Saturday, March 8, 2008

The fascinating parallels between two 20th century geniuses: Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein

by Kevin D. Johnson, Your Black World Contributor and Publisher of AUC Magazine

As I learn more about the great minds of the 20th century by reading in-depth biographies, I realize that popular culture often has the unfortunate effect on shaping the ideas and thoughts that we have about our country’s most important heroes. From a financial company that carelessly uses the image of penny-pinching Ben Franklin, to a brewery that peddles images of American patriot Samuel Adams to gain more loyal customers, it seems as if such desecration is becoming more common. As a result, we begin to recognize American icons in the most simplistic and incomplete ways. Such is the case with Martin Luther King, Jr., the charismatic leader of oppressed black people, and Albert Einstein, the spike-haired scientist responsible for the most famous equation in modern science: E = mc2.

With a closer look, the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Einstein reveal much more than the watered-down and sometimes sacrilegious portrayals of both men found in modern media. Martin Luther King, Jr. represented so much more than black civil rights in the 1960s. Likewise, Albert Einstein was so much more than a brilliant theoretical physicist. After exploring the lives of these individuals and their true passions, I stumbled upon the fascinating parallels between the two; something that because of my cursory understanding of them, I never thought was possible. My discovery –though nothing extraordinary– was at the least inspiring.

Of the many parallels I found, three stood out as the most interesting and lesser-known. The first commonality is that both men believed in absolutism. In his sermon entitled “Rediscovering Lost Values”, King speaks unequivocally about his belief that there are moral absolutes just as there are physical absolutes. “There are moral laws of the universe just as abiding as the physical laws… Because we unconsciously know that there is a final law of gravitation… even if we don't know it in its Newtonian formulation…we just don't jump off the highest building in Detroit for the fun of it… Some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so.”

Similarly, Einstein believed in the absolute physical world. His amazing theory of relativity was one of the most misinterpreted theories in scientific history. The Relativity Theory does not purport that “everything is relative”, especially in a moral sense. Instead it posits, in the realm of science only, that spacetime remains invariant in all inertial frames. In fact, Einstein considered calling his creation the Invariance Theory. Later in life, he struggled to find a unified field theory that would further prove the invariance and structure of the physical world. He would search for the answer unsuccessfully until his very last breath.

Second, both men were outspoken pacifists and supported the idea of democratic socialism. Though in the 1960s it was unpopular to protest the Vietnam War and by doing so directly challenge the policy of the United States , King vociferously denounced all forms of war and violence. His adversaries believed that criticizing the military policy of the United States was un-American and that he should stay within his lot: civil rights for Negroes. King had a bigger vision for his movement and proceeded to broaden his message to include advocating equal distribution of wealth on behalf of poor people. King paid the ultimate high price for his democratic socialist beliefs, provoking even more public ridicule and intrusion by the FBI. Some would argue that not until King preached a message of “reconstruction of society itself” was he doomed.

Likewise, Einstein had a strong aversion to militarism and jingoism from an early age, so much so that he renounced his German citizenship at the age of seventeen. Growing up a Jew in Europe during the early part of the 20th century shaped Einstein’s political ideology. He witnessed first-hand the effects of the First World War that eventually led to Hitler coming to power in 1933 and the expulsion of millions of persecuted Jews from Europe . Many criticized Einstein for meddling in international political affairs, but his sincere passion for establishing world peace equaled that of his scientific aspirations during the latter portion of his life. His much lesser-known passion was evinced by his unwavering support of antiwar organizations and numerous public speeches against war. Like King, Einstein admired Ghandi (he hung a picture of him in his office) and urged the use of civil disobedience to resist war and injustice. As a result of Einstein’s support of pacifist ideas, he too fought false accusations of being a communist. Einstein’s FBI dossier contained 1,427 pages, none of which recorded any incriminating evidence. Though not a supporter of pure socialism, he did believe that the combination of democratic and socialist ideas was the ideal political system.

Third and most importantly, both men defied conventional thinking, and by doing so greatly expanded the limits of our social and physical world. As a world watched peaceful organizers march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma , Alabama only to suffer at the hands of a violent mob of policemen, many questioned the non-violent tactics employed by King and his followers to fight the evils of segregation. Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s was civil disobedience used on a mass scale in the United States . Though the idea of civil disobedience was not his creation, King was able to utilize an unconventional tactic to successfully fight against racial injustice and precipitate the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In the same way, Einstein’s genius can be found in the way his mind worked, not necessarily in the end result. For example, Einstein imagined what it would be like to race beside a beam of light. His creative thought experiments served as the basis for his theories including the Theory of Special Relativity and the Law of the Photoelectric Effect. Such radical thinking based on a deductive approach formed the theoretical basis that enabled the development of several technological breakthroughs such as the atom bomb and laser (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Einstein’s ability to conjure up the most creative thought experiments, which eventually were verified through mathematical and empirical proof, was revolutionary. All throughout his life he was a nonconformist, and therefore advocated tolerance of free thought.

Finally, I do not know if Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Einstein ever had the opportunity to meet each other. However, I am sure that the two Nobel Prize winners would revel in each other’s company. Perhaps King would thank Einstein for hosting contralto Marian Anderson at his house because the Nassau Inn refused her a room when she visited Princeton for a performance. Maybe Einstein would commend King for his fight for human rights and engage him in a conversation about the most effective means to prevent nuclear proliferation. Regardless of how that meeting would have gone, I am sure of one thing: it would have been a beautiful fusion of genius. Simply put, the individual accomplishments of King and Einstein will forever secure their names in history, but when compared to one another reveal an unexpected commonality of unabashed resolve, social consciousness, and intellectual genius that is ever more inspiring.

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