My selection for man of the year for 2005 is Albert Einstein, but not for any of the conventional reasons. Not because 2005 marked one hundred years since the introduction of his relativity theory. Not because of his work that spurred on later advances in quantum theory. Not because of his “photoelectric” studies for which he actually received his Nobel Prize and which led to the development of the “electric eye.” Not for his supposed scientific contribution to the development of the atomic bomb (itself minimal; his main involvement amounting to his signing his name to a letter penned by another scientist and supporting the bomb’s development as a needed defense).
Nor, though he deserves plaudits in these areas, would I list Einstein as the Man of the Year for 2005 for his rarely mentioned great humanitarianism and political and philosophical wisdom. Not for his wild hair nor his sense of rebellion and his willingness to think outside the box. Not for his high-level physics that has puzzled many of the best scientific minds of the twentieth and twenty-first century. Nor, even, would I name Einstein as the most remarkable man of the year because he stands out to this day, clearly, as one of the true “citizens of the world.”
Admittedly for the larger part of his life after enunciating his relativity theory, Einstein received some of the world’s greatest accolades. Yet for many years, the second half of his life, he was actually seen by some modern physicists as a kind of funny old man; one hardly taken too seriously in his challenges, for example, to Niels Bohr and the 'Copenhagen School', a debate many feel long-settled in favor of Bohr.
The Skirball Institute in Los Angeles marked the final stop recently of an international traveling exhibit honoring the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s first announcing his relativity theory in 1905. This was an impressively designed and executed exhibit drawing papers and memorabilia and research materials from around the world. And in this culling together of what was held to be the most important representations of the great scientist, it seemed almost out of consideration for Einstein (held to be on the losing end of that Einstein-Bohr debate) that the few panels devoted near perfunctorily to this topic received relatively minor emphasis, less than five percent of the exhibit’s focus and attention.
Yet it is Einstein’s legacy from this noted debate — the one that went on for a number of decades and led Einstein at one point to suggest to Bohr, “I cannot believe that God plays dice with the universe,” and his persistence and later, seemingly unfruitful researches — that leads me to nominate the late Dr. Einstein as the man of the year for 2005.
Einstein was a man who, for all his considerable rebelliousness and unconventionality, believed firmly both in his own gut intuition and in reason; qualities all-too-often sadly lacking today in most every area of modern life.
This frequent failure of common sense and reason applies not least in recent times to the U.S. media, the Congress, the Senate, the Supreme Court, to the far right extremists who have taken control of the White House, to the fundamentalist religious right, not least to the often dogmatic right and to the often all-too-open-minded left, and especially to W, the little boy who cried Wolfowitz.
Einstein, in his later years, recalling and discussing an earlier occasion with fellow scientist Max Born, reportedly shook his head when he reminded Born, “How naïve we were, even as men forty years old!! I can only laugh when I think about it. Neither of us realized how much more powerful is instinct compared to intelligence.”
Now current brain research — at long last providing “real time” measurement for the first time of our thought processes — is showing all too convincingly that thought is not irrelevant in our human behaviors but that emotion rules the roost.
In some ways, in an evolutionary context, of course that’s a good thing. Undoubtedly, as when driving, for example, we’d be in big trouble if we had to wait to think about what we were doing sometimes before our foot hit the brake.
In other ways this frequent failure — and sometimes near hostility — to reason is becoming a disaster of unparalleled proportions.
Despite living very much in an age of simple-mindedness, this tolerance, leaning, or even preference for, irrationality of course reaches way beyond many proponents in the United States to all too many in Israel and Palestine, in Iraq and Iran, in India and Pakistan, in Russia and China, in Africa, in the Sudan, in Europe and Asia and Latin America. This seeming shift of times from a seeming age of complexity to a more likely age of simple mindedness, to frequent irrationality and lack of ‘common sense’, the kind of sense that makes sense, stretches from George Bush to an increasingly repressive Putin in Russia to leaders in China, North Korea, Africa and not a few in Europe, including the shift from the Progressive, somewhat miraculous Pope John XXIII to the somewhat progressive and reasoning Pope Paul John to the new, seemingly reactionary and non-reasoning Pope Benedict XVI whose policies, to considerable extent, probably ought to leave one shuddering and yet have barely gained notice in the media while we fear fundamentalists of more evangelical shades.
This romantic paradigm, a milieu that seemingly disparages thought and reflection, has already lasted far longer than any plague and shows little promise of abating. Even Einstein seems to have lost the debate in his insistence to Bohr that “God does not play dice with the universe”— that things ought to make sense and that we need to understand what is really happening, why things function the way they do. This compares, as one example, to the more acceptable comment (as best I recall offhand) by the late Richard Feynman, one of the next biggest names in science after Einstein, who once joked regarding our efforts to try to understand and make sense of modern quantum theory — “Don’t go down that rat hole. You’ll never come out again.”
Thus there are other possible candidates for Man of the Year for 2005 yet I can’t help but turn not merely to Einstein’s scientific or even great humanist contributions (all too rarely mentioned) but to the latter legacy of Einstein as a persistent champion of common sense and reason as a way of understanding and living in the world. On his death bed he asked for paper and pencil to make some calculations and still believed that things could be figured out and science put to reason.
Especially after the first term of George W. Bush’s neocon, theocon, and anti-taxicon administration one might pine for at least a little reason and reflection when considering, for example, that the administration’s key appointments, assessments, actions and inactions have frequently irrational minds — especially when we look back at a year that gave us new and often needless calamities from Iraq to New Orleans, from Russia to China, from Pakistan to India, from the more extremist Islamic leaders to Pat Robertson to . . . .
Ron Quixote, as writer, editor, and word warrior takes up his pencil in the fight against language abuse and in search of the rational in a seemingly irrational age.
For centuries the warrior has sought to wage battle in defense of Reason. No doubt Ron Quixote remains as idealistic as Einstein in the scientistís decades-long campaign in search of an explainable universe, a rational universe that makes sense.
By Ron Kenner — A Plethora of Dumb Things in a Year that Cried Out Desperately for Reason