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An Interview with Albert Einstein on Science Careers

Introduction
 
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is widely regarded as the father of modern physics. For those of us old enough to have seen him in person, listen to him speak in public or on the radio, and read his writings when they were current, these memories are precious. In addition to being a great theoretical physicist he was looked upon as a philosopher and statesman. His intellectual interests and profound observations extended widely into the other sciences and the social aspects of human endeavor. In the 21st century he remains one of the most influential and iconic thinkers of all time.

Einstein is possibly the most frequently quoted figure in the history of science, but as is often noted, many of these quotations are of dubious authenticity. Alice Calaprice, a senior editor at the Princeton University Press, has worked with the Einstein papers at the Institute for Advanced Study for more than 30 years. In 1996, she published a volume entitled The Quotable Einstein, a comprehensive, meticulously referenced, annotated, and carefully arranged compilation of Einstein’s quotes. For 2011, Calaprice has enlarged this to The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, a nearly 600-page volume of approximately 1600 quotations

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the “final” and definitive edition.

On a recent visit to Princeton, I had the good fortune to obtain an
advanced copy of this work and delighted in it as I have in few other
books. I have selected and arranged these quotations to simulate an interview with Einstein, circa 1955, on the topic of science careers.


Let the reader be warned of the following caveats:
 
1)    Einstein changed his opinion on a number of topics as he grew older.
2)    His more biting remarks may have been said partly in jest.
3)    He viewed science very much from the point of view of a physicist.

The Interview

Q. Based on your long career as a physicist, how would you define science?

A.
Science is the attempt to make the chaotic diversity of our
sense-experience correspond to a logically uniform system of thought. In
this system, single experiences must be correlated with the theoretic
structure in such a way that the resulting coordination is unique and
convincing. . . . The sense experiences are the given subject matter,
but the theory that shall interpret them is man-made. It is . . .
hypothetical, never completely final, always subject to question and
doubt. (390-91*)

Q. What general advice would you give a young person considering a career in science?

A.  In striving to do scientific work, the chance even for very gifted persons
to achieve something of real value is very small. . . . There is only
one way out: devote most of your time to some practical work . . . that
agrees with your nature, and spend the rest of it in study. So you will
be able . . . to lead a normal and harmonious life even without the
special blessings of the Muses. (405-6)

    
Q. What about the financial constraints of a scientific career?

A.
Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn a living at
it. One should earn one’s living by work of which one is sure one is
capable. Only when we do not have to be accountable to anyone can we
find joy in scientific endeavor. (404)

Q. Then, what are the results of a scientific career that makes it worthwhile and exciting?

A. It is not the result of scientific research that ennobles humans and enriches their nature, but the struggle to understand
while performing creative and open-minded intellectual work. (386)  It
is my inner conviction that the development of science seeks in the main
to satisfy the longing for pure knowledge. (370)

Q. But I would have thought it’s the new knowledge one brings to light the discoveries that make a science career worthwhile?

A.
The word “discovery” in itself is regrettable. For discovery is
equivalent to becoming aware of a thing which is already formed; this
links up with proof, which no longer bears the character of “discovery”
but, in the final analysis, of the means that leads to discovery. . . .
Discovery is really not a creative act. (371)

Q. What advice would you give for picking the best school for one’s scientific training?

A.
The school should always have as its aim that the young person leave it
as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. Otherwise, he
with his specialized knowledge more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. (105)

Q. And what would you look for in a teacher?

A. The most valuable thing a teacher can impart to children is not knowledge and understanding per se but a longing
for knowledge and understanding, and an appreciation for intellectual
values, whether they be artistic, scientific, or moral. It is the
supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and
knowledge. Most teachers waste their time by asking questions that are
intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of
questioning is to discover what the pupil does know or is capable of
knowing. (99-101)

Q. And what should the attitude of the student be?

A.
It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he
does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value
of an education in a liberal arts college is not learning of many facts,
but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned
from textbooks. (100)

Q. Is it hard to find the right educational venue for a successful scientific career?

A.
‎The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting
and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the
community their highest life achievement. It is in fact nothing short of
a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely
strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant,
aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this
it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. (104, 107)

Q. How important are examinations in the education process?

A. I am opposed to examinations
they only deter from the interest in studying. No more than two exams
should be given throughout a student’s [college] career. I would hold
seminars, and if the young people are interested and listen, I would
give them a diploma. (108)

Q. Well then, based on your long experience as a professor of physics, won’t an occasional unqualified student slip through?

A. Give the boy his Ph.D. He can’t do much damage with a Ph.D. in physics! (378)

Q. In your opinion, what environment is most conducive to working successfully in science?

A.
There are certain occupations, even in modern society, which entail
living in isolation and do not require great physical or intellectual
effort. Such occupations as the service of lighthouses and lightships
come to mind. Would it not be possible to place young people who wish to
think about scientific problems, especially of a mathematical or
philosophical nature, in such occupations? Very few young people with
such ambitions have, even during the most productive period of their
lives, the opportunity to devote themselves undisturbed for any length
of time to problems of a scientific nature. (102-3)

Q. Is your preference for isolation in any way influenced by concern regarding competition and priority?

A.
People who have been privileged to contribute something to the
advancement of science should not let [arguments about priority] becloud
their joy over the fruits of common endeavor. (357-8) 

Q. What qualities would you value most in choosing a collaborator?

A.
It seems that scientific distinction and personal qualities do not
always go hand in hand. I value a harmonious person far more than the
craftiest formula jockey or experimentalist. (358)

Q. What advice would you give a scientist in setting goals for his or her research?

A.
One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop
an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest
efforts. (360-1)

Q. What are the principal ways in which a scientist can go astray?

A. 1) The devil leads him by the nose with a false hypothesis. (For this he deserves 
    our pity.)

    2) His arguments are erroneous and sloppy. (For this he deserves a beating.) (360)

Q. What is the nature of a valid hypothesis?

A. For me, a hypothesis is a statement whose truth is temporarily assumed, but whose meaning must be beyond all doubt. (364)

Q. In trying to understand “nature” what are the greatest challenges a scientist faces?

A. 1) The Lord does it the way he wants to and will not be dictated to.

    2) The Lord God is subtle, but malicious he is not.

    3) I have second thoughts. Maybe God is malicious.

    (372, 374-5)

Q. How does science relate to art?

A.
After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and
art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest
scientists are artists as well. (379)

Q. How would you sum up the development of Western science?

A.
Development of Western science is based on two great achievements: the
invention of the formal logical system (in Euclidean geometry) by the
Greek philosophers, and the discovery of the possibility to find out
causal relationships by systematic experiment (during the Renaissance).
(405)

Q. How far have we advanced in science?

A. One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike and yet it is the most precious thing we have. (404)

Q. What was your response on the rare occasion when one of your papers was harshly reviewed?

A.
I do not see any reason to follow your anonymous reviewer’s
recommendations (which incidentally are erroneous). In view of the
foregoing, I will consider having the work published elsewhere. (388)

Conclusion

I
have taken liberties in picking, choosing, and juxtaposing Einstein’s
quotations to fit an interview format, but I am convinced they represent
his basic beliefs. And I think it is appropriate to let Albert Einstein
have the last word. Soon after his 63rd birthday, Einstein wrote to his
friend Otto Juliusberger: “People like you and I, though mortal of
course, like everyone else, do not grow old no matter how long we live.
What I mean is that we never cease to stand like curious children before
the great Mystery into which were born.” Good advice for a science
career.

*Page numbers for the quotations are from Einstein,
Albert, and Alice Calaprice. The Ultimate Quotable Einstein. Princeton,
N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011.