Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein on mystery, religion, and reason

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery—even if mixed with fear—that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man. I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual who survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature.
Albert Einstein in the conclusion of his essay “The World As I See It” (1931). First published in Forum and Century, Volume 84, (New York: Forum Publishing Company, 1931), p. 193-4. Subsequently published in Living Philosophies, edited by Henry Goddard Leach, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1931), p. 3-7. Also available in Albert Einstein, edited by Jim Green, (Melbourne; New York: Ocean Press, 2003), p. 27.

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"The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious."

Albert Einstein on problem solving

Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparallel catastrophe.

We scientists who released this immense power have an overwhelming responsibility in this world life-and-death struggle to harness the atom for the benefit of mankind and not for humanity’s destruction.

[Hans A.] Bethe, [Edward U.] Condon, [LeĆ³] Szilard, [Harold C.] Urey, and the Federation of American Scientists join me in this appeal, and beg you to support our efforts to bring realization to America that mankind’s destiny is being decided today—now—at this moment.

We need two hundred thousand dollars at once for a nation-wide campaign to let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.

This appeal is sent to you only after long consideration of the immense crisis we face. Urgently request you send immediate check to me as chairman, Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, Princeton, N.J. We ask your help at this fateful moment as a sign that we scientists do not stand alone.
Albert Einstein in a telegram sent to “several hundred” potential donors in America (Princeton, New Jersey: Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, May 24, 1946). Cited in part in the article “ATOMIC EDUCATION URGED BY EINSTEIN; Scientist in Plea for $200,000 to Promote New Type of Essential Thinking”, (New York: The New York Times Company, May 25, 1946), p. 11. Available in Einstein on Peace, edited by Otto Nathan and Heinz Horden, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 376. Credited by Alice Calaprice as the likely source for frequent paraphrases in The New Quotable Einstein, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005).

First Identified Paraphrases

  • The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
    — Tarek K. A. Hamid (1979), p. viii.
  • The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
    — Dennis T. Jaffe and Cynthia D. Scott (1988), p. 60.
  • Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.
    — Arie de Geus (1997), p. x.
  • We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
    — Mickey Connolly and Richard Rianoshek (2002), p. 175.

Albert Einstein on the moral obligation of the scientist

What, then, is the position of today’s man of science as a member of society? He obviously is rather proud of the fact that the work of scientists has helped to change radically the economic life of men by almost completely eliminating muscular work. He is distressed by the fact that the results of his scientific work have created a threat to mankind since they have fallen into the hands of morally blind exponents of political power. He is conscious of the fact that technological methods, made possible by his work, have led to a concentration of economic and also of political power in the hands of small minorities which have come to dominate completely the lives of the masses of people, who appear more and more amorphous. But even worse: the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few has not only made the man of science dependent economically, it also threatens his independence from within; the shrewd methods of intellectual and psychic influences which it brings to bear will prevent the development of independent personalities.

Thus the man of science, as we can observe with our own eyes, suffers a truly tragic fate. Striving in great sincerity for clarity and inner independence, he himself, through his sheer superhuman efforts, has machined the tools which are being used to make him a slave and to destroy him also from within. He cannot escape being muzzled by those who have political power in their hands. As a soldier he is forced to sacrifice his own life and to destroy the lives of others even when he is convinced of the absurdity of such sacrifices. He is fully aware of the fact that universal destruction is unavoidable since historical development has led to the concentration of all economic, political and military power in the hands of national states. He also realizes that mankind can only be saved if a super-national system, based on law, were created to eliminate for all time the methods of brute force. However, the man of science has slipped so much that he accepts the slavery inflicted upon him by national states as his inevitable fate. He even degrades himself to such an extent that he helps obediently in the perfection of the means for the general destruction of mankind.

Is there really no escape for the man of science? Must he really tolerate and suffer all these indignities?

Is the time gone forever when, aroused by his inner freedom and the independence of his thinking and his work, he had a chance of enlightening and enriching the lives of his fellow human beings? In placing his work too much on an intellectual basis has he not forgotten about his responsibility and dignity? My answer is: while it is true that an inherently free and scrupulous person may be destroyed, such an individual can never be enslaved or used as a blind tool.
Albert Einstein in his speech “On the moral obligation of the scientist” addressed to the 43rd meeting of the Societa Italiana per il Progresso delle Scienze (Lucca, Italy: October 1950). First published in the newsletter of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science (December 1951). Translated from the German by Ira M. Freeman. Published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 8, Number 2, (Chicago, Illinois: The Education Foundation for Nuclear Science, February 1952), p. 35.

Annie Dillard on cognizance

I don’t really look forward to these microscopic forays: I have been almost knocked off my kitchen chair on several occasions when, as I was following with strained eyes the tiny career of a monostyla rotifer, an enormous red roundworm whipped into the scene, blocking everything, and writhing in huge, flapping convulsions that seemed to sweep my face and fill the kitchen. I do it as a moral exercise; the microscope at my forehead is a kind of phylactery, a constant reminder of the facts of creation that I would just as soon forget. You can buy your child a microscope and say grandly, “Look, child, at the Jungle in a Little Drop.” The boy looks, plays around with pond water and bread mold and onion sprouts for a month or two, and then starts shooting baskets or racing cars, leaving the microscope on the basement table staring fixedly at its own mirror forever—and you say he’s growing up. But in the puddle or pond, in the city reservoir, ditch, or Atlantic Ocean, the rotifers still spin and munch, the daphnia still filter and are filtered, and the copepods still swarm hanging with clusters of eggs. These are real creatures with real organs leading real lives, one by one. I can’t pretend they’re not there. If I have life, sense, energy, will, so does a rotifer. The monostyla goes to the dark spot on the bowl: To which circle am I heading? I can move around right smartly in a calm; but in a real wind, in a change of weather, in a riptide, am I really moving, or am I “milling around”?

I was created from a clot and set in proud, free motion: so were they. So was this rotifer created, this monostyla with its body like a lightbulb in which pale organs hang in loops; so was this paramecium created, with a thousand propulsive hairs jerking in unison, whipping it from here to there across a drop and back. Ad majorem Dei gloriam?

Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” “No,” said the priest, “not if you did not know.” “Then why,” asked the Eskimo earnestly, “did you tell me?” If I did not know about the rotifers and paramecia, and all the bloom of plankton clogging the dying pond, fine; but since I’ve seen it I must somehow deal with it, take it into account. “Never lose a holy curiosity,” Einstein said; and so I lift my microscope down from the shelf, spread a drop of duck pond on a glass slide, and try to look spring in the eye.
Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 122. First published (New York: Harper’s Magazine Press, 1974). Cited in part as the Quotation of the Day for February 9, 2008, submitted by Brian K. Read on February 7, 2008.

Albert Einstein on “perfection of means and confusion of goals”

The super-national character of scientific concepts and scientific language is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all countries and all times. In solitude and yet in cooperative efforts as regards the final effect they created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. Their system of concepts have served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

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What hopes and fears does the scientific method imply for mankind? I do not think that this is the right way to put the question. Whatever this tool in the hand of man will produce depends entirely on the nature of the goals alive in this mankind. Once these goals exist, the scientific method furnishes means to realize them. Yet it cannot furnish the very goals. The scientific method itself would not have led anywhere, it would not even have been born without a passionate striving for clear understanding.

Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem—in my opinion—to characterize our age. If we desire sincerely and passionately the safety, the welfare and the free development of the talents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their superiority will prove itself in the long run.
Albert Einstein in his speech “The Common Language of Science”, a broadcast-recording for the Science Conference in London on September 28th, 1941. First published in The Advancement of Science, Volume 2, Number 5, (London: British Association for the Advancement of Science). Available in The Theory of Relativity, and Other Essays, (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1996), p. 67. Audio recording available on “Albert Einstein: Historic Recordings, 1930-1947″, (London: The British Library, Sound Archive, 2005), Track 6.

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"The super-national character of scientific concepts"

Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld on physical concepts

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however they may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way to open the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all of the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison. But he certainly believes that, as his knowledge increases, his picture of reality will become simpler and simpler and will explain a wider and wider range of his sensuous impressions. He may also believe in the existence of the ideal limit of knowledge and that it is approached by the human mind. He may call this ideal limit the objective truth.
Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld in The Evolution of Physics: From Early Concepts to Relativity and Quanta, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 31. Originally published 1938. Thanks to Bill Anderson for this quotation.

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"Physical concepts are free creations"