Einstein Nobel Paradox

Albert Einstein and Alfred Nobel share a unique bond in the form of a paradox resulting in their accomplishments. While there’s no explicit answer on how to avoid such a situation it’s interesting to look at how these two bright minds made history.

Alfred Nobel

Alfred Nobel is generally remembered as the guy behind the Nobel prize. The good thing is that this is exactly what he wanted. Some will recall he is also the one who patented dynamite. Note that dynamite is essentially nitroglycerin, something he didn’t invent mixed with an inert absorbent ingredient to make it more stable and safer to handle. The combination is his invention. Alfred’s brother Emil years earlier died in nitroglycerine explosion at the family factory. The very nature of the business was somewhat controversial due to the safety issues.

Nobody knows the exact reason why Alfred Nobel created the Nobel prize because the man was reclusive and somewhat eccentric. The most accepted story is that when his brother Ludvig visited him in 1888 and died a newspaper confused the brothers and accidentally printed his obituary instead. The headline read “Le marchand de la mort est mort” (“The merchant of death is dead.”). Needless to say he was likely not thrilled about his potential legacy.

Alfred Nobel’s invention was used for a time for military purposes (though dynamite was hardly an ideal military weapon and was eventually replaced). His actual intent was the complete opposite of his reputation. His very invention was designed to make explosives safer to use and potentially make mining safer.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is best known as the father of modern physics, the author of extremely complicated papers, and as an eccentric brilliant professor. Fewer people know that he had some involvement in the development of the atomic bomb.

His involvement came in the form of a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt known as the Einstein–Szilárd letter which helped kick off the United States development of the bomb. The letter was largely written by a physicist named Leó Szilárd, the man who conceived the nuclear chain reaction and warned that Germany may be working on such an effort.

To put this into context, by 1939 Albert Einstein was already a very prominent scientist. He actually won a Nobel prize in 1921 “for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”. The letter was delivered to the president by prominent economist Alexander Sachs. Needless to say FDR listened. The rest is history.

It’s worth noting he didn’t participate in the actual development as he was a German (he gained US citizenship a year later in 1940) who supported left-leaning activities. He couldn’t have had security clearance. Einstein clarified his involvement and reasoning in the short essay “On my involvement in the atomic bomb project“.

History suggests that Einstein was well-intentioned by signing the letter but later regretted after the bomb was dropped.

On Monday August 19, 1946 the New York Times printed a story on the front page titled “Einstein Deplores Use of Atom Bomb“. You can pretty much guess the tone of that article.

In 1955 The Philadelphia Bulletin quoted Dr. Linus Pauling as being told by Einstein before his death “I made on great mistake when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made” in an article titled “Scientist Tells Of Einstein’s A-Bomb Regrets“. Dr. Linux Pauling was also a member of Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists along with the aforementioned Linus Pauling and Leó Szilárd. The group was intended to raise awareness to the danger of atomic weapons and promote peaceful use of nuclear energy.

On Feb 19, 1979 Time magazine wrote:

Later, when A-bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein expressed deep regret. After the war, he apologized personally —and in tears—to visiting Japanese Physicist Hideki Yukawa. On another occasion, he said, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, I would have done nothing for the bomb.”

That quote is likely originally from Newsweek in the 1950’s.

Einstein is also often quoted as stating: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” It is sometimes quoted as “rocks” in place of “sticks and stones”. I’ve yet to find the definitive origin of it.

Einstein was really a pacifist and a scientist, not a weapons engineer. One can’t help but think this really bothered him.

The paradox

Both of these brilliant men dedicated their lives to inventions, research, theories and acts that were intended to better humanity. Dynamite likely did save many lives and allow for mining quicker and cheaper which affected society in many indirect ways. We likely still don’t fully grasp what Albert Einstein was writing about yet he managed to completely change physics.

If it’s not grossly apparent already, both men had a great impact in the world and it would be a different place without them.

Both of these brilliant men also had the misfortune of having their life work used in ways they had never wanted or intended and died with the thought that their work had brought misfortune to others. “No good deed goes unpunished” I guess is another way to put it.