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Sunday, August 26, 2012

Einstein to kids

Of all scientists of our age, none can be more respected than Albert Einstein. Nor has any scientist to my knowledge treated children with greater thoughtfulness, trust and courtesy.

   I tried to imagine what went through his mind when he read this letter. The central question was a beautifully worded one that would undoubtedly have pleased him with its deceptive simplicity. "Do scientists pray?"

   Still, in doing so, he would need to take great care. He was speaking to children (and their teachers, no doubt, who would be eager to see how he would answer) who were brought up in a tradition very different from the one he left behind when he escaped the Nazis in Europe. This was a Christian Sunday school in an America that had been founded on an attempt to create a new world which left little room for compromise in matters of faith.

   Einstein was by birth Jewish, and his life's work as a scientist demanded honesty and a ceaseless search for truth. The scientist's job is to theorise, and then to explore the truth or falsity of a hypothesis. Anything less is a betrayal of science and personal integrity. His answer had to be applicable to all humanity, which meant respect for all the great religious traditions; of the East as well as the West.

   To me, his response, in just 150 words, is one of the great documents of this (no, last) century. It is not the least patronising; on the contrary, it is a lesson in humility and restraint. 

   He begins with a clear and concise declaration which would seem to be "No", but follows it with a necessary qualification relating science to faith.

   His final paragraph is a masterpiece. It is not an evasion or cop-out. The more science explores the universe, from its apparent totality as an entity right down to the Higgs Boson, the more it is obvious that humans, for all that they do know, have only the faintest understanding of the reality behind a world where nothing can be ruled out.

   That's as near the truth as we get, at this stage of human existence at least.


In my classes on religions of the world, I was often asked right at the start of the course: "What's your religion?" What I faced in responding has parallels to this, and I started writing about it.  I see I haven't finished yet, and that was nearly a year ago. Einstein took just a few minutes, I suspect. Oh well.


  1. Denis. Thank you for this. I was irrestably drawn to it as , like you, I'm curious about religions and faith particularly in relation to life and death. I also agree that it is a lesson in humility and an example of how we can disagree without being disrespectful to other peoples beliefs. Nice Work.

  2. Well put, Jane, and top marks to Einstein. He had the intellect to think it, the power to express it, the humility to admit to imperfect knowledge, and the integrity to gently refute prayer and to suggest naivety. From my viewpoint, I just have to try and keep silent on religious faith as I really have zero tolerance for it. I do not even concede the automatic responses that 'religion does a lot of good' and 'where did that flower come from if not God?'. I am particularly appalled by the extent of diverse faiths and religious dogmatism coming out of America. The statistics on American 'believers' of one sort or another is simply hard to explain. Upbringing? Peer pressure? Opting out of thinking for themselves or taking responsibility for their lives? Wishful thinking? I don't know. Nor do I find it easy to respond to the frequent proselytizing of those arrogant souls who think they can save mine ... that it is them alone able to do it, and that mine needs it. It is all very difficult ... but then, I am not Einstein.

  3. Denis I read your earlier series, and I hope you do complete it - not because I believe your thoughts are any more worthy than anybody else's but just because it is a topic which always intrigues and any help I can get is always gratefully accepted.

    Einstein didn't actually address, let alone answer, the two child-like questions. (No surprise they were child-like; children have the unnnerving habit of cutting directly to what interests them, rather than what 'should' interest them) He was asked if scientists pray and, if so, what do they pray for.

    I've always taken a small comfort from the fact that like me, he proved unable to address the questions.


    1. Perhaps we must agree to disagree then. What Einstein was indicating was that this is not simply a Yes/No question, and that he couldn't speak for everyone engaged in science. The last paragraph addressed the question as clearly as the state of science permits, even to this very day, although he wrote that three-quarters of a century ago.

      There is a vast difference between simple and simplistic. Einstein refused to be simplistic but tried to make it as simple as he could.

      I've said so often and I'll make no bones about repeating, "Words are good servants but bad masters."

      So, I believe, are numbers in equations on a page.

    2. Denis don't misunderstand me. I thought his answer was an excellent one for a question about a scientist's belief in god/s or a 'higher power'. Sorry if I did not make that clear.

      But his response reminds me of the old joke about the child asking her mother "where did we come from", to which the mother replied with the birds and bees story. And then the daughter says "well Grandma said it was Tamworth".

      I dunno, but all I've learned about children is that they ask exactly what they mean to ask at the time, and will follow up with more questions if not satisfied.


    3. I understand and thanks for clarifying. I suspect that it simply illustrates the difficulty we have with words to impart what the sender is transmitting to the receiver. The former encodes, but the latter decodes to a different set of algorithms! To me, what we're doing is just having a discussion which is [sometimes] made clearer by follow-up interaction as we're having here.

      I agree with you about children's questions. To my mind, although Einstein's answer was the only one he could honestly give, and I think he would be aware that his letter would be one for posterity and not 20 or 30 kids, there are probably a lot of adults as well as children who wouldn't understand what his last paragraph means. I think I have only comparatively recently come to really get it – as a confluence of philosophy and science – in a way that suits my understanding of how things work and where the vast gaps are in what I know.

  4. Something in his last,truthful paragraph felt just right to me. It reminded me of when I am working on something as I am with my current research job and some knowledge begins to bud,unexpectedly, when I'm not even looking. It begins to emerge quietly, taking me by surprise. I find myself wondering where it comes from (my subconscious mind, people might say, whatever THAT actually is). I'm NOT suggesting it comes from 'God' (or am I?)
    I always wish people would define what they mean by terms such as 'God' and 'prayer'. Then they might see these things differently. I was always constrained in my views on those tricky concepts by images formed during childhood by sceptical parents and my own assessment that 'religious' people were often ones with weird problems or else painfully boring and judgemental. So I had a limited idea of 'God'. Hmm. Don't we all love this topic!!


    1. It's your background in and knowledge of Eastern philosophy, especially in regard to mysticism, that makes you understand just what Einstein is referring to. Either it's that or you've been doing work on Higgs boson I didn't know about [possible!]

      I'm finding any attempt at talking about God as a blog subject much more difficult than I thought it would be – precisely because of that problem of definition and other people's perceptions. You don't have 5000 words on a blog post, as you do writing a book chapter – or nail people down in a tutorial room!

      God wasn't meant to be easy....

  5. Thank you for this topic, Denis. "....the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort..". That's it, in its own vague, perfect, open-ended nutshell.


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