Albert Einstein remains the world’s favorite genius, propelled to fame by popular adulation of his revolutionary scientific theories about space and time. Today, a century after the confirmation of his theory of general relativity in November 1919, Einstein remains a cult figure. He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than six times and was lionized as its “person of the century” in 1999. His equation E = mc2 has become the best-known scientific formula of all time and has regularly—along with Einstein’s trademark hairstyle—found its way onto T-shirts and billboards.
Einstein’s ideas have changed the way we think and live. Without realizing it, we depend on his theory of relativity when using a Global Positioning System (GPS). The light and warmth of the sun are the direct result of the conversion of mass to energy—the process Einstein first recognized in 1905 and expressed in his equation E = mc2. This same principle lies behind nuclear power generators—and atomic bombs.
Yet Einstein did not simply speak about science. He opened up grander issues of human value and meaning—what the philosopher Karl Popper later called “ultimate questions.” People listened to Einstein with attentiveness and respect. He became a celebrity genius, an intellect of colossal status, who managed to achieve iconic cultural status without dumbing down what he said.
Although Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, his greatest achievement was arguably to become admired, even adored, by the wider public. Many sensed that although Einstein was difficult to understand, he had grasped something profound about our universe that others had failed to find. He was worth listening to—even if doing so was difficult and demanding.
The immense esteem in which Einstein was held by the academic and popular science community meant that when he talked about larger questions, people were prepared to listen.
Einstein was a “big picture” thinker, concerned about the ultimate nature of reality and our place within it. In the late 1920s, Einstein began to set his sights on formulating a single grand theory that would weave together and unite relativity with quantum mechanics.
“So many people today,” Einstein remarked, including professional scientists, seemed to be “like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest.” For Einstein, it was important to develop a unified Weltbild—a coherent and comprehensive way of seeing our world—that allowed individual trees to be seen and appreciated for what they were while at the same time seeing them as part of something greater.
Einstein’s genius was to find a way of holding together science, politics, and religion—in other words, to create a personal synthesis of everything that mattered. His quest for a “big picture,” holding everything together coherently in a single whole, is neither exceptional nor unusual. In fact, it seems to be the default setting of the human mind.
Some scientists see their laboratories as defining their worlds. Their concern lies entirely with what happens within their walls—with experiments, calculations, and theoretical reflection. They are aware there is a world beyond the laboratory walls, yet their intellectual and personal investment lies primarily in the pursuit of science. Everything else is of secondary importance.
Einstein was not that kind of scientist. His letters bear witness, not merely to his wide interests and concerns—music, philosophy, politics, and religion are frequently mentioned—but to his desire to try to bring and hold the insights of these various fields together.
He was a scientist who valued his connections with other worlds of thought, worlds in which he might not personally excel or possess an international reputation but that he nevertheless regarded as important and worthwhile.
For example, Einstein loved music and frequently performed in public (although it is thought that no authentic recordings of any of these performances have survived). Yet his love for music was linked with a sense that certain composers were tuning in to something deeper about our world. He said, “Mozart’s music is so pure and beautiful that I see it as a reflection of the inner beauty of the universe.” Einstein further suggested that, whereas Beethoven “created” his music, Mozart’s “seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”
It’s a thought we find in many early-modern scientists, such as Galileo and Kepler: the scientist is really uncovering the rationality of God, which is expressed in the universe. The scientist’s thoughts about the universe somehow echo God’s thoughts. As Stephen Hawking pointed out in an often-quoted aphorism, to find an answer to “why it is that we and the universe exist” is to “know the mind of God.”
Einstein’s writings reveal an intense commitment to ethical and political issues and a strong interest in religion as an appropriate response to the mystery of the world. Where some might try to compartmentalize these aspects of life or see them as mutually inconsistent, Einstein seems to have seen science, ethics, and religious faith as integral—yet different—aspects of an authentic human existence.
It’s not just Einstein’s ideas on science, politics, religion, and ethics that matter; it’s the fact that he was able to hold them together. Maybe he can help us do the same.
Adapted from A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath, released in October 2019 from Tyndale House Publishers.