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Saturday, December 17th, 2005


The New Quotable Einstein

by Albert Einstein

On Science, Authority, and the Futility of Wearing Socks

A review by Doug Brown

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world."

"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life."

Quote collections are often hit and miss affairs. This is particularly true if all the quotes are from a single person, as there are usually a limited number of truly quotable excerpts one can find from a person's writings. However, there have been a few exceptions in history, people who were just plain quotable. Albert Einstein was one of these folks, who between his letters, lectures, and papers generated a large corpus of phrases seemingly destined for signature files and t-shirts. One edition of The Quotable Einstein wasn't enough; as more quotes were found and catalogued, this new expanded edition was created for the 100th anniversary of Einstein's annus mirabilis. In 1905, Einstein published three famous papers. One, an explanation of Brownian motion, revolutionized particle physics. The second, an explanation of the photoelectric effect, kick-started quantum mechanics and won him the Nobel prize. The third was a new theory about light and time called "relativity."

"A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."

"I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards."

Calaprice was a senior editor at Princeton University Press, charged with handling the publication of Einstein's papers. For twenty years, as she came across a memorable passage she would write it on a little card and place it in a little blue box. This collection of quotes largely became The Quotable Einstein, first published almost ten years ago. Ten more years worth of looking through files and collecting quotes from Einstein's acquaintances created the new edition.

"With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon."

"Personally, I experience the greatest degree of pleasure in having contact with works of art. They furnish me with happy feelings of an intensity that I cannot derive from other sources."

The quotes are arranged in topics, and within each topic they are chronological. This allows us to see how Einstein's thoughts on particular subjects changed over time (and which ones didn't). Quotes new to this edition have an asterisk beside them, so if you have the older edition and are wondering how much is new, you can quickly scan through a copy and see for yourself.

"To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself."

"I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me that can be called religious, then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it."

Calaprice intentionally chose not only those quotes that are wise and profound, but also those that show Einstein's warts. The disdain he showed his first wife is so at odds with his benevolent public image as to be shocking. His views regarding women in general could perhaps be called a sign of the times, but given that Einstein willfully eschewed popular opinion, this defense doesn't really hold up.

"We men are deplorable, dependent creatures. But compared with these women, every one of us is a king, for he stands more or less on his own two feet, not constantly waiting for something outside of himself to cling to. They, however, always wait for someone to come along who will use them as he sees fit. If this does not happen, they simply fall to pieces."

One reason there is such a wealth of quotes to choose from is Einstein wrote about a wide variety of subjects. His lifelong defense of pacifism earned him J. Edgar Hoover's unending hatred (Hoover tried for years to get Einstein deported, as discussed in Fred Jerome's fascinating book The Einstein File). His support of socialism was also not popular in all quarters. He was a proponent of Zionism, but more as a connection to people of Jewish faith than as a movement to create a nation.

"I should much rather see a reasonable agreement with the Arabs based on living together in peace than the creation of a Jewish state."

"No person has the right to call himself a Christian or a Jew so long as he is prepared to engage in systematic murder at the command of an authority, or allow himself to be used in any way in the service of war or the preparation for it."

Calaprice also includes a selection of quotes about Einstein by other folks, and a section for quotes attributed to Einstein but for which she could find no direct source. Appendices include accounts of his last days from a friend and his secretary, and the famous letter he wrote to Roosevelt encouraging an atom bomb program. The New Quotable Einstein is an excellent addition to any Einstein fan's library, and makes an easy Christmas gift for the science fans on your list.

"By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right also implies a duty: one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes rational judgment and action."

"When I was young I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks."

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