Albert and TED

Guest post by Steven Gimbel

We love Albert Einstein, and by “we” I mean most everyone. Fifty-seven years after his death and you can still find everything from T-shirts and bumper stickers to dolls and finger puppets bearing his likeness. Part of this is because he reshaped the way we see the universe in deep and exciting ways; part of this is because he appeals to our sense of individuality (Einstein was not only a genius but also funny, irreverent, and nonconformist). Still another reason is that Einstein was not just a physicist who limited his contributions to equation-laden articles in journals aimed solely at other technicians: he was also a public intellectual.

Einstein commented on issues in religion and ethics, education, politics, economics, war, peace, and social justice. He was not afraid to make his viewpoint on the issues of the day part of the larger cultural discourse. Unfortunately, today’s professoriate fails to follow in Einstein’s footsteps in this way, and we as a culture are worse off for it.

One of Einstein’s legacies was to help make science so complex that only technicians can make sense of cutting-edge questions and understand the methods by which we propose and evaluate answers. Science, like virtually every other academic pursuit, has become hyperspecialized. The entire reward structure of the university today hinges upon the publication of narrowly tailored work accessible to only other technicians. Scientists themselves are no longer generalists even in their own field, but belong to a small community that looks at a subfield, or a sub-subfield, or a corner of a part of a sub-subfield. As a result, academics in general, but scientists specifically, often feel uncomfortable weighing in on social questions that are influenced by their field but not necessarily their specialty. Speaking to the public–and in layman’s terms–about their field is seen by other academics, at best, as playtime on the side and, at worst, as selling out.

But there is hope. On a cross-country flight a few weeks back, I noticed the business-suited men across the aisle from me pull out shiny, new iPads. Nothing notable there. At least it wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of what both were watching—TED talks. It is incredible how these short talks for normal people by our smartest figures have become a part of life. Instead of entertainment being mindless, here we have people seeking out smart and insightful discussions for the sheer pleasure of it.

What TED has managed to do in a relatively short period of time is to use new media to resurrect an old form—the essay. And with the resurgence of the essay comes the reclamation of the cultural place of the essayist.

When I watch TED talks, I cannot help but think of the pieces in Einstein’s books Ideas and Opinions or Out of My Later Years. These collections of popular essays are TED talks a century before TED. They are the works that allowed this genius, whose work seemed to be beyond the comprehension of most, to speak to all. Einstein was a relevant voice and now TED has brought his intellectual grandchildren and great-grandchildren an updated version of his megaphone.

The hope is that this is not a mere fad. Rather, perhaps, we are seeing the place in the popular discourse that had been held by professional thinkers being reoccupied. Raising the level of conversation can only be healthy in a democracy. TED is sitting in the seat occupied by Albert, a seat we need to be filled.

Steven Gimbel is chair of the Department of Philosophy at Gettysburg College. His latest book, Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, will be available from the JHU Press this month. Follow him on his blog, Philosopher’s Playground.

(The views expressed in this guest post belong to the author and in no way reflect the official opinion of the JHU Press.)