I have seen creeping into recent discussions of the TV show ‘Cosmos’ the idea that we scientists, because of our greater knowledge and understanding of how the natural world works, will somehow be intrinsically better when it comes to dealing with matters of ethics, politics or religion. I beg to differ.
In my own self-study for the History of Maths lectures I was giving, I came across Hermann Weyl (1885 – 1995). He made one of the most important contributions to introducing group theory into physics, and his book Space, Time, Matter (Dover Books on Physics) – the German original appeared in 1918 – is one of the great classics. Reading his biography, I came across this:
Those familiar with the serious and portly figure of Weyl at Princeton would have hardly recognised the slim, handsome young man of the twenties, with his romantic black moustache. His wife, Helene Joseph, from a Jewish background, was a philosopher and literateuse. Her friends called her Hella, and a certain daring and insouciance made her the unquestioned leader of the social set comprising the scientists and their wives. Anny [Schrödinger’s wife] was almost an exact opposite of the stylish and intellectual Hella, but perhaps for that reason [Weyl] found her interesting and before long she was madly in love with him. ... The special circle in which they lived in Zurich had enjoyed the sexual revolution a generation before [the United States]. Extramarital affairs were not only condoned, they were expected, and they seemed to occasion little anxiety. Anny would find in Hermann Weyl a lover to whom she was devoted body and soul, while Weyl’s wife Hella was infatuated with Paul Scherrer.
But his exploits in that area pale in comparison with those of Erwin Schrödinger (1887 – 1961):
On the personal side Schrödinger had two further daughters while in Dublin, to two different Irish women. He remained in Dublin until he retired in 1956 when he returned to Vienna and wrote his last book Meine Weltansicht (1961) expressing his own metaphysical outlook.
Outlook from where, one wonders. At least that solves the problem of the cat – it was never in the box at all, but out on the tiles!
The ‘special circle’ described above was at ETH Zürich. In the first year of Weyl’s time there, he was a colleague of someone much more famous, perhaps the greatest scientist of the 20th Century.
Now Uncle Albert is perhaps not famous enough for his scientific achievements, because in addition to the two Theories of Relativity he made so many contributions elsewhere. The list in his Wikipedia biography would go over many people’s heads.
However, one could well find oneself on surer ground in disagreeing with some of his views on matters outside science. Some years ago this appeared in the press:
Einstein’s theory of fidelity 11 Jul 2006 - Letters have been made public which show the Nobel laureate Albert Einstein had a string of lovers and discussed philandering with [his second]wife.
(Though regarding his first wife, some Feminists appear to have taken matters too far, and accused him of taking undue credit for intellectual input into his theories which were due to her. But I think this notion is largely and reasonably dismissed.)
However, if at least two of these men were viewed simply as people, apart from their scientific achievement, they might appear more like those characters in soap operas we love to hate.
And looking at all three scientists I have focussed on here, one asks: “Would a parent be happy for their daughter to marry a man like that?”
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There is an anecdote concerning Einstein, but the only place I can find it (probably because I don’t know the original wording) is in the Huffington Post:
Einstein famously declined a 1952 invitation to become young Israel’s president describing politics as ‘for the meantime’ where an equation (science) is forever.
I don’t totally disagree with this historical perspective: after all, today the main claim to fame for Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo is that of having provided unsatisfactory working conditions for Mozart.
But the great fallacy that today’s scientists are fostering parallels that of the Oscars (those exercises in group narcissism), which is:
“Because we deal in beautiful things, this makes us beautiful people”.
I am reminded of the following take on a 1960s advertising slogan for Rexona, a deodorant known as Sure in the UK and Ireland, and Degree in the USA of America and Canada.
He: “It’s nice to know you’re nice to know.”
She: “Especially if you’re NOT nice to know!”