When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint meeting of the US Congress, one could almost see the ghost of Albert Einstein in the room. Netanyahu was urging a tough stance in negotiations with Iran over their nuclear program, citing its existence as an existential threat to Israel. Indeed, it was fear of an existential threat that led Einstein, the pacifist, to write to President Roosevelt about the possibility of the development of the bomb by the Germans during World War II, a letter that played a significant role in launching the Manhattan Project and the nuclear age. But for the surface similarities between Einstein’s and Netanyahu’s arguments, there are deep differences that ought to be considered as we look at the way the ongoing situation in the Middle East evolves.
Einstein has been referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb,” something that is surely an overstatement. It is true that his theory of relativity provided the theoretical framework. The most famous result of his special theory of relativity, the iconic equation E=mc2, showed us that mass is just another form of energy. Energy can take many forms – heat, light, motion, electricity – and we can convert it from one form to another. For example, we can take sunlight or a moving river and turn it into electricity. We can use the electricity to power a stove which can then turn water into steam. If mass is just another form of energy, we should be able to convert it into other forms.
But the term “c” in the equation is the speed of light which is extremely fast, that is, c is a very big number. A very big number squared, that is, multiplied by itself, gives us an incredibly large number which means that if we can convert even a small amount of mass to another form of energy, we would end up with an awful lot of it. If that much energy could be harnessed, the thought was that it could be used for a lot of good, but if used maliciously, it could also yield unbelievably destructive force.
This was something that Einstein and his fellow physicists were not worried about because no one knew how to do it and they thought it would be decades if not a century until we figured it out. But with the investigation of the atom coming out of quantum mechanics, the possibility became a reality. Otto Hahn, a physicist a generation younger than Einstein figured out how to split the atom and this was the first time that E=mc2 became something that could be employed in the lab.
But there is a difference between the lab and the real world. Hahn did it by slamming particles into the nucleus of an atom causing it to rupture. This is not easy to do. If you take an atom and expand it to the size of a stadium, the nucleus would only be as big as a basketball, that is, incredibly tiny in comparison. We can’t see them because they are so small and they are relatively scare because the atoms are mostly empty space. This was not something that we could harness into a useful technologically, physicists thought. Einstein likened it to hunting birds by shooting in the dark in a place that doesn’t have many birds.
But then his friend and fellow physicist Leo Szilard had an idea when sitting at a traffic light in London. Uranium is radioactive. When it breaks down, it releases three neutrons from its nucleus, shooting them out at great speed. These three neutrons would act like bullets, shooting other uranium nuclei causing them to each give up three neutrons which would each hit uranium nuclei…and they each cause three more which each cause three more which each cause three more… Szilard had realized that with enriched uranium, one could start a nuclear chain reaction and that could be weaponized.
He realized that the Congo had huge supplies of uranium that could be mined. Something had to be done to make sure that the Congo did not sell uranium to Germany. But how to do that?
The Congo was a Belgian colony and Einstein had fled to Belgium before relocating to the United States. In his time there, Einstein had become friendly with the King and Queen. Einstein could get a message to them.
Szilard found himself soon in Princeton and when he learned that Einstein was on vacation, he talked fellow physicist Eugene Wigner into driving him to Long Island to find Einstein. They did and when Szilard told him of his realization, they decided that something needed to be done. They worried that contacting foreign leaders directly on a matter of international security during wartime would seem suspicious for foreign nationals, so they thought they better get State Department approval first. Then they decided that maybe it would be better if they address this with President Roosevelt himself.
A week later Szilard returned, this time catching a ride with the young physicist Edward Teller. Einstein dictated the letter in German and Szillard translated it while Teller took notes. A longer and shorter version were produced and Einstein signed the longer one which was given to the banker Alexander Sachs who would take it to Roosevelt personally.
Einstein urged action, not just to keep Congolese uranium from the Germans, but that significant action be taken in light of the existential threat that a German nuclear weapon posed. It was an extraordinary circumstance and this led the famously pacifistic Einstein to side with the development of the world’s most worrisome weapon.
But when that weapon was used, Einstein was beside himself. He is reputed to have said, “I could burn my fingers that I wrote that letter to Roosevelt.” But the person who literally wrote it, Edward Teller, had no such issues. Indeed, he would go on to become the father of the hydrogen bomb, an even more powerful weaponized use of quantum physics.
The H-bomb project led Einstein to speak out publicly. On a program hosted by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Einstein spoke eloquently and passionately about the need to de-escalate the budding nuclear arms race. This, too, seems to be the goal of Prime Minister Netanyahu. But there are crucial differences.
For Netanyahu, the presupposition is that Israel must stand as a Jewish state, something that Einstein did not approve of. Yes, Einstein was a self-proclaimed Zionist, but as with so much else, Einstein’s view was non-standard. Einstein thought that Palestine should be a multi-cultural nation which could serve as a safe space for Jews in danger to flee and in which there would be Jewish institutions, especially Hebrew University, which he saw as a potential beacon of pride for Jews around the world if it could be made into a world-class research university. But the idea of an exclusively Jewish state worried Einstein because it would take Judaism and marry it to nationalism, something that could rot Judaism from the inside.
As a child in turn of the century Germany, Einstein had developed a loathing of nationalism and the jingoistic militarism it bred. The heart of Judaism as Einstein saw it was an appreciation of the other as a full human being. Jews since the Diaspora were always minorities and this meant that Jews had acquired a sense of what it meant to be marginalized and thereby an ethic based on empathy and mutual recognition. If real estate became a golden idol to be worshipped, it could cause harm to the ethic that lay at the core of Judaism itself.
Of course, Einstein’s vision is not that which shaped the region, but it was not a fight Einstein failed to take up passionately, arguing publicly and vociferously with those who would be the founding fathers of what has become Likud, Netanyahu’s political party. Their nationalistic ideology and their glorification of violent means led Einstein to denounce them. It was nationalism that fed anti-Semitism, Einstein contended, to adopt such a stance ourselves would cause us to ignore the lessons our history should have taught us.
Of course, the facts on the ground are complicated. What to do about Iran’s ambiguous ambitions is not clear. But while there are certainly similarities between the lines we saw taken by Netanyahu in his address to Congress and Einstein in his letter to Roosevelt, there are deep differences as well.
Steven Gimbel is the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities as well as chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College. His newest book Einstein: His Space and Times will be available this April.