Monday, September 16, 2013

A Cluttered Desk

A Cluttered Desk

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” —NOT an Einstein Quote!

This quote is actually one of Lawrence Peter’s, author of The Peter Principle. For the uninitiated, the Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. The cluttered desk quote can be found on page 339 of the book Peter’s Quotations, yet if one does a Google search on the quote there is no mention of Lawrence Peter for several pages.

This column is just as much about what Einstein didn’t say as it is about what he did say. Einstein has said enough brilliant things that it is not necessary to manufacture quotes. Maybe you have seen a quote attributed to Einstein and would like to know if it's really his. If so, just e-mail me at and I'll feature it in a future column.

Science and Art

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.” —Albert Einstein

A remark made by Einstein in 1923 and recalled by Archibald Henderson. Henderson was a mathematician from the University of North Carolina who in 1920 became interested in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Within two years he was writing articles about it. He spent 1923-24 on sabbatical, studying at Cambridge and the University of Berlin where he came to know Einstein personally. Henderson published The Triumph of Relativity and other books on relativity. His defense of relativity in debates was so skilled that Einstein himself commented that it left little room for refutation.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Einstein's Credo

Translated and published in The Forum magazine, October 1930, the following essay is a rich source of quotes in part commonly known as Einstein's Credo. Here it is in its entirety.

What I Believe
by Albert Einstein

Strange is our situation here upon Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men — above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from the work of other men.

I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying — “A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills” — impressed itself upon me in youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life’s hardships. This conviction is a perpetual breeder of tolerance, for it does not allow us to take ourselves or others too seriously; it makes rather for a sense of humor.

To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have been empty. Ever since childhood I have scorned the commonplace limits so often set upon human ambition. Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury — to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind.

My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women. I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or team work. I have never belonged wholeheartedly to country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family. These ties have always been accompanied by a vague aloofness, and the wish to withdraw into myself increases with the years.

Such isolation is sometimes bitter, but I do not regret being cut off from the understanding and sympathy of other men. I lose something by it, to be sure, but I am compensated for it in being rendered independent of the customs, opinions, and prejudices of others, and am not tempted to rest my peace of mind upon such shifting foundations.

My political ideal is democracy. Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized. It is an irony of fate that I should have been showered with so much uncalled for and unmerited admiration and esteem. Perhaps this adulation springs from the unfulfilled wish of the multitude to comprehend the few ideas which I, with my weak powers, have advanced.

Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding and carry most of the responsibility. But those who are led should not be driven, and they should be allowed to choose their leader. It seems to me that the distinctions separating the social classes are false; in the last analysis they rest on force. I am convinced that degeneracy follows every autocratic system of violence, for violence inevitably attracts moral inferiors. Time has proved that illustrious tyrants are succeeded by scoundrels.

For this reason I have always been passionately opposed to such regimes as exist in Russia and Italy today. The thing which has discredited the European forms of democracy is not the basic theory of democracy itself, which some say is at fault, but the instability of our political leadership, as well as the impersonal character of party alignments.

I believe that you in the United States have hit upon the right idea. You choose a President for a reasonable length of time and give him enough power to acquit himself properly of his responsibilities. In the German Government, on the other hand, I like the state’s more extensive care of the individual when he is ill or unemployed. What is truly valuable in our bustle of life is not the nation, I should say, but the creative and impressionable individuality, the personality — he who produces the noble and sublime while the common herd remains dull in thought and insensible in feeling.

This subject brings me to that vilest offspring of the herd mind — the odious militia. The man who enjoys marching in line and file to the strains of music falls below my contempt; he received his great brain by mistake — the spinal cord would have been amply sufficient. This heroism at command, this senseless violence, this accursed bombast of patriotism — how intensely I despise them! War is low and despicable, and I had rather be smitten to shreds than participate in such doings.

Such a stain on humanity should be erased without delay. I think well enough of human nature to believe that it would have been wiped out long ago had not the common sense of nations been systematically corrupted through school and press for business and political reasons.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Future

Einstein and his wife Elsa onboard the ship
Belgenland, December 1930.

“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” —Albert Einstein

This aphorism came from an interview onboard the ship Belgenland in December 1930. The Evening Post reported that the welcoming party for Dr. Einstein was “a spectacle unequaled in the history of New York, or, perhaps, the well-known universe.” Einstein jokingly said of the reporters, “These men are like wolves. Every one of them wants to have a bite at me.”

David Senter, a reporter for the International News Service, asked Einstein “Can you explain your theory simply for the masses of America?”

“No, it would take me three days to do it.” was Einstein's reply.

Professor Einstein spoke almost entirely in German, and the barrage of questions and answers were translated for the benefit of the distinguished visitor and reporters by a number of interpreters. When asked whether he had anticipated that the interview would be such a trying ordeal, he quipped “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”

Einstein's future would change dramatically a few years later. In 1933, Einstein was again aboard the Belgenland heading for Berlin when they received word that Adolph Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and that Einstein himself had become a target of assassination by the Nazis. Einstein left the ship in Belgium, vowing never to return to Germany. After emigrating to the United States, Albert Einstein became a U.S. citizen in October 1940.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Truth in the Middle East

“In matters concerning truth and justice there can be no difference between big problems and small; for the general principles which determine the conduct of men are indivisible. Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” —Albert Einstein

Einstein wrote this shortly before his death in April 1955, as part of an unfinished speech he intended to deliver on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Monday, August 19, 2013


“My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of people is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.” —Albert Einstein

From a published interview in Christian Century, August 1928.

Monday, July 29, 2013


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

This famous quote is from an interview with George Viereck that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1929. Here is the relevant passage:

Viereck: “Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?”

Einstein: “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, financed by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.”

Viereck: “Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?”

Einstein: “I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”