Albert Einstein (14 March 1879 – 18 April 1955) was a German-born theoretical physicist. He developed the theory of relativity, one of the two pillars of modern physics. Einstein’s work is also known for its influence on the philosophy of science. Einstein is best known by the general public for his mass–energy equivalence formula E = mc2. He received the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics “for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect”, a pivotal step in the evolution of quantum theory.
Albert Einstein had two public passions. One was his work: he was a dedicated and ground-breaking scientist. The other was peace, to which he was committed all his life. Until his death, and despite poor health, Einstein spent all energy on peace campaigns.
He said that “my pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred”.
For Einstein, “Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill”. In 1922, Einstein wrote an article in a pacifist handbook, in which he said that “whoever cherishes the values of culture cannot fail to be a pacifist….The natural scientist responds to pacifist aims because of the universal nature of his subject and his dependence on international co-operation. The development of technology has made the economies of the world interdependent, so every war has world-wide effects”.
In the context of the First World War, a prominent German pacifist released in 1914 the ‘Manifesto to Europeans’, which challenged militarism and ‘this barbarous war’ and called for peaceful European unity against it. ‘Educated people in all countries should use their influence to bring about a peace treaty that will not carry the seeds of future wars.’ Only three other people were brave enough to sign this peace manifesto; one of them was Einstein.
After the War, Einstein highlighted the importance of the League of Nations in the following terms: “when we realise the significance of the world’s interdependence, we will be able to gather the energy and goodwill needed to create an organisation that will make war impossible”. He, together with other famous intellectuals, such as Marie Curie, was invited to become a member of the League’s Committee on Intellectual Co-operation, aiming to mobilise international intelligentsia to work for peace.
On the League of Nations’ 10th anniversary in 1930 he said, ‘I am rarely enthusiastic about what the League has accomplished, or not accomplished, but I am always thankful that it exists’.
In 1928 Einstein began to make public his own support for ‘absolute refusal of military service’. With other international pacifists, he signed a manifesto against military conscription.
In a letter to the New York Times in 1945, Einstein quoted recent words of Franklin Roosevelt: ‘We are faced with the pre-eminent fact that if civilisation is to survive we must cultivate the science of human relationship – the ability of peoples of all kinds to live together and work together in the same world, at peace”. Einstein continued saying, ‘we have learned, and paid an awful price to learn, that living and working together can be done in one way only – under law. Unless it prevails, and unless by common struggle we are capable of new ways of thinking, mankind is doomed”.
As to the creation of the United Nations, Einstein outlined that “just as we use our reason to build a dam to hold a river in check, we must now build institutions to restrain the fears and suspicions and greeds which move people and their rulers….We do not have to wait a million years to use our ability to reason. We can and must use it now, or human society will sink into a new and terrible dark age”.
In 1955 Bertrand Russell and Einstein prepared a public declaration about the dangers of nuclear war and suggested that nuclear weapons should be renounced. ‘We have to learn to think in a new way…. We have to learn to ask ourselves what steps can be taken to prevent a military contest disastrous to everyone”. This was one of the last public peace actions led by Einstein.
The idea of creating a World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) was echoed in the 1950s by leading scientists who were concerned about the potential for misuse of scientific discoveries. They included Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Joseph Rotblat; Bertrand Russell, philosopher and pacifist; Joseph Needham, a co-founder of UNESCO; Lord Boyd Orr, the First Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization or George Brock Chisholm, the First Director General of the World Health Organization. The spirit of the academy can be expressed in the words of Albert Einstein: “The creations of our mind shall be a blessing and not a curse to mankind”.