Albert Einstein made three visits to Oxford between 1931 and 1933. This was a period of intense rethinking of his cosmological views. A recent paper published on Notes and Records explores the content and context of the Rhodes Memorial Lectures, held during his first visit. We spoke to the author, Professor Robert Fox.
How did you become interested in Einstein?
I have long been interested in science in 19th and 20th-century Oxford. My recent interests have been mainly in the inter-war period, in which progressive forces within the university were engaged in a cautious process of modernization, aimed at opening Oxford to a wider world and breaking with an entrenched tradition of academic insularity. The Rhodes Memorial Lectures, inaugurated in 1926, were part of that process, and the choice of Einstein as Rhodes Lecturer for 1931 was representative of the special importance that reformers in the university, including the key figure of Frederick Lindemann, professor of experimental philosophy, attached to the sciences.
What interesting facts came out of Einstein’s Rhodes Memorial Lectures?
The lectures, three in all, were about recent developments in relativity. Delivered in German, they were heavy going. But those in Einstein’s audiences who were able to follow his arguments knew that they were witnesses to a historic phase in the development of his thought. One of the problems he discussed was the inability of the general theory of relativity to provide a logical understanding of the electromagnetic field and its connection with matter. More specific to the spring of 1931 was the content of the second lecture, on “The cosmological problem”. Less than a month before he gave the lectures, Einstein had questioned his long-standing commitment to a static universe and begun exploring the very different paradigm of a universe in a state of expansion, possibly expansion followed by contraction. A reconstruction of his Oxford lecture on the subject, based on newspaper reports, a brief pre-circulated summary, and the famous Einstein blackboard now in the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, shows him grappling with the implications of his version of the expanding universe. The tentative nature of his ideas at this time emerges strongly, and it is not surprising that by the following year, he had moved on to a different model of a single “big bang” type, devised in collaboration with the Dutch physicist Willem de Sitter. Variants of the Einstein-de Sitter model were to guide Einstein’s thinking until his death in 1955, and to have an important following for the rest of the century
How much of an impact did Edwin Hubble’s views about an expanding universe have on Einstein?
Hubble’s observations of the red-shift in the spectra of receding extra-galactic nebulae, announced in 1929, had drawn attention to the possibility that the universe was expanding. Although Hubble’s evidence aroused widespread interest, within and beyond the scientific community, Hubble himself was cautious about the implications for cosmology. In rethinking his own views, Einstein drew more heavily on the mathematical analyses of two contemporary cosmologists: Georges Lemaître, Belgian priest and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain, and Arthur Eddington, Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge. In what came subsequently to be recognized as a classic paper, in 1927 Lemaître had shown how the laws of general relativity could be reconciled with a model of a closed expanding universe of diminishing mass density. Lemaître’s 1927 paper would certainly have been in Einstein’s mind when he had a crucial discussion with Eddington in Cambridge in 1930. That discussion may well have set Einstein on the road to the abandonment of his static model in the following year.
Can you tell us briefly about Einstein’s relationship with politics and Churchill?
Einstein was very much a man of the vibrant liberal culture of 1920s Weimar Germany, hence far removed from the political, military, and aristocratic world in which Churchill had been formed. Despite the characterization of Einstein in Nazi circles (and in sections of the right-wing British press) as someone with communist sympathies, the Jewish cause (and in due course the establishment of the state of Israel) mattered far more to him than any formal political allegiance. What brought Einstein and Churchill together in the early 1930s was their shared recognition of the threat that anti-Semitism posed to world peace. An encounter at Churchill’s home, Chartwell, in July 1933 served to cement the bond between the two men: Churchill, now emerging as a leading champion of rearmament in the face of the Nazi threat, and Einstein, a pacifist reluctantly obliged to envisage the need for armed resistance.
Do you feel Oxford Physics suffered because Lindemann’s “arrangement plan” failed?
It is hard to know what impact Einstein might have had if Lindemann’s plan for him to spend a month or so each year in Oxford had been fully implemented. The presence of a visitor of Einstein’s eminence would certainly have raised the profile of Oxford physics, at a time when the subject was struggling to rise in the hierarchy of disciplines, in an academic culture still strongly oriented to the humanities. Although Lindemann was disappointed by the failure of his original plan, the alternative that he put in place as the plight of Jewish intellectuals worsened in the mid-1930s probably did more for the subject in Oxford than Einstein’s brief annual visits could have done. Lindemann’s recruitment of the remarkable group of refugee physicists that he brought to Oxford was a master-stroke, and it had lasting consequences for the subject. While some of the refugees – Erwin Schrödinger and Fritz London, for example – moved on, others stayed, establishing especially strong traditions in low temperature physics (for instance Francis Simon, Kurt Mendelssohn, and Nicholas Kurti) and spectroscopy (Heinrich Kuhn). By the time Lindemann retired in 1956, Oxford was well on the way to becoming the world-class centre for physics that it is today.
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Einstein 1921 by F. Schmutzer, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons