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Questions and answers with Steven Gimbel

A philosopher of science sets out to discover what role, if any, religion or culture played in Albert Einstein's conception of his relativity theory.

Steven Gimbel is the Edwin T. and Cynthia Shearer Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities and chair of the philosophy department at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He received his bachelor's degrees in physics and philosophy from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and his doctoral degree in philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Gimbel's work focuses on the 'foundations and ramifications' of Einstein's theory of relativity and on methodology and evidence in science. He wrote Exploring the Scientific Method: Cases and Questions (University of Chicago Press, 2011), and he coedited Defending Einstein: Hans Reichenbach's Writings on Space, Time and Motion (Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Earlier this month, Physics Today caught up with Gimbel to discuss his latest book, Einstein's Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

PT: What motivated you to write this book?

Gimbel: Growing up as a Jewish physics nerd, I've always admired Albert Einstein. And as a philosopher of physics, my work examines the foundations and ramifications of relativity theory. But this project came out of a conversation I had with a colleague who is a Judaic studies scholar. When he was discussing the differences in the approach to moral questions that can be seen in Jewish and Christian thinkers, I noticed something of a structural similarity with the way in which Einstein's relativistic approach to spacetime differed from Newton's notions of absolute space and absolute time. The similarity seemed too much fun not to play with, and the result is this book.

PT: Does your book attempt to turn the Nazi insult of 'Jewish physics' on its head? And what challenges did you face in crafting the story that deals with such a sensitive topic?

Gimbel: In [my] thinking about the similarities between Talmudic and scientific methodologies, the Nazi era claim that relativity theory was 'Jewish physics' immediately popped up. The Nazis had already tried to draw this connection in an effort to denigrate and undermine the theory of relativity. They were, of course, wrong. What they meant by 'Jewish science' does not actually apply to Einstein's work, and there is not a cause-and-effect connection between Talmudic and relativistic thought—sorry to spoil part of the book. But the phrase is certainly provocative. It is one that Jews consider dangerous because of its origin.

But at the same time, there is tremendous pride in the Jewish community that Einstein is a member of the tribe. If there is nothing about his scientific work that connects him to the community, then this pride seems misplaced. The question, then, is whether one can find a different sense from that of the Nazis in which the theory of relativity could be thought of as 'Jewish science.' In most of the senses in which we would naturally interpret that phrase, it turns out that relativity is not in any way Jewish or Judaic.

But there is one sense, and it is one that I think explains not just the Jewish love of Einstein, but the general adoration of him we see across cultures. For most of our history, Jews have been outsiders, and much Jewish thought deals with the ways in which being simultaneously a part of and apart from the larger culture affects perspective and responsibilities. Similarly, the theory of relativity was the physics of an outsider, and Einstein, as a part-time physicist in 1905 and as a cultural figure after World War I, always remained an outsider. In this metaphorical sense, I think the controversial phrase fits in a fashion that is much less morally worrisome; indeed, perhaps in a way that is morally laudable.

PT: What historical and philosophical sources did you draw on in addressing the role of religion and culture on science?

Gimbel: Since the middle of the 20th century, with the work of sociologists like Robert K. Merton and historians like I. B. Cohen, scholars have been documenting the ways in which the scientific project is intimately woven into the larger intellectual, political, and social ideas of the times. Few institutions have had a more profound effect on the ways of thinking than religion. We like to think of science as its own little intellectual island outside the range of influence of other topics, but the fact is, what gets asked, how it gets framed, and in what ways it gets approached has historically reflected theological concerns. When we look at gravitation theories of the 17th century, those of Newton and Descartes, we see the fingerprints of their times and religious beliefs all over their science.

PT: Can you think of any contemporary examples of science being shaped, positively or negatively, by religion or culture, or of attempts by contemporary thinkers to frame science in that way?

Gimbel: Organized religion certainly has much less influence on intellectual currents today. When we think of religiously influenced science, creationism and intelligent design theory immediately come to mind. Despite much money and effort on behalf of their supporters, these theories remain at the fringes of current biology, geology, and cosmology.

But that is not to say that cultural influences are not to be found in science. Science requires funding, and anytime money is involved, politics and culture necessarily come into play. Consider, as just one example, manned space flight. Much more science can be done with the same money utilizing less expensive non-manned missions. We can put up more instruments and get more data from each one than we could by spending much more money for fewer manned flights. Yet, we always hear in terms of long-term plans for NASA a focus on putting a station on the moon or a person on Mars. Yes, it has PR value because it touches the imagination, but in terms of a cost–benefit analysis it makes no sense. But here we have a market-based influence. Do what gets the big headlines, the scientific equivalent of a commercial during the Super Bowl. Our gods are different, but the influence is still to be found.

PT: What books are you reading at the moment?

Gimbel: I've just finished Shmuel Feiner's biography of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (Yale University Press, 2010) and have started Tony Crilly's Arthur Cayley: Mathematician Laureate of the Victorian Age (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

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