessed in doggerel that “one loves to play/One’s little fiddle night and day.”
6. Losing my religion
At age 12 Einstein exchanged his observant Judaism for a scientific worldview. At 9 years old he observed the Sabbath, kept Kosher, and composed hymns to God while being raised in a not particularly religious household. The turning point was receiving the “holy geometry booklet” of Euclid’s propositions. From then on he abandoned belief in a personal God and embraced Spinoza’s (17th century excommunicated Jewish philosopher) God “who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Einstein’s particular “God” was “subtle but malicious he is not” nor did He “play dice with the universe” as the quantum theorists proposed. Einstein’s humble analytic rationality confronting the Mystery of the Universe was his personal gospel. Copies of The Torah or The Bible need not apply for his birthday gift list.
7. Theory of Everything
So if money, fame, and one of the Great faith-based religions held no allure for Einstein … and it’s too late to stopper the djinns of the A-bomb and failed marriage back in the lamp, what should we give him on March 14? In three words it’s the Theory of Everything (TOE) … and put a bow on it. The grand unification of the basic forces of electromagnetism, gravity, strong force, weak force, and quantum mechanics was Einstein’s Holy Grail, and 12 pages of TOE equations were found on the bedside table in his hospital room when he died on April 18, 1955.
The problem of reconciling the mathematics of the Very Large (General Relativity and gravity) and the Very Small (Quantum Mechanics) remains just as formidable today as it was in Einstein’s era. Sabine Hossenfelder underscores some of the inherent contradictions by observing that an electron “can be in two places at once because it is described by a wave function” but General Relativity which reports the curvature of space-time around the electron’s mass is stymied by its inability to “locate” the electron which is simultaneously in two places. even decades later we’re still looking for an answer to the TOE in the realm of pure mathematics (and by that, I mean experimentally unverifiable physics) with Superstring Theory (Try imagining a universe with 11 dimensions. Good Luck!).
Along the way to his 140th birthday, Einstein has received additional gifts to provide further confirmation of his Theory of General Relativity such as evidence for Black Holes (Thanks, Stephen Hawking!) and gravitational waves (Thanks LIGO!). But in the beginning, there was a squalling baby boy born in Ulm, Germany at 11:30 AM on March 14, 1879.
His aspirations, struggles, loves both thwarted and fulfilled, scientific triumphs and unrealized quests lay in the future. With his birth, we come full circle (both its circumference and diameter). And what else could we expect on Pi Day?
Frederick E. Lepore MD is a professor of Neurology and Ophthalmology at Rutgers/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey. He is a clinical neuro-ophthalmologist, the author of a “biography of a brain” — Finding Einstein’s Brain and over 125 scientific articles, and designer of the Optic Nerve Test Card. Dr. Lepore is also the father of Ladders Deputy Editor, Meredith Lepore.
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