What Einstein really thought

(Dominik Bartsch)

(Dominik Bartsch)

A new Einstein biography has just been released. Despite the great man’s justified celebrity, many misconceptions are repeated.

Take his ideas about religion. Some claim that Einstein believed in a personal God. Others insist that he was an atheist. But read his words, and it’s clear that he did not subscribe to a personal God (e.g., one who hears prayers), despite his famous line attacking quantum theory: “God does not play dice.” He also said, “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not.”

Nonetheless, it’s pretty clear that he sometimes used the word God to mean the underlying smartness of Nature. He believed that the laws of the cosmos are fashioned intelligently, not randomly or dumbly, and found it wondrous that they’re potentially fathomable to our minds.


Spiritually speaking, his most consistent conviction revolved around the issue of personal free will. Einstein disbelieved in its existence. He frequently quoted 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer – a self-proclaimed Buddhist – that “a man can do as he wills, but he cannot will as he wills.” In other words, our choices simply pop into our minds on their own. Our brain works autonomously, like the liver or kidneys. We do not control it. Einstein said that not putting stock in personal responsibility helped him forgive people.

In our control-oriented culture, Einstein’s view cannot even be called unpopular; it’s more like unheard-of. Society strongly affirms personal responsibility. Thus, biographers tend to omit this and instead stick to well-worn, deity-based religious discussions when it comes to Einstein.

His major accomplishments are often similarly misunderstood. (Charlie Chaplin told him, “They cheer me because they all understand me. They cheer you because no one understands you.”) Both his 1905 “Special” Theory of Relativity and his 1915 “General” one are breakthroughs largely because they showed that time, distance and mass have no absolute values, but change according to the observer, with the alterations dictated by environmental factors like one’s speed or the strength of the local gravity.

That a watch’s ticking of one second would take a much longer time in a different environment was huge. Einstein showed that, while light’s speed is always constant in the emptiness of space, almost nothing else is. This becomes more and more wondrously bizarre and non-intuitive the more one understands it.

Instead, most folks equate Relativity with Einstein’s most famous equation: E = mc². This too was groundbreaking, because it showed that, as we like to say in Woodstock, all is one. Matter and energy are two sides of the same coin. Any object, even a cigarette butt, is simply stored energy. His equation revealed exactly how one can convert to the other, as we famously saw on August 6, 1945 over Hiroshima.

E = mc² is easy to understand if you’re not a mathophobe. E is energy, expressed in ergs; “m” is an object’s weight in grams; “c” is the speed of light expressed in centimeters per second. Before you do anything else, you have to square this number. Now, light famously travels at a rate of 186,282.4 miles per second, which converts to 30,000,000,000.0 centimeters per second. Multiply this by itself, and you find that one gram of matter will convert to 900,000,000,000,000,000,000.0 ergs of energy. The equation can thus be written as E = m X 900,000,000,000,000,000,000.

If the object being converted weighs one gram (1/28th of an ounce), like a dollar bill or a paper clip, the energy it contains, if released, could light a 100-watt bulb for 30,000 years. The energy in a dollar bill could keep all of Woodstock’s lights burning for a year.