Why was Albert Einstein so brilliant
Perfect Scientist or Damaged Genius?
When it came to the origin of the universe, Einstein was completely wrong - and yet he was on the right track. That is why Einstein was a genius of the highest order.
Albert Einstein became an icon of physics in the 20th century because of his huge intellect, extraordinary perception, and brilliant intuition. This enabled him to explore the nature of the universe and discover truths that had escaped everyone else. Exactly a hundred years ago he published lectures of world significance: on the photoelectric effect and its origin in quantum physics, on Brownian molecular motion and its importance in relation to the existence of atoms, and on special relativity, which is expressed in the famous formula E = mc² results. All of this happened in his "Annus Mirabilis": the year 1905. This groundbreaking scientific work was followed a decade later by Einstein's greatest achievement: the general theory of relativity.
No other modern physicist made so many fundamental contributions to modern science, and it would be easy to consider Einstein the perfect scientist. But when it came to the biggest question of all, the origin of the universe, he was completely wrong. At the height of his fame and creativity, Einstein endorsed the universe eternity model, while the overwhelming majority of cosmologists today favor the Big Bang model. It implies that the universe has not "always been" there, but must have arisen before a finite time.
Einstein's idea of a static, eternal universe was in line with the generally accepted view at the beginning of the 20th century. A static universe was a pleasant thought, there was no reason to ponder tricky questions about age and origin. Einstein was such a fierce proponent of this model that he even tweaked his general theory of relativity to bring it into line with eternity. The problem was that the idea of general relativity tends to describe gravity, which tends to pull everything against everything else. Gravity is essentially a force of attraction. Therefore, all objects in the universe should attract each other, and eventually the universe would collapse. But why is it still there? Why hasn't it collapsed yet, especially if you assume that it has always existed? 
Isaac Newton had encountered the same problem some 250 years earlier, in the context of his own theory of gravity. He, too, believed in a static universe, but he knew that gravity would inevitably cause its demise after a certain period of time. His solution to this problem was to hold God responsible for keeping all heavenly objects apart. Newton saw the adjustment of their positions as part of God's cosmic curatorial work.
Einstein hesitated to appeal to God. His strategy for maintaining the idea of a static universe was to modify general relativity by adding antigravity to familiar gravity. This was, as it were, attached to the equations of general relativity with a crowbar, and his theory was thus given a cosmological constant. The repellent force would counteract the force of gravity over cosmic distances and thus ensure the stability of the universe. There was no evidence of antigravity at all, but Einstein assumed it existed in order to make "eternity" a viable option.
With this in mind, Einstein criticized and condemned the Big Bang model when it emerged in the 1920s. It states that today's universe is expanding and developing after it existed as a hot, dense, and compact primordial state about 14 billion years ago. According to this dynamic model, the universe continues to expand and develop, it becomes bigger, cooler and more deserted as time goes on. When the pioneer of the Big Bang, the Russian physicist Alexander Friedmann, published his concept, Einstein called it "suspicious". And when the Belgian scientist Georges Lemaître published his own Big Bang model independently of Friedmann, Einstein described it as "hideous". Such attacks are astonishing today, as Einstein himself was a lateral thinker who developed theories that contradicted the mainstream. And yet he acted like an established authority at the time, and he was certainly complicit in the fact that the emerging Big Bang model was put on a painful damper for the time being.
But maybe we shouldn't judge Einstein too harshly, because when Friedmann and Lemaître presented their models of the Big Bang, there was no empirical evidence to support their ideas. It was not until 1929 that Edmund Hubble proved at the Mount Wilson Observatory in Southern California that all distant galaxies in the universe are diverging, as if they were debris from a cosmic explosion. That is exactly what one would expect if the Big Bang model were to apply. It is to Einstein's great merit that he quickly changed his mind upon learning of Hubble's observations and switched sides in the cosmological debate. From then on he supported the model of the Big Bang and called it "the most beautiful and most satisfying explanation of creation".
But if the universe was created with the Big Bang a certain time ago and the expansion began immediately afterwards, then there was no longer any reason to assume the existence of an anti-gravity force that would act as an eternal guardian against the cosmic collapse. The cosmological constant that Einstein had built into his equation on general relativity was clearly redundant, and Einstein deleted it. He was so embarrassed by his cosmological constant that he called it "the greatest donkey" of his career.
It might seem that Einstein emerges from this story as a damaged genius, one that was imperfect. But there is one twist in the story, one that may prove that Einstein was perhaps even better than perfect: if gravity is a puller that tries to pull everything together, then the expansion of the universe should slow down too. But when astronomers tried to measure this deceleration in 1998, they came to a surprising finding: the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The galaxies seem to be moving away from each other faster and faster over time.
The discovery of the acceleration of the universe came as a shock to cosmologists, and they have grappled with this mystery intensely over the past few years. Observations seem to indicate that the universe is actually being torn apart by a repulsive anti-gravity force. The driving force behind this repulsion is called "dark energy". However, an explanation for this phenomenon is still largely lacking. And here lies the trick of the story: For many cosmologists, the apparently effective anti-gravity force resembles the force that Einstein once introduced to maintain the stability of the universe. "Dark energy" could be a term for that cosmological constant. This is modern again today, about seven decades after Einstein rejected it. He had introduced it for the wrong reasons, and yet it has been found in some strange way to be most appropriate in explaining current observations of the universe.
I remember a conversation with the Japanese mathematician Goro Shimura, whose research contributed decisively to the proof of the "Last Theorem" of the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat - for a long time one of the greatest unsolved riddles in mathematics. He described how his colleague Yutaka Taniyama repeatedly made mistakes in his mathematical calculations, which ultimately neutralized themselves and thus led him to new and original conclusions. Shimura told me how he tried to copy his friend's quirk of making such fruitful mistakes: "He was very gifted at making many mistakes, but most of them pointed in the right direction. I envied him very much for this extraordinary one Ability and tried in vain to imitate him, but I found it very difficult to make good mistakes. "
Einstein, it seems, had no problem making "good mistakes". Even where he was wrong, he was on the right track, as it turns out today. Perhaps that's proof that Einstein was a genius of the highest order.
- Translation from English by Hans-Georg Golz, Bonn. Simon Singh is the author of "Fermat's Last Sentence" (1998) and "Secret Messages. The Art of Encryption from Antiquity to the Times of the Internet" (2000), published by Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich. His book "Big Bang. The most important scientific discovery of all time" (2004) will be published in German in September.
born 1964; TV producer, author and science journalist. Simon Mailbox, P.O. Box 23064, London W11 3GX, England / UK. Internet: www.simonsingh.net
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