A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine
Whatever the state of relations between London and Washington, Europe and the US should remember their long history of shared intellectual activity, championed chiefly by Albert Einstein, writes Lisa Jardine.
Torn between two continents, Einstein championed co-operation
The campus of the California Institute of Technology, Caltech, in Pasadena, where I spent this week, looks more like a Latin-American hacienda than a top-flight university dedicated to teaching and research in fundamental science.
Practically all the giants of modern science have been associated with Caltech during the hundred years since its foundation. The best known of these by far is Albert Einstein, perhaps science's only folk hero - Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, forever associated with the evocative formula E = mc2 .
Caltech is where Linus Pauling pursued his research on the formation of chemical bonds between atoms in molecules and crystals, paving the way for Crick and Watson's discovery of the structure of DNA. This is also where Edwin Hubble's discoveries with the Mount Wilson telescope challenged Einstein's cosmological picture of the universe, and brought him here himself to discuss the implications of his general theory of Relativity with Caltech physicists and astronomers.
The institute sits at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, in a lush landscape. Graceful jacaranda trees smothered in a purple haze of blossom, and soaring emerald-leaved palms, shade beds of bird-of-paradise flowers and headily-scented star jasmine. A long avenue of mature olive trees runs through the sunlit campus, to a pool on whose edge dozens of ebony-coloured turtles sun themselves among the reeds. Arched colonnades covered in bougainvillea border and connect the cool stuccoed buildings.
Walk up close, though, and these buildings have unexpectedly futuristic names: the Keith Spalding Building, home of the Space Infrared Telescope Facility; the Lauritsen Laboratory for high energy physics; and, a few short miles away, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and its current project LISA - the laser interferometer space antenna.
In this highly-charged intellectual environment, 2,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and 300 faculty work at the cutting edge of modern science.
Einstein visited Caltech for the first time in December 1930, returning in 1931-2 and 1932-3. It was while he was on his third research visit that the Nazis came to power in Germany. Einstein never returned to Europe, although he would spend the last 20 years of his life at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton rather than Caltech.
And it is here at Caltech that the formidable project of transcribing and publishing the entire Einstein archive is currently being carried out. Tucked into a corner of the Caltech campus is a modest building which contains the Einstein Papers Project. Housed deep in its basement, in a row of locked black filing cabinets running the full length of one wall, are copies of more than 70,000 items - half a million pages of documentation - relating to Einstein's life and career (most originals are kept at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to which Einstein bequeathed them at his death in 1955).
The other half of the Russell-Einstein manifesto
Einstein's devoted assistant Helen Dukas began collecting and ordering Einstein's papers in Berlin, even before he left for America. The collection includes Einstein's letters, scientific manuscripts (published and unpublished), as well as lectures, speeches and articles on a wide range of topics from philosophy of science to education, Zionism, pacifism, and civil liberties. At Caltech a small team of dedicated researchers are editing the entire contents of the archive, transcribing them, annotating them, and publishing them volume by volume. On Monday I was given a guided tour, and shown some of the fascinating items the collection contains.
Among the papers are personal travel diaries Einstein kept whenever he was abroad. The diaries for the Caltech years give a wonderfully vivid picture of the elan with which he embraced his new California lifestyle. By the 30s Einstein was an international celebrity - the Los Angeles Times and the Pasadena Star newspapers produced over 1200 articles about him, which are also carefully filed in the Einstein archive. From the day he arrived he was feted and honoured.
He loved Hollywood, and Hollywood loved him. On his first trip a motion picture tycoon made arrangements for Einstein and his wife Elsa to see his new film at the Universal studios. In his diary Einstein wrote: "We drove to Hollywood to visit the film giant Laemmle. They showed us All Quiet on the Western Front, a nice piece, which the Nazis have banned successfully in Germany".
Einstein dined with Charlie Chaplin and Randolph Hearst
That ban, he also noted, was "a diplomatic defeat for [the German] government". Hearing that Einstein admired the films of Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin himself invited the couple to dinner, together with the newspaper magnate Randolph Hearst. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks entertained the Einsteins at their mansion, "Pickfair", in Beverley Hills. It was, Einstein tells us, like a three-ringed circus, but he loved it nonetheless.
Of course, the Einstein papers for the Caltech years are full of important science too. But the very human Einstein who emerges from the pages of the California travel diaries is for me a kind of symbol for the way in which the United States took up the torch of fundamental scientific research and kept its flame alight, giving great original thinkers like Einstein a home and public recognition, when National Socialism in Germany was turning its back on the future.
It is also, for me, a reminder that the ties that bind European intellectuals to our fellow human beings in the United States are far stronger than the agendas of particular political administrations on either side of the Atlantic. If we take the long view - back to the founding years of Caltech, and forward, beyond the disaster of the Iraq war, and what some like myself regard as the damagingly anti-science ethos of the Bush administration - the common intellectual understanding between our two countries has to continue to be nurtured and cherished.
Because beneath the surface differences in attitudes and beliefs, there runs a historically strong set of values connecting us. It was out of the debris of World War II, and the team-work and collaboration between leading scientists in America and Europe that one of the lastingly important statements about war and weapons of mass destruction was issued by a group of distinguished scientists which included a number of Caltech illuminati -the "Russell-Einstein manifesto".
Together, Einstein in America and Bertrand Russell in England produced what still stands as one of the most important statements of the need for cooperation between nations. It was the last letter Einstein signed, shortly before he died on 18 April 1955, having drafted and redrafted the text with Russell in the weeks before his death.
The Russell-Einstein manifesto was addressed to the leaders of the western world. It urged them to recognise that weapons of war (specifically the atomic bomb) were now too deadly for war between opposed factions any longer to be an option:
"In the tragic situation which confronts humanity [they wrote], we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction.
"We have to learn to think in a new way [they went on]. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?"
The current clamour of anti-American sentiment in Europe runs entirely counter to Einstein and Russell's fervent hopes for the future. Just as they feared, it drives the world towards shrill factionalism and petty nationalistic posturing. But our response cannot be to deny the bonds of history and common aspiration which underpin decades of shared intellectual activities in Europe and America. We should not treat the Anglo-American accord as a doctrine to be imposed elsewhere in the world by military might, but rather redouble our efforts to build on our remarkable shared history of scientific advance.
As I wandered the campus at Caltech, and as I talked to faculty and students, the culture of serious reflection on the big issues in science and in human values filled me with a sense that together they and we could achieve a great deal for the future of the human race. As my plane touched down back at Heathrow on Wednesday, it struck me forcibly that we must hold on to that strong sense I had at Caltech of future purpose and possibility. We must not squander science's dream of an increasingly open world of discovery and opportunity.
Below is a selection of your comments.
As a scientist working in the field of chemistry and physics, I applaud your review of the community of which I am a part of. Everyday I work with a united nations of extremely talented people from all over the world; every peopled continent is represented. I say united nations because if one were to observe the interactions between the scientists I work with day to day you would find that they herald from Ghana, England, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Germany, America, Canada, China, Taiwan, India, indeed too many to mention. One would find that we are all united in the pursuit of knowledge, scientific understanding and reason. Perhaps it is due to the universal permeation of science that we can all come to the table with no arguments other than the theory or method under investigation, and the rules of engagement are facts and figures, not emotions, politics and presumptions. Every morning I read about anti-American sentiment, however it rings hollow for me. I go to work with my friends and colleagues from across the globe; we laugh over jokes and discuss implications of experiments and share ideas. I wish that everyone could see the world in this way, a collection of humans to laugh and learn with.
A Talley, Cincinnati Ohio USA
The writer mentions a German scientist and an English one, but no American. She makes it sound as if Caltech is simply an incubator of European thought without contributing anything of its own accord.
Your endearment for strong US-Europe ties is nothing but an excessive expression of sentimentality and are thus seriously faulted.
To extract from Russell-Einstein manifesto, they stated "humanity" and "scientists" - I presume they had included all of humanities and leading scientists of on our planet, not just US and Europe's.
As an Asian reading your article, I try my best to accomodate your overt pan US-Europe sentiments. But I must admit I fail miserably and feel immensely irritated.
Although I agree that a large proportion of the best scientists still comes from US and Europe; and Asia or Africa has much less to contribute and has rooms for improvements in many respects; we are, nonetheless, all moving towards a global community of all humanities and hence we should based our motivation on more universal values, certainly not on misguided sentimental bondages of US and Europe's.
Tommy Tan, Singapore
I think that had it not been for Hitler, the US would not be the superpower it is today.
It was not just Einstein, but almost ever scientist and mathematician of significance in Continental Europe that fled to the US during the Nazi era.
D Sakarya, Dover NJ USA
What a delightful point of view and how constructive it would be to focus on and build upon long-standing scientific collaboration which does indeed unite Europe and North America. This is of course also true of art and music.
Ted Swart, Kelowna, BC, Canada
One word in your final sentence delineates the problem we face. The word is science.
Educated, thinking people, those with a sense of history would agree with just about everything you say. But those sorts of people are by far not in the majority.
World leaders and governments are elected (usuallly and ideally) by the majority. Most voters, in my view, are so intent on their own immediate self interest they will not or cannot focus on global issues. The few who do think about these things - you, me, scientists and the literati, look on in dismay at the mess in which we find ourselves.
So what can we, the 5% to 10% to 20% do in practical terms to change the attitude of both the governing classes and the chattering classes.
I don't think anyone can answer that question. But if someone does know how to save us from ourselves, then please tell the world before it is too late.
David William ffynch, Victoria, BC CANADA
Interesting article. I had no idea that Albert Einstein had any contacts out of the field of science. Both in High School and University, we would study Albert Einstein's Scientific Contributions to our World. Other contacts such as Eistein's social relationships in Hollywood and such were not known.
Alexander Mitchell, San Francisco, California -USA