By Robert L. Park
The following is excerpted, with permission of the author, from Einstein 1905:The Standard of Greatness.
Would the world now be different if Albert Einstein had never lived? Could we ask the same question with regard to Claude Monet or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart? What is the relative impact of a legendary figure of science compared to a legendary figure of art or music?
Although both art and science are human activities, they are thought about in different ways. Monet's Palazzo do Mula and Mozart's Die Zauberflöte are regarded as wondrous acts of creativity. Had Monet not lived, the world would be different because the Palazzo do Mula never would have been painted; had Mozart not lived, the world would be different because the opera Die Zauberflöte never would have been composed. By contrast, had Einstein not lived, the world would be no different. His special theory of relativity, a response to the intellectual environment of 1905, inevitably would have been created by someone else. Framed this way, art becomes a highly creative activity with the fingerprints of an artist personalizing every paining and composition, and science becomes an intellectual activity driven by events—shared by the larger science community but external to the scientist.
Framed this way, however, the natures of both art and science are obscured. Art is also driven by events external to the artist. Impressionist painters, who lived and worked during a culturally revolutionary period, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influenced each other. Although each brushstroke expressed the individuality of painters such as Monet, Auguste Renoir, and Edgar Degas, collectively the brushstrokes left a canvas that articulated a new theory of art. When Monet painted Palazzo da Mula, he was driven by ecternal influences that has a determining influence on the outcome, but in the end, it was a painting like no other, a Monet masterpiece, a monument to human creativity. In 1883, Renoir said, “I had wrung Impressionism dry.”1 Soon thereafter the ideas that drove Impressionism and that had inspired a great school of art were superseded
Mozart lived and worked during the late eighteenth century. His contemporaries included Franz Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Composers of this era were strongly influenced by the acoustical nature of the concert halls available for performances as well as the musical range and mechanical efficiency of the musical instruments available to performers. Although each individual note of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte was his and his alone, the score of this famous opera bears the signature of the classical period. Like Monet, Mozart was driven by external events, but in the end, the final score of the opera Die Zauberflöte was like no other, a product of high creativity. By the early to mid-nineteenth century, musicians threw off the constraints imposed by the classical period and composed more personal and emotional music.
As in the visual arts and in music, science always has a context and a community. Einstein was influenced by his contemporaries as well as by the state of physics in 1905 and beyond. It is indeed likely that if Einstein had not created the special theory of relativity, someone else would have created something equivalent to Einstein's theory. However, just as paintings by Claude Monet and Edouard Manet belong to the same genre and yet are unique, we can imagine a theory by Einstein and a similar theory by, say, Poincaré, motivated by the same concerns. The theories would have similarities, but each would be unique. Einstein's theories would be distinguished from Poincaré's theory by the starting point adopted, the conceptual path followed, the assumptions made, and the form of its final outcome. Each theory would be a unique product of human creativity.
A few artists have such a distinctive style that their art, be it painting or music, stands apart. The same can be said for a few scientists. Perhaps no scientist had a more distinctive style than Albert Einstein. The general theory of relativity, as Einstein created it, is such a masterpiece, physics of the rarest kind. In time, another physicist would have been motivated, either for experimental or theoretical reasons, to extend Einstein's special theory of relativity to noninertial coordinate systems and thereby generalize it to all coordinate systems; in time, gravitational forces may have been seen in terms of spatial properties. No one but Einstein ever would have put all these elements together in the same simple, harmonious, and elegant way. Just as a composition from the mind of Mozart reveals his artistic uniqueness, so the general theory of relativity, considered by many to be the greatest monument to abstract thought, prompts the same kind of wonder and the same kind of emotion as does an artistic masterpiece. “The equations of general relativity,” wrote Stephen Hawking, “are his best epitaph and memorial. They should last as long as the universe.”2
John S. Rigden is Adjunct Professor of Physics, Washington University, and the author of two books from Harvard: Rabi: Scientist and Citizen and Hydrogen: The Essential Element, named one of the top 20 science books of 2002 by Discover Magazine.