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Albert Einstein Comes to America

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Good morning. It’s April 2. Today’s date is also anniversary of Albert Einstein’s arrival on our shores.

Albert Einstein was already famous when he arrived on April 2, 1921, for his first trip to the United States. In May, he would deliver four well-received lectures on relativity at Princeton University, his future academic home.

While in the U.S., a minor cloud appeared on the great physicist’s horizon, however. A Princeton-educated mathematician and physicist named Dayton C. Miller, then teaching at Case School of Applied Science in Ohio, had performed experiments in the esoteric field of ether drift. The results, Miller claimed, contradicted Einstein’s findings on gravity. If they were accurate, as Einstein conceded, they would have undermined the theory of relativity.

Miller’s experiments, which could never be duplicated, were eventually discredited. But Einstein’s response was instructive. Rather than criticizing the man, Einstein went to Cleveland to meet him.

Einstein also discussed Miller’s work with a mathematics professor named Oswald Veblen, who’d been brought to Princeton by the school’s former president, Woodrow Wilson. Veblen was American through-and-through. Born to Norwegian parents in Decorah, Iowa, he had served as a captain in the U.S. Army during World War I, and is credited with advances in ballistics technology.

Nonetheless, like many academics of his generation, Veblen spoke fluent German, then the international language of science. And it was in his native language that Albert Einstein confided his view of any experiment purporting to cast doubt on relativity:

“Raffiniert is der Herr Gott,” Einstein said, “aber boshaft is Er nicht.” (“The Lord God is subtle, but malicious He is not.”)

In a 1930 letter to Veblen, Einstein amplified on this thought. “Nature conceals her secrets because she is sublime, not because she is a trickster,” he wrote.

Much later, after his work in particle physics helped end World War II – and reduced Nagasaki and Hiroshima to rubble - Einstein was asked why it was that human beings could discover the secrets of the atom, but not control them.

“That is simple,” he replied. “Because politics is more difficult than physics.”

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