Ideas and Opinions by Albert Einstein

Hard to go wrong with a book written by, in my opinion, the smartest man of the 20th century. The book talks about a little science but is much more focused on Albert's ideas and opinions on economics, religion, politics, philosophy, ethics, and many other topics. 



Everything is designed to save human labor.  Labor is expensive, because the country is sparsely inhabited in comparison with its natural resources.  The high price of labor was the stimulus which evoked the marvelous development of technical devices and methods of work.  The opposite extreme is illustrated by over-populated China or India, where the low price of labor has stood in the way of the development of machinery…Once the machine is sufficiently highly developed it becomes cheaper in the end than the cheapest labor.

I am absolutely convinced that no wealth in the world can help humanity forward, even in the hands of the most devoted worker in this cause.  The example of great and pure individuals is the only thing that can lead us to noble thoughts and deeds. Money only appeals to selfishness and irresistibly invites us abuse.

When we survey our lives and endeavors, we soon observe that almost the whole of our actions and desires is bound up with the existence of other human beings.  We notice that our whole nature resembles that of the social animals.  We eat food that others have produced, wear clothes that others have made, live in houses that others have built.  The greatest part of our knowledge and beliefs has been communicated to us by other people through the medium of a language with others have created.

A man’s value to the community depends primarily on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed toward promoting the good of his fellows.

Without creative personalities able to think and judge independently, the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.

I am convinced that even much more is to be asserted: the concepts which arise in our thought and in our linguistic expressions are all – when viewed logically – the free creations of thought which cannot inductively be gained from sense experiences.

I salute the man who is going through life always helpful, knowing no fear, and to whom aggressiveness and resentment are alien… The attempt to combine wisdom and power has only rarely been successful and then only for a short while.

Without “ethical culture” there is no salvation for humanity.

Desire for approval and recognition is a healthy motive; but the desire to be acknowledged as better, stronger, or more intelligent than a fellow being or fellow scholar easily leads to an excessively egoistic psychological adjustment, which may become injurious for the individual and for the community.

Man owes his strength in the struggle for existence to the fact that he is a socially living animal.  As little as a battle between single ants of an ant hill is essential for survival, just so little is this the case with the individual members of a human community.

One should guard against preaching to the young man success in the customary sense as the aim of life.  For a successful man is he who receives a great deal from his fellowmen, usually incomparably more than corresponds to his service to them.  The value of a man, however, should be seen in what he gives and no in what he is able to receive.

The most important motive for work in the school and in life is the pleasure in work, pleasure in its result, and the knowledge of the value of the result to the community.

If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical work.  This is also analogous to the training of the mind and the exercising of the mental and manual skill.

It is not enough to teach man a specialty.  Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality.  It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values.  He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good.  Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person.  He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.

Knowledge exists in two forms – lifeless, stored in books, and alive in the consciousness of men.

I do not consider myself the father of the release of atomic energy.  My part in it was quite indirect.  I did not, in fact, foresee that it would be released in my time.  I believed only that it was theoretically possible.  It became practical through the accidental discovery of chain reaction, and this was not something I could have predicted.  It was discovered by Hahn in Berlin, and he himself misinterpreted what he discovered.  It was Lise Meitner who provided the correct interpretation, and escaped from Germany to place the information in the hands of Niels Bohr.

I say this to stress that the American government must keep the control of atomic energy, not because socialism is necessarily desirable, but because atomic energy was developed by the government, and it would be unthinkable to turn over this property of the people to any individuals or groups of individuals.

To act intelligently in human affairs is only possible if an attempt is made to understand the thoughts, motives, and apprehensions of one’s opponent so fully that one can see the world through his eyes.  All well-meaning people should try to contribute as much as possible to improving such mutual understanding.

I also believe that capitalism, or, we should say, the system of free enterprise, will prove unable to check unemployment, which will become increasingly chronic because of technological progress and unable to maintain a healthy balance between production and the purchasing power of the people.  On the other hand we should not make the mistake of blaming capitalism for all existing social and political evils, and of assuming that the very establishment of socialism would be able to cure all the social and political ills of humanity.

By painful experience we have learned that rational thinking does not suffice to solve the problems of our social life.  Penetrating research and keen scientific work have often had tragic implications for mankind, producing, on the one hand, inventions which liberated man from exhausting physical labor, making his life easier and richer; but on the other hand, introducing a grave restlessness into his life, making him a slave to his technological environment, and – most catastrophic of all – creating the means for his own mass destruction.  This, indeed, is a tragedy of overwhelming poignancy!

Mankind can only gain protection against the danger of unimaginable destruction and wanton annihilation if a supranational organization has alone the authority to produce or possess these weapons.

Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult socio-political problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralization of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening?  How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?

A UN radio interview on June 16, 1950:

Q: Is it an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world is hanging in the balance?

A: No exaggeration

Q. How can we awaken all the people to the seriousness of the moment?

A. I believe this can be answered.  A remedy can’t be found in preparing for the event of war, but in starting from the conviction that security from military disaster can be realized only by patient negotiation and through creation of a legal basis for the solution of international problems, supported by a sufficiently strong executive agency – in short, a kind of world government.

Q.  Can we prevent war?

A. There is a very simple answer.  If we have the courage to decide ourselves for peace, we will have peace.

Q. How?

A. By the firm will to reach agreement.  This is axiomatic.  We are not engaged in a play but in a condition of utmost danger to existence.  If you are not firmly decided to resolve things in a peaceful way, you will never come to a peaceful solution. 

Q. What would you suggest doing with the present supply of atom bombs already stockpiled?

A.  Give it to a supranational organization.  During the interval before solid peace one must have some protecting power.  One-sided disarmament is not possible; this is out of the question.  Arms must be entrusted only to a n international authority.  There is no other possibility…systematic disarmament connected with supranational government.  One must not look too technically on the problem of security.  The will to peace and the readiness to accept every step needed for this goal are most important.

My part in producing the atomic bomb consisted in a single act: I signed a letter to President Roosevelt, pressing the need for experiments on a large scale in order to explore the possibilities for the production of an atomic bomb.  I was fully aware of the terrible danger to mankind in case this attempt succeeded.  But the likelihood that the Germans were working on the same problem with a chance of succeeding forced me to this step.  I could do nothing else although I have always been a convinced pacifist.  To my mind, to kill in war is not a whit better than to commit ordinary murder.

In political life I see two opposed tendencies at work, locked in constant struggle with each other.  The first, optimistic trend proceeds from the belief that the free unfolding of the productive forces of individuals and groups essentially leads to a satisfactory state of society.  It recognizes the need for a central power, placed above groups and individuals, but concedes to such power only organizational and regulatory functions.  The second, pessimistic trend assumes that free interplay of individuals and groups leads to the destruction of society; it thus seeks to base society exclusively upon authority, blind obedience, and coercion.  Actually this trend is pessimistic only to a limited extent: for it is optimistic in regard to those who are, and desire to be, the bearers of power and authority.  The adherents of this second trend are the enemies of the free groups and of education for independent thought.  They are, moreover, the carriers of political anti-Semitism.

And so it will remain in the future, if we cling to the rule: Beware of flatterers, especially when they come preaching hatred.

As long as I have any choice, I will only stay in a country where political liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.  Political liberty implies the freedom to express one’s political opinions orally and in writing; tolerance implies respect for any and every individual opinion.

Any social organism can become physically distempered just as any individual can, especially in times of difficulty.

And yet the learned societies of Germany have, to the best of my knowledge, stood by and said nothing while a not inconsiderable proportion of German scholars and subtends and also  of academically trained professionals have been deprived of all chance of getting employment or earning a living in Germany.  I do not wish to belong to any society which behaves in such a manner, even if it does so under external pressure.

[On the Holocaust] The Germans as an entire people are responsible for these mass murders and must be punished as a people if there is justice in the world and if the consciousness of collective responsibility in the nations is not to perish from the earth entirely.  Behind the Nazi party stands the German people, who elected Hitler after he had in his book and in his speeches made his shameful intentions clear beyond the possibility of misunderstanding.  The Germans are the only people who have not made any serious attempt of counteraction leading to the protection of the innocently persecuted.  When they are entirely defeated and begin to lament over their fate, we must not let ourselves be deceived again, but keep in mind that they deliberately used the humanity of others to make preparation for their last and most grievous crime against humanity.

I believe with Schopenhauer that one of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires.  A finely tempered nature longs to escape from personal life into the world of objective perception and thought; this desire may be compared with the townsman’s irresistible longing to escape from his noise, cramped surroundings into the silence of high mountains, where the eye ranges freely through the still, pure, air and fondly traces out the restful contours apparently build for eternity.

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it.  This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion.  Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction.  There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.

The vertical speed of a free body in the gravitational field increases uniformly with time.

The logical completeness of Newton’s conceptual system lay in this, that the only causes of the acceleration of the masses of a system are these masses themselves.

Newton succeeded in explaining the motions of the planets, moons, and comets down to the smallest details, as well as the tides and the processional movement of the earth – a deductive achievement of unique magnificence.  The discovery that the cause of the motions of the heavenly bodies is identical with the gravity with which were so familiar from everyday life must have been particularly impressive.

According to Newton’s system, physical reality is characterized by the concepts of space, time, material point, and force (reciprocal action of material points).

We reverence ancient Greece as the cradle of western science.  Here for the first time the world witnessed the miracle of a local system which proceeded from step to stop with such precision that every single one of its propositions was absolutely indubitable – I refer to Euclid’s geometry.  This admirable triumph of reasoning gave the human intellect the necessary confidence in itself for its subsequent achievements.  If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker.


Pure logical thinking cannot yield us any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.  Propositions arrived at by purely logical means are completely empty as regards reality.

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.

The general theory of relativity owes its origin to the attempt to explain a fact known since Galileo’s and Newton’s time but hitherto eluding all theoretical interpretation: the inertia and the weight of a body, in themselves two entirely distinct things, are measured by one and the same constant, the mass.  From this correspondence follows that it is impossible to discover by experiment whether a given system of coordinates is accelerated, or whether its motion is straight and uniform and the observed effects are due to a gravitational field (this is the equivalence principle of the general relativity theory)

Instead of a model description of actual space-time events, [quantum mechanics] gives the probability distributions for possible measurements as functions of time.

336 Some physicists, among them myself, cannot believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in space and time; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance. (Einstein’s view on Quantum mechanics which he didn’t believe in at first)

It is open to very man to choose the direction of his striving; and also every man may draw comfort from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession.

But if every gram of material contains this tremendous energy (evidenced by the atomic bomb and Einstein’s famous e=mc^2 formula), why did it go so long unnoticed? The answer is simple enough: so long as none of the energy is given off externally, it cannot be observed.  It is as though a man who is fabulously rich should never spend or give away a cent; no one could tell how rich he was.

The atom M is a rich miser who, during his life, gives away no money (energy).  But in his will he bequeaths his fortune to his sons M1 and M2, on condition that they give to the community a small amount, less than one-thousandth of the whole estate (energy or mass). The sons together have somewhat less than the father had (the mass sum M1 + M2 is somewhat smaller than the Mass M of the radioactive atom).  But the part given to the community, though relatively small, is still so enormously large (considered as kinetic energy) that it brings with it a great threat of evil.  Averting that threat has become the most urgent problem of our time.

Why do we devise theories at all?  The answer to the latter question is simply: because we enjoy “comprehending,” i.e., reducing phenomena by the process of logic to something already known or (apparently) evident.

There exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music.  That passion is rather common in children, but gets lost in most people later on.

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