Around the Institute

Einstein’s Final Quest

March 1, 2009  • Walter Isaacson

In the later years of his life, after he had fled Nazi Germany at age fifty-four and moved to Princeton, New Jersey, Albert Einstein focused his scientific energies on what would turn out to be a futile quest: the search for a unified field theory. Such a theory would tie together the forces of gravity and electromagnetism with the subatomic forces described by quantum theory. He had befriended a fellow refugee physicist, Leopold Infeld, who occasionally tried to help in that effort. Most of Einstein’s colleagues were bemused by his stubbornness, but Infeld admired what he saw as yet another example of the determination that, over the decades, had made Einstein so great. “His tenacity in sticking to a problem for years, in returning to the problem again and again — this is the characteristic feature of Einstein’s genius,” he said.

Was Infeld right? Was tenacity — grit — one of the characteristic features of Einstein’s genius? Yes. He had been blessed with that trait since youth. When he was six, his father had given him a compass. Einstein spent days and nights twisting and turning it, marveling at how the needle would twitch and point north even though nothing seemed to be touching it. Most of us remember getting a compass when we were kids and being fascinated by it for a while, at least until we find something else intriguing — oh, look, a dead bird! — and promptly quit puzzling about the compass. Unlike most of us, Einstein remained fascinated by the mystery and magic of force fields, and how to relate electromagnetic fields to gravitational fields, for the rest of his life. Even on his deathbed, he was scribbling field equations that he hoped would lead to a unified theory.

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