Nachrichten der Einstein Stiftung Berlin

The culture of science must promote the process of reflection

Hanoch Gutfreund, Former President of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Director of the Einstein Center and professor emeritus for theoretical physics, held the ceremonial speech on 1 December 2022 at the award ceremony of the Einstein Foundation Award. Besides the possibility to watch the award ceremony, you can read his full address below.

The Einstein Stiftung Berlin is celebrating today the awarding of its prizes for quality in scientific research. There are many prizes of different kind and specifications for outstanding results of research. The prizes granted today emphasize a distinction between results of research and quality of research. I am grateful for the opportunity to share with you a few thoughts about Einstein in this context. 

In 1946 Albert Einstein wrote a brief intellectual autobiography. In these Autobiographical Notes Einstein presents his personal perspective on some of the most important developments in science in the 20th century to which he so mightily contributed, transforming our concepts of space, time, matter, gravitation, and radiation. The Einsteinian revolution traces back to his key papers of 1905 in which he questioned the classical understanding of these concepts, shaking the foundations of classical physics. They challenged the idea of light as a wave, gave striking proof for the existence of atoms, led to a new understanding of space and time, which came to be known as the “special theory of relativity,” and identified mass as a form of energy. Ten years later Einstein continued the revolution with his masterpiece, the theory of general relativity, which is the source of modern cosmology and of everything we know about the universe – its beginning, its evolution and its structure. Shortly after that, he published two monumental papers on the interaction of radiation and matter, which became, forty years later the basis of laser science and technology. 

Not even one of these papers, which became the pillars of modern physics, is mentioned in his Autobiographical Notes. The emphasis is on the thought process, on the broader intellectual framework, which led to these results and not on the results themselves. This is in line with his statement that what is important in the life of someone like himself is not what he does, but how he thinks. Einstein’s thinking process is accompanied by epistemological and philosophical reflections and follows from a comprehensive worldview.  

Einstein articulated his world view on several occasions. “The world as I see it” is a concise collection of statements and reflections on the nature of the human being, the meaning and purpose of life, the preferred social order, and also on science, art and religion. His political ideal is democracy. He regards class distinctions as unjustified and, in the last resort, based on force. He abhors the military system. He is committed passionately to social justice and social responsibility. Ideals of kindness, beauty and truth give him courage to face life cheerfully. He believes that a simple unassuming life is physically and mentally good for everybody and he feels contempt for luxury, possessions and external success as the goals of human efforts. Life would seem empty without the quest for the eternally unattainable in art and science. The most beautiful experience is the mystery we sense facing art and science. It is this experience, which Einstein equates with true religiosity, contrary to the notion of religion based on the concept of an anthropomorphic God, who rewards and punishes his creatures. The guiding principle in his scientific life is that “The supreme task of the physicist is to seek those most universal elementary laws from which, by pure deduction, the worldview may be formed.” 

Einstein has left his mark not only on physics of the twentieth century but also on the public image of science and scientists and on the cultural and political history of the twentieth century, far beyond his area of expertise. His relativity revolution helped to establish physics as a leading paradigm of modernization, demonstrating that social progress had become dependent on the progress of basic and not only applied science. His contribution to this change of perspective, through his lectures and articles in the general press, cannot be overestimated. 

Einstein was constantly in the public eye and great respect and attention were also paid to his personality and to his opinions outside the world of physics. Einstein was a prolific writer. `In numerous articles, in correspondence with peers and in public addresses he expressed his opinions on a variety of political, social and moral issues, such as nationality and nationalism, war and peace, human liberty and dignity, and he launched an untiring attack on any form of discrimination. Bluntly expressed, controversial, often considered simpleminded and naive, his positions, nevertheless, had significant impact. Einstein’s political and moral views and activities were not just add-ons to a life devoted to science. They were driven by the same inner urge as his quest for scientific knowledge and his search for a comprehensive worldview.  

Today one still thinks mainly in terms of a disciplinary character of the structure of science. This is so engrained in our flesh and blood that we can hardly imagine how science could ever have functioned without being guided by the criteria and values of this image. Einstein did not much respect such disciplinary divisions. For him such divisions contradict  the spirit of all culture. In 1952, he published in the NY Times an article entitled Education for Independent Thought. There he wrote: “Overemphasis of the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness, kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized (scientific) knowledge included”. Without Einstein’s ability to foster a unifying perspective over the borderlines between different domains in the physical sciences, he would not have been able to achieve what he accomplished in 1905, his miraculous year. 

While new disciplines and subdisciplines emerge all the time, overcoming borderlines is still an important mechanism of innovation in science. This is one lesson that we can learn from the Einstein experience about the present state of science. In addition, there are also new challenges at the forefront of science that may require an even more profound rethinking of science. Science has become ever more relevant to solving the problems of our world, from climate change to the challenges of feeding mankind, curing mankind and protecting mankind from ecological hazards, as well as from its own self-destructive tendencies. Clearly, the traditional organization of science is hardly capable of confronting these challenges.  

Such challenges cannot be addressed by science and technology alone. Every step and every method applied in attempts to cope with these issues, local and global, have to take into account social, economical and political considerations, as well as cultural and religious traditions. Thus, natural sciences are inseparable from the humanities and social sciences. The type of knowledge orientation we need to confront today’s challenges can only be effective if this division is overcome. An integration of the intellectual resources, which enables answers to these challenges, today presumes collaborating across traditional borders within and outside academia.  

Moreover, one, previously widespread doctrine was that science and moral values are separate domains of human existence. Science is about facts and ethics is about norms and values therefore there can be no interrelation between them. However, during the last decades this attitude has been changing. The connections between science and war, the intervention in life processes and issues affecting the health of planet earth have indicated to us that serious reflection on the inseparability of scientific judgments and moral judgements is due. In the wake of the big sins of science of the twentieth century, from the production of poison gas in the first world war to its involvement in the holocaust and the development of modern weapons of mass destruction, we have faced this lesson particularly in the form of moral appeals to the responsibility of the individual scientist regarding later applications of his results. It seems that the 21st century shifts this responsibility back to the heart of science itself. Intellectual challenges like the definition of problems, institutional and economical topics like the alternative between open access to knowledge or intellectual capitalism, or fundamental challenges, like those connected to the survival within the Anthropocene, concern each individual and simultaneously the system of science as a whole. 

Now it is clear that the culture of science must promote the process of reflection and moral integrity of science. Scientists should be conscious of the mutability of knowledge structures and they should have the means to participate in its transformation towards the aim of preserving the living conditions for humanity on this planet.  

If one keeps in mind how much a single person like Einstein could achieve in the science of his time on the basis of the rather difficult conditions for reflection across borders between knowledge structures that he faced, we can read the history of his revolution also as encouragement to contribute to a culture of science appropriate to today’s challenges. 

It seems to me that the principles outlined above, constitute the essence and goal of the unique nature of the prizes for quality in research awarded today. It is appropriate that such an attitude is pioneered by a foundation bearing the name of Albert Einstein.

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