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Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian

Professor Don Howard Ph.D.
University of Notre Dame
Course No.  8122
Course No.  8122
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

In May 1905, an unknown 26-year-old Swiss patent clerk wrote to a friend about four scientific papers he had been working on in his spare time. He casually alluded to one as "revolutionary," and he confidently asserted that another would modify the "theory of space and time." He had not yet started on a fifth paper that would also come out in 1905 and that would propose a surprising and earth-shaking equation, E=mc2.

This industrious young office worker was Albert Einstein, and with these papers he irrevocably changed the face of physics. Eventually, he would achieve fame and influence not only as a scientist but also as a philosopher and a humanitarian, involved with some of the most profound issues of the day. So identified has Einstein become with the changes wrought in science and culture in our era that

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In May 1905, an unknown 26-year-old Swiss patent clerk wrote to a friend about four scientific papers he had been working on in his spare time. He casually alluded to one as "revolutionary," and he confidently asserted that another would modify the "theory of space and time." He had not yet started on a fifth paper that would also come out in 1905 and that would propose a surprising and earth-shaking equation, E=mc2.

This industrious young office worker was Albert Einstein, and with these papers he irrevocably changed the face of physics. Eventually, he would achieve fame and influence not only as a scientist but also as a philosopher and a humanitarian, involved with some of the most profound issues of the day. So identified has Einstein become with the changes wrought in science and culture in our era that Time magazine named him the "person of the century" in its December 31, 1999, issue.

Albert Einstein: Physicist, Philosopher, Humanitarian, 24 half-hour lectures by award-winning Professor Don Howard of the University of Notre Dame, presents a wide-ranging intellectual biography of this iconic scientist, genius, and champion of social justice.

Think Like Einstein

More than just a biography of Einstein's life, Albert Einstein provides you with an inside look at how this brilliant thinker arrived at his various revolutionary breakthroughs.

One of the secrets of Einstein's success was that he was well read in philosophy, and that guided his approach not only to framing and solving problems in physics but also to interpreting his discoveries in a more universal context. In addition, his philosophical background gave him the independence of judgment necessary to invent a new physics.

Einstein was the clearest of thinkers, able to cut through conventional views to get to the heart of a matter and achieve astonishing discoveries in the process. According to Professor Howard, retracing the thought processes that led to Einstein's ideas is the key to understanding them.

This is the intellectually exciting strategy you follow in Albert Einstein. Guided by Professor Howard, you reason your way to historic insights such as these:

  • Light has both wave- and particle-like properties.
  • Absolute space and absolute time are meaningless concepts.
  • Gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time.

Each of these ideas sparked a scientific revolution. The first led to quantum physics, which is the comprehensive picture of the world below the atomic scale. The second and third are conclusions from the special and general theories of relativity, which this course explains in nontechnical detail.

In the Laboratory of the Mind

A creative thinker from an early age, Einstein had a knack for finding the perfect picture or thought experiment to express even the most arcane scientific ideas—a quality that makes him unusually accessible to the nonscientist. Einstein later said he always thought about a physics problem first in terms of images. He only later translated those pictures into a mathematical formalism.

Here are some of his well-known thought experiments that you investigate in Albert Einstein:

  • Chasing a light beam: As a teenager, Einstein asked himself what would happen if he moved at the speed of light alongside a beam of light. This conceptual exercise held the germ for the special theory of relativity.
  • Einstein's elevator: Einstein recognized that an observer ascending with constant acceleration, as in an ascending elevator, would not be able to distinguish his situation from one in which he was experiencing the effects of gravity, leading to the "equivalence principle" that underlies his general theory of relativity.
  • EPR paradox: Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, devised a thought experiment that sought to prove quantum mechanics as an incomplete theory and not the final word in fundamental physics.

Albert Einstein features more than 50 animations—many in 3-D—designed specifically for these lectures. The result is a visually rich learning experience that makes Einstein's detailed scientific ideas easy to understand.

The Many Sides of Einstein

Einstein's dynamic life reflects a range of interests and passions that extend beyond the realm of modern physics and into fields like religion, international relations, and social justice. Indeed, Einstein frequently engaged with many of the leading social and political issues of his day. "As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage," notes Professor Howard, "his social and political involvements expanded as well."

The many sides of the man covered in Albert Einstein give you a wealth of insights into his life:

  • Far from being a head-in-the-clouds theoretician, Einstein was an enthusiastic inventor who pioneered a novel airplane wing, a refrigerator without moving parts, and a self-adjusting camera, among other devices.
  • Einstein, a German Jew who fled an increasingly anti-Semitic Germany in 1932, supported the development of a safe haven for displaced Jews in Palestine and of Jewish institutions like Hebrew University. Fearing a large-scale conflict with Palestinian Arabs, however, he did not support a Jewish national state.
  • Theoretical physics in the early 20th century was an emerging field. Einstein's work at the boundaries of science forced him to grapple with the various philosophical issues his work raised. Einstein's philosophies on scientific issues—such as the difference between direct and indirect evidence, the relationship between theory and experience, and the power of mathematical simplicity—were among the most influential of 20th-century science.

Professor Howard closes the course by examining the nature of Einstein's quintessential genius. In a century populated with brilliant scientists, profound philosophers, and selfless humanitarians, how did he come to embody all these qualities and also mean so much more? The rise of the dreamy-looking young man in the patent office in 1905 to the person of the century is worth studying in full.

Einstein: The Whole Man

Professor Howard is uniquely qualified to explore Einstein the whole man, putting Einstein's scientific discoveries into the context of his personal life, his philosophical views, and his outlook on the world. Educated in Physics as an undergraduate, Professor Howard went on to earn a Doctorate in the Philosophy of Science, and he has since devoted his research career to Einstein and his period. Professor Howard has been an assistant editor and a contributing editor for the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, an ongoing series of volumes prepared by the Einstein Papers Project that is shedding new light on all aspects of Einstein's life.

Albert Einstein is a riveting, all-encompassing look at the iconic man who forever altered the way we think about the world. By the conclusion of the course, you'll have become better acquainted with the whole Einstein—his scientific ideas, his personal philosophies, his thought processes, and his impact on both his own time and ours.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    The Precocious Young Einstein
    The aim of these lectures is to explore Einstein the whole person and the whole thinker. You begin with an overview of the course. Then you look at important events in Einstein's life up to the beginning of his university studies in 1896. x
  • 2
    The Development of the Young Physicist
    This lecture follows Einstein's early life up to his "miracle year" of 1905, covering his university training, his love for fellow student Mileva Maric, their marriage following the birth of their daughter, his fruitless search for an academic job, and his employment by the Swiss patent office. x
  • 3
    The Birth of the Quantum Hypothesis
    By his own account, Einstein's most revolutionary idea of 1905 was that light is made of discrete chunks of electromagnetic energy called light quanta, or photons. You examine the background to this radical idea, most importantly, Max Planck's proposal in 1900 of the quantum hypothesis. x
  • 4
    Background to Special Relativity
    The most celebrated of Einstein's 1905 achievements is his special theory of relativity. You survey the classical physics that relativity overturned, particularly Newton's concept of absolute space, which even before Einstein had critics such as the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach. x
  • 5
    Essentials of Special Relativity
    You take a guided tour of the special theory of relativity, which holds that a system's location and speed is well defined only with respect to a specific frame of reference or state of motion of an observer. This simple change of perspective led to Einstein's signature equation, E=mc2 x
  • 6
    From Bern to Berlin
    Between 1905 and 1914, Einstein went from being an obscure clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern to being one of the most prominent scientists in the world. You follow this remarkable transformation and the toll it took on Einstein's marriage to Mileva. x
  • 7
    Background to General Relativity
    Special relativity is "special" in the sense that it is restricted to observers moving with constant relative velocity. Einstein wanted to extend the theory to include accelerated motion. His great insight was that such a "general" theory would incorporate the phenomenon of gravity. x
  • 8
    Essentials of General Relativity
    According to general relativity, gravity is caused by the curvature of space-time, with surprising implications such as the slowing of clocks in strong gravitational fields and the bending of light passing near a massive object like the sun. The latter prediction led to a famous confirmation of general relativity and made Einstein a world figure. x
  • 9
    From Berlin to Princeton
    Einstein worked in Berlin from 1914 to 1933, arriving in triumph but leaving as a refugee from Nazism. The Berlin years saw the publication and confirmation of general relativity, the receipt of a Nobel Prize, and world travel, including visits to the United States, to which Einstein immigrated in 1933. x
  • 10
    Philosophical Challenge of the New Physics
    Relativity and quantum mechanics presented deep challenges to traditional philosophy. You explore responses by philosophers and the logical positivists, along with Einstein's philosophical objection to the randomness of quantum theory. x
  • 11
    Einstein's Philosophy of Science
    Einstein stressed the crucial role of philosophy in physics, arguing that philosophy gives physicists the independence of judgment needed to make revolutionary innovations. In his own work, Einstein combined a deep respect for experimental evidence with a search for simplicity and beauty. x
  • 12
    Zionism, Pacifism, and Internationalism
    As Einstein's growing physics reputation drew him onto a larger public stage, his social and political involvements expanded, encompassing a lonely protest against German war aims during World War I, an embrace of the Zionist cause, and strident advocacy of pacifism throughout the 1920s. x
  • 13
    Einstein the Inventor and Musician
    Einstein was an avid inventor of devices from airfoils to refrigerators. He consulted with industry about gyrocompasses and with the U.S. Navy about undersea mines. Playing the violin was another passion. Both activities shed light on his work as a theoretical physicist. x
  • 14
    On the Road to the New Quantum Mechanics
    Einstein made many contributions to the development of quantum theory. You focus on his efforts to understand the curious way in which two identical quantum systems, such as two photons, lose their separate identities in a phenomenon called quantum entanglement. x
  • 15
    Quantum Mechanics and Controversy
    Einstein was one of the discoverers of quantum theory, but after the mid-1920s he became its most forceful critic. You examine Einstein's objections and his confrontations with fellow physicist Niels Bohr over what Einstein considered to be fundamental flaws in quantum mechanics. x
  • 16
    Einstein in Princeton—The Lonely Quest
    From 1933 until his death in 1955, Einstein lived in Princeton as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study. His research focused on the lonely and ultimately fruitless quest for a unified field theory that would unite electromagnetism and gravitation. x
  • 17
    Is Quantum Mechanics Complete?
    In 1935, Einstein and two collaborators, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published what has since become the most frequently cited paper in the history of physics. You explore this celebrated thought experiment, known as the EPR paradox, in nontechnical terms. x
  • 18
    The Expanding Universe
    Einstein's general theory of relativity is the theoretical framework for all contemporary work in cosmology. Black holes, the big bang, an expanding universe—all are implicit in the equations of general relativity. Ironically, Einstein at first mistrusted some of the most dramatic predictions of his own theory. x
  • 19
    Einstein and the Bomb—Science Politicized
    In 1939, Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt that launched the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb. Scientists had long advised governments, but this effort represented a fundamental shift in the relationship between science and the state. x
  • 20
    From the Manhattan Project to the Cold War
    Einstein came to regret his role in the development of atomic weapons and spent the last decade of his life trying to rein in the ensuing arms race. One of his last public acts, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was arguably the first step toward international cooperation in arms limitation. x
  • 21
    A Lifelong Commitment to Social Justice
    Settling into his new American home in the mid-1930s, Einstein found a new challenge in the fight for racial justice. He took up this and other social causes to such an extent that in the early 1950s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover considered having him deported. x
  • 22
    Cosmic Religion and Jewish Identity
    Einstein wrote often about what he termed "cosmic religion," by which he meant the view that the rational order of nature itself inspires awe and humility akin to the religious spirit. He was strongly influenced in these views by the philosophers Baruch Spinoza and Arthur Schopenhauer. x
  • 23
    Einstein and Modernity
    This lecture explores the larger cultural world that responded so strongly to Einstein and his physics. The spirit of Einstein's reformulation of physical reality is reflected in the artistic experiments of painters such as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and novelists such as Lawrence Durrell. x
  • 24
    The Sage of Princeton—Einstein the Icon
    The sheer intellectual brilliance called genius is central to Einstein's iconic status, but the 20th century was populated with many brilliant scientists. Why did Einstein come to mean so much more? The course concludes by trying to capture the essence that made him unique. x

Lecture Titles

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Don Howard
Ph.D. Don Howard
University of Notre Dame

Dr. Don Howard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and Director of Notre Dame's Graduate Program in History and Philosophy of Science. A graduate of Michigan State University's Honors College and its Lyman Briggs College with a B.Sc. in Physical Science, he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy with a specialization in the philosophy of science from Boston University. Professor Howard has served as an assistant editor and a contributing editor for the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, and he is a founding coeditor of the Einstein Studies series. The author of many papers exploring diverse aspects of Einstein's philosophy of science and his physics, he is preparing a book on Einstein for Blackwell's Great Minds series, designed to explain Einstein's ideas to the general reader. Among his many honors, Professor Howard is a recipient of Notre Dame's Kaneb Teaching Award, recognizing faculty who have consistently demonstrated outstanding teaching. He is now a Fellow of the Center for Einstein Studies at Boston University; a Reilly Fellow in Notre Dame's Reilly Center for Science, Technology, and Values; and a Faculty Fellow in Notre Dame's Nanovic Institute for European Studies. In 2007, Professor Howard was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

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Rated 4.5 out of 5 by 32 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Spacetime of Time's Person of the 20th Century Time Magazine named Albert Einstein as its "Person of the 20th Century". Dr. Howard provides ample supporting information for this choice. He adroitly explains Einstein's physics of relativity (special and general), the photoelectric effect, and contributions to (and objections to) quantum physics. Unlike various biographies or documentaries about Einstein, Dr. Howard also focuses on the philosophical influences on Einstein which led him to pursue his famous "thought experiments" and his clutching to determinism and separability during the famous debates with Bohr and other quantum physicists. Dr. Howard discusses Einstein's role as a humanitarian in aiding Jews to flee Nazi Germany and helping to establish "cultural Zionism", his active Pacificism but pragmatic advocacy of the US development of an atomic bomb before Hitler, and his push for a World Government. While these are well known, we learn that Einstein was also an advocate for African Americans which, along with his position against the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, brought him under the watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover. Dr. Howard adroitly explains the physics that came from Einstein's "miracle year" of 1905, where he published his discoveries on several new theories each of which was Nobel prize worthy. Dr. Howard explains the quantization of light of the photoelectric effect (which won Einstein a Nobel) and special relativity in a comprehensive way but in layman's terms (although the mathematical equations are provided). He is aided by very good animations. In later lectures, Dr. Howard uses similar techniques to explore general relativity and quantum mechanics. The animations he uses to explain the physics are quite well done, therefore the video version of this course is a must to truly learn the physics concepts. Dr. Howard busts the myth of Einstein being a poor student (he wasn't) and of Einstein being an dreamer incapable of the pragmatic (Einstein held patents on several practical inventions). There are several surprises in these lectures as we learn the irony of Einstein's objections to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics as he actually initiated the probabilistic thinking by suggesting that Planck's theory of blackbody radiation could be derived by introducing probabilities of quantum jumps between energy levels in Bohr's atomic model. There are many threads to the Einstein story which Dr. Howard weaves together into a complete tapestry of the complex genius that was Einstein. Dr. Howard presents an intriguing story of the greatest mind of the 20th Century. The course production uses the older set with the "bricks in the window". Dr. Howard skillfully uses the teleprompter to read his prepared text. As a result he stands relatively still behind the lecture and uses relatively closed body language. His vocal inflection is quite good. He is more of an eloquent lecturer than an emphatic or entertaining one. The accompanying course guide is excellent. Lecture summaries are in detailed outline form and are followed by a timeline, biographical sketches, a glossary, and an annotated bibliography. I definitely recommend reading the lecture summaries, particularly those explaining the physics, before listening to the lectures. I would recommend this course to anyone interested in physics or its greatest practitioner since Isaac Newton. But since the course spends as much time on Einstein the person, the philosopher, and the humanitarian this course will appeal to those with an interest in the persona of Einstein equally as well. August 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by The Mind of Our Times Whether your interest in Einstein is due to your interest in physics, or due to your interest in Einstein's achievements in humanitarianism, the span of this course will satisfy you. My own interest was in his technical achievements. My significant other has an abiding interest in his philosophy and social conscience It is rare that one course bridges these interests so completely. Dr. Howard, a professor in Notre Dame's Philosophy department, uses his extensive knowledge of the technology as well as his lecture skills in the field of philosophy to make this an exceptionally rewarding series of lessons. All of us know Einstein by reputation. His Nobel prize, his achievements in physics (especially relativity), his ability to play the violin, his contributions to quantum mechanics, and his discomfort at the implications of that theory enable Doctor Howard to weave a complex story of the reality of modern science. Even those of us who didn't know the details knew that, as a European Jew in the 1930's, he lived under the threat of the anti-semitic threats of the Nazis and cooperating political states. The story of his exit from Germany doesn't have the thrills of a Ludlum novel, but it shows his early dedication to peace and humanity. Doctor Howard does an excellent job of explaining the complex political situation Einstein faced, in Europe and the US. His politics were complicated by his humanitarian motives and his dedication was to mankind, not to any political theory or state. That he ended up in the United States, and outside the reach of the Nazi state, was a piece of luck for the entire planet. Even though the German Physics community had denounced Einstein's work as “Jewish Physics” and unworthy of attention, there were enough competent Germans that eventually their error would have been corrected. Doctor Howard's explanation of Einstein's work in enabling the manufacture of the bomb, and Einstein's discomfort with his role, enables the listener to follow the torture of his soul. The lectures also reminded us that these were the days of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover, black days on America's soul. The man's mind was magnificent. His soul was good. His personal life was full of the same things that bedevil our own lives. Dr. Howard's lecture series expresses the technology and the humanity clearly. We liked this course so much that we weren't willing to share the disks. We live at separate locations and both wanted them handy. The obvious answer was to buy two copies. It worked. She has hers, and I have mine. The world is as it should be. August 5, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Much to like, but... There is much to like in these lectures about Albert Einstein. Professor Howard is very well spoken, which greatly enhances to enjoyability of the course. I found perhaps 70% or 80% of the course to be very educational. The presentation of Einstein's scientific work is geared to someone who is scientifically literate, but not a scientific professional - and it succeeds admirably. Much of the presentation on Einstein's social advocacy and his philosophy is also handled well. However, on a number of occasions, Professor Howard fails to maintain the proper objectivity of a biographer, and tarnishes the course by injecting his personal views about morality, philosophy, and politics. As one particularly annoying example, Professor Howard attacks the "morality" of Einstein's decision to divorce and remarry on at least 10 separate occasions. April 21, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Buy this course!! Oh my goodness. This course is not for the individual who choses not to think and appreciate philosophy as seen by Albert Einstein. This was the most marvelous course I have taken. As an admirer of Einstein and having read about him to some degree, this is the definitive course on this individual. The organization, the discussions all outstanding. It is the "essential Einstein"! I only regret it had to end-for both Albert and the course. November 17, 2013
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