My Grandfather and Einstein

By: Eva Infeld 01/06/2015 2:14AM
Category: People
"The formulation of the problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science."

Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, 1938

When The Evolution of Physics was released, it made headlines. A rare science bestseller, it had some wonderfully clear exposition of physics, and an insight into a scientist's mind and wisdom. My family has since given up the royalties for this book in the interest of open knowledge, and now I am delighted to see that it is available for free, in many formats onInternet Archive, as a pdf, and as a torrent.

The folklore about why this book was written says that my grandfather Leopold's Princeton scholarship was running out and he was pressed for money. This is only a part of the story. Both Einstein and Infeld felt that the grim world of 1930's was badly in need of education. They decided that to confront the hateful ideologies of the time, they would expose the world to the wonders of intellectual pursuit. The result was one of the most influential pop-science books of all time, which both documented and made history. 

 

"In imagination there exists the perfect mystery story. Such a story presents all the essential clues, and compels us to form our own theory of the case."

My grandfather Leopold died long before I was born. When I was a toddler someone supposedly asked me if I knew who Einstein was. I responded that yes I do, he was my grandpa's collaborator. But I quickly grew out of such carefree relatability. For the most part, they were both mythical figures everyone seemed interested in. Even my father Eric, himself a theoretical physicist and co-author of the Infeld-Rowlands equation, spent much more time answering questions in interviews about that one time when he was a kid and Einstein gave him chocolate, than he ever did with Einstein.

Today, I am myself a young mathematician. But it is through my grandfather's political activism and writing that I finally found a kinship with him.

Leopold Infeld left Toronto for Warsaw around 1950, an unusual and unpopular decision given the political makeup of the world. Canadian press and secret service went to great lengths to discredit him, and as a result, his children (age 10 and 6 at the time) are the only natural born Canadians to ever be stripped of citizenship. Not Canada's most glorious moment. Amends to my grandfather were made posthumously, and both my father and aunt have their citizenship back.

Contrary to what the Canadian press at the time would have the public believe, he was not a spy, nor a traitor, nor did he have any love for Stalin. But he did feel that Polish science needed to be rebuilt. From ashes, Infeld turned Warsaw into a stronghold of theoretical physics. His institute was perhaps the one place in the city where contact with the West was possible, making available scholarships to study in England and allowing the best Western physicists to come to visit. His strong international reputation as a scientist allowed him to refuse to comply with the government's dirtier orders. He never caved when pressured to sack graduate students who didn't come from a “worker” background.

Infeld, like Einstein, had a rebellious streak and a deep caring for the world. He was a signatory of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (famously, the only one who never got a Nobel Prize), and their correspondence, even after my grandfather moved to Poland, dealt with their concern about world affairs as much as it did physics. Infeld campaigned for nuclear disarmament and fought to protect scientific ties that crossed the Iron Curtain all the way until his death in 1968. Much of his outlook survived in non-scientific writings, notably Quest: An Autobiography, Why I Left Canada: Reflections on Science and Politics and a fictionalized biography Whom the Gods Love: the Story of Evariste Galois.

In a way, the generation of our grand- and great-grandparents was the last truly great generation. In theoretical physics, much is overshadowed by the giants of early twentieth century and for the last few decades, few people have been asking truly original questions. In computer science, a staggering proportion of the foundations was already part of Alan Turing's vision. In economics, we are badly, badly in need of new ideas.

But that's exactly the point. The world has new problems, and a new structure. And we are ready for new vision to answer these problems. Just like the last time the society was restructured after a technological change, we are ready for new visionaries.

We, academics, are used to waiting or validation and often pick projects that are sae. We should instead be thinking like hackers. You have an idea, no matter how far-fetched, and you start hacking at it. You don't need anyones permission, or a series o fpretentious degrees. That's why I'm excited about Fiat Physica, because it might just help us get around the faulty structures and focus on what's important: the new vision science so badly needs.

"Remember your humanity, and forget the rest."

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Posted on: 01/06/15 2:14AM
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Eva Infeld View profile

Eva Infeld is a PhD student and instructor in Mathematics at Dartmouth College.

#MakePhysicsHappen @fiatphysica

“Fiat Physica shall hand the steering wheel of scientific innovation to the public, allowing them to contribute to science, communication, and discovery directly.”

Szabolcs Marka

Chair of the Education and Public Outreach Committee, LIGO and Associate Professor of Physics, Columbia University
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