Friday, April 27, 2007

Fact-check of the week: Friedman vs. Einstein vs. Friedman

Nice to see a meditation on Einstein and intellectual freedom discussed in Friedman's op-ed today (OK, so it's Walter Isaacson's meditation -- couldn't a few more non-cliched Einstein quotes have made it in there?) but the Gray Lady's top man and editorial staff has let down its man it seems:

Tom Friedman says:
"If Einstein were alive today and learned science the boring way it is taught in so many U.S. schools, wouldn’t he have ended up at a Wall Street hedge fund rather than developing theories of relativity for a Nobel Prize?" says:
"Albert Einstein: 'for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect'"
I know I sound like splitting hairs here, but this didn't take more than a quick Google check. More importantly, it's always been very noticeable that he didn't get his prize for relativity, which everyone knows is his most important historical achievement (despite the photoelectric effect, requiring quanta of light, being his most self-admittedly "radical"). It's not hard to dig a little, e.g. this Discover piece from this year, based on research from Robert Marc Friedman (ironic -- wonder if he's a relative?) to get the story that the Nobel Committee actively didn't want him to get a prize for relativity, in a cultural context where "his theories were dismissed as 'world-bluffing Jewish physics' by some prominent German physicists, who claimed to practice "true" German science based on observations of the natural world and hypotheses that could be tested in a laboratory." And while his star was rising in the US, and the physics community pressed for him to get the prize, especially after Eddington confirming general relativity,
1921 was not the year, thanks to one stubborn senior member of the prize committee, ophthalmologist Allvar Gullstrand. "Einstein must never receive a Nobel Prize, even if the whole world demands it," said Gullstrand, according to a Swedish mathematician's diary dug up by Friedman. Gullstrand's arguments, however biased, convinced the rest of the committee. In 1921, the Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded no physics prize.
You get the picture. This is a great story about how a politicized culture worked against Einstein at his peak, such that an opthamologist could hold him back. At least one Friedman picked up on this.


Torbjörn Larsson said...

As in all historical sciences, one can find other perspectives.

I haven't read it myself, but reportedly Aant Elzinga's (a physicist, I think) has looked in the archives as a ground work for his book "Einstein's Nobel prize - a glimpse behind closed doors". Apparently the conclusion was that there were serious doubts at the time in several places in Sweden, perhaps not so much about the validity since observations were already performed but about the 'practical applicability'.

In the early 1900's philosophy was strong in Sweden, and especially the Uppsala school of philosophers didn't like what they erroneously saw as another and conflicting philosophy. At least, this is Elzinga's thesis AFAIK.

Another circumstance here is that Nobel was an engineer who wanted to support progress, not a scientist. Accordingly the prize statutes awards ideas that leads to practical applications.

By a fair amount of footwork, and by instituting related awards such as the Peace award, the Nobel foundation has been able to work around most of the non-sequitur Nobel's will put in place. But it is easy to think that a contested 'philosophical theory' couldn't easily pass muster when some in the committee worked against it on those grounds.

Now, for all I know Elzinga can be a Swede with a white-wash agenda. I do know that nazism, especially in Uppsala, was an unfortunate quasi-political force in Sweden before the war. But I wanted to add the possibility that the history behind the politicized culture may have been more than just nazism and racism.

Peter said...

Hi Torbjorn - That's an interesting perspective on this story, and I'm curious to have a look at Elzinga's book. Thanks!

Bee said...

I have always been wondering why he didn't receive a Nobel Prize for GR later, like maybe in the 40ies or so, after it was experimentally confirmed and dust had settled etc?

Torbjörn Larsson said...


Alas, I can't help out. The swedish review I based my account on was IIRC entirely referencing the situation behind the prize. Perhaps Elzinga's or others books goes into this.

Torbjörn Larsson said...

"behind the prize"

Behind the rewarded prize, that is.