When science gets ugly – the story of Philipp Lenard and Albert Einstein

June 17, 2015 by Richard Gunderman, The Conversation
The dispute between Philipp Lenard and Albert Einstein sheds considerable light on the power of nonscientific concerns to sway scientists. Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are not always as scientific as many suppose. Recent well-publicized cases of scientific fraud prove that scientists can be as susceptible to the allures of wealth, power and fame as politicians, the group that enjoys the lowest public trust. Glaring recent cases have included falsified results in the development of an HIV vaccine and new techniques for producing stem cells.

Such breaches prove that scientists do not always base their work strictly on rigorous experimentation, data collection and analysis, and hypothesis testing. In fact, scientists frequently disagree with one another, both as individuals and as representatives of competing schools of thought. Some of these debates rage on for years. Superstring theory, sometimes called the "theory of everything," has been a topic of vigorous contention for over 30 years.

In some cases, personalities, prejudices and petty jealousies enter the picture. Consider, for example, one of the great disputes of 20th-century physics, the long-running feud between two world-renowned physicists. The antagonism between Philipp Lenard and Albert Einstein sheds considerable light on the power of nonscientific concerns to sway scientists.

Philipp Lenard (1862-1947) was a German experimental physicist who advanced the study of X-ray tubes, the and atomic theory. His results led him to propose (correctly) that most of the atom is composed of empty space. Lenard was a genius, operating with a deep conviction that only careful experimentation could advance the understanding of the structure of the universe. Lenard received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1905 for his work on cathode rays.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who needs little introduction, was a Swiss theoretical physicist who developed the theories of special relativity, general relativity, mass-energy equivalence (E = mc2), and the photoelectric effect – the latter relying on key experimental results furnished by the work of Lenard. Amazingly, Einstein made many of his seminal contributions not like Lenard, while running a laboratory at a prestigious university, but while working as a low-level Swiss patent clerk. Einstein won the Nobel prize in physics in 1921 for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.

Initially, the relationship between Lenard and Einstein seems to have been cordial. Their correspondence suggests that each held the other in high admiration. When Einstein published his quantum theory explaining the photoelectric effect, Lenard wrote to him, "Nothing can make me happier than a thinker of great depth and scope deriving some pleasure from my work." Einstein, in turn, referred to Lenard as "a great master and genius."

But as detailed in a recent book,The Man Who Stalked Einstein, their relationship soon deteriorated. In a letter to a friend a few years later, Einstein expressed a quite different view of Lenard, who was then regarded by many as the most celebrated physicist in Germany:

His theories on the ether seem to me almost infantile, and some of his investigations border on the ludicrous. I am very sorry that you must waste your time with such stupidities.

Lenard, meanwhile, was soon swept along in a wave of German nationalism that accompanied World War I. He became increasingly convinced of the existence of a distinctively German physics that needed to be defended against the plagiarized or frankly fabricated work emanating from other countries. Lenard also became more and more mired in anti-Semitism, accusing the "Jewish press" of, among other things, promoting Einstein's dangerous work on relativity.

In 1920, just a year before Einstein won the Nobel Prize, the debate between Lenard and Einstein erupted into a duel of words at a major German research conference.

Lenard argued that Einstein's hyper-theoretical and hyper-mathematical approach to physics was exerting a pernicious influence in the field. The time had come, he argued, to restore experimentalism to its proper place. He also launched a malicious attack on Einstein, making little attempt to conceal his antipathy toward Jews.

Lenard's attacks on Einstein became increasingly vitriolic. He compared theoretical physicists to Cubist painters, who in his view were "unable to paint decently." He lamented the fact that a "Jewish spirit" had come to rule over physics. Of Einstein himself, whose ideas had been accepted by many of the most prominent physicists around the world, Lenard opined, "Just because a goat is born in a stable does not make him a noble thoroughbred."

Einstein initially attempted to respond to Lenard's attacks on his theory of relativity with humor:

"When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second, but when you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That's relativity."

Later, he abandoned all pretense of patience and tolerance, labeling Lenard "a really twisted fellow" who must continue "to do business with the monster until he bites the dust."

Lenard's conviction that science, "like everything else man produces," was somehow grounded in bloodlines led him to become one of the early adherents of National Socialism. Unlike many German scientists who regarded Adolf Hitler with disdain, Lenard was one of his most fervent supporters, and became the regime's number one physics authority. Ironically, the National Socialists' disdain for "Jewish physics" was one of the main reasons they did not develop nuclear weapons.

Lenard directed his invective at other scientists. He grew extremely resentful of the credit accorded to Wilhelm Roentgen, who received the first Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of the X-ray, despite the fact that Roentgen was German and a non-Jew. Lenard wrote that he, not Roentgen, was the "mother of the X-rays," since he had invented the apparatus used to produce them. He likened Roentgen's role to that of a "midwife" who merely assists with the birth.

Lenard eventually became "Chief of Aryan Physics" under the Nazi regime. In 1933 he published a book called "Great Men in Science," which omitted all mention of Einstein, Roentgen and such other notable 20th-century scientists as Marie Curie. When World War II ended, Lenard's prominent role in the Nazi regime led to his arrest, but he was quite advanced in years. Instead of being sentenced to prison, he was sent to live in a small German village, where he died at age 83.

The story of Philipp Lenard reminds us that even scientists of the very highest caliber sometimes think, speak and act in utterly unscientific ways, swayed by prejudices that have no scientific basis. They are human beings too, and members of the general public need to be careful to distinguish between a scientist whose arguments are based in evidence and one whose pronouncements stem from other, less reliable sources of conviction.

Explore further: Science historian tells a timely story about Einstein and his most dangerous critic

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25 comments

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docile
Jun 17, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
DarkLordKelvin
4.6 / 5 (11) Jun 17, 2015
The title of this article is flawed; it should read, "Einstein was semi-stalked by a racist, antisemitic nutjob named Lenard, who also happened to be pretty good at experimental physics. Einstein tried to be reasonable at first, but eventually gave up because even a transcendent genius is only gonna put up with so much B.S. from a lesser mind bent on unobjective, politically motivated persecution."

Ok, that's kind of long, but it's still quite a bit better than what's up there.
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2015
So, if physicist left bigotry behind, we might have had the calculus 2100 years ago! Now we can barely understand what is right before our eyes! It all starts with Maxwell not GR!
gkam
3 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2015
All that envy of the real achievers seems to be a Teutonic characteristic. I have seen it before, in the ravings of the revenge-obsessed fantasies of those unable to control themselves.
docile
Jun 17, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (4) Jun 17, 2015
Mass poorly defined, + and - charge defined with this poor definition, QM with same, anti-particle poorly defined, there only exist + and - charge and the field. GR is nonsense, Lambda emitted passes us in 1/ Measured frequency seconds, i.e. Red Shift, no limits. An atom with the negative charge in the center and rotating + charges will be unstable within a field of rotating negative charges, ant-matter defined. An entire galaxy of "backward" atoms may exist, not anti-matter, a different state of known matter. Waves are generated by particle motion and wave mat cause particle motion but waves, no matter how defined from a plane wave to a narrow bream, it is never a particle. We must correct our poor definitions applied in physics instead of assigning a Noble to what we think instead of what we know? Assigning mass to the sub-atomic particles is ludicrous, mass is a measure of the mass of particles and does not transform to the particles attributes, ...
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2015
Unified field theory, Maxwell, defined. Empty space is empty, so replace with the space defined as the charge and the field. Only one puzzle.

What exactly is charge?

So generate the 4D space of the field. Use the same unit upon the 4D space and defined the attributes of each point. use lambda nu = c, and defined each dimension as lambda or 1/nu. Each point is calculable from a known state. Simulate or seek a space that defines measurement. Then say QED!

Don't forget Formal Logic and Mathematical Truth! This implies that mass is unnecessary!
gkam
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 17, 2015
"This implies that mass is unnecessary!"
-----------------------------------

I had that very argument with a nun in catechism. I was very naive.
arom
Jun 18, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (7) Jun 18, 2015
Recent well-publicized cases of scientific fraud prove that scientists can be as susceptible to the allures of wealth, power and fame as politicians

Hold on a sec. When the ratio of fraud among scientists reaches that among politicians then we can talk about "as susceptible as". Currently that is not nearly the case.

Of yourse scientists, like all humans, can contract human diseases (like dementia, alzheimer, schizophrenia, depression, brain tumors, etc.) that can change a character completely.

All that envy of the real achievers seems to be a Teutonic characteristic.

I dunno. Seems to be a matter of time and place. I'm pretty sure you can find similar characters in the McCarthy era (or under Stalin).
Whydening Gyre
4.9 / 5 (7) Jun 18, 2015
All that envy of the real achievers seems to be a Teutonic characteristic. I have seen it before, in the ravings of the revenge-obsessed fantasies of those unable to control themselves.

As a 3/4 German (Teutonic), I find that statement a little (almost) racist and over the top...
gkam
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2015
WG, I apologize for including you with the particular folk I was thinking of at the time.
Noumenon
5 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2015
Recent well-publicized cases of scientific fraud prove that scientists can be as susceptible to the allures of wealth, power and fame as politicians

Hold on a sec. When the ratio of fraud among scientists reaches that among politicians then we can talk about "as susceptible as". Currently that is not nearly the case.


I don't think the author was making a numerical comparison,.... nor was mention of fraud made,... but merely that such predilections are a function of the person rather than the field one is in.

rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2015
The issue is using domestic language as mathematically correct does not fit into the universe of discourse of the Formal Logic. I can give you a list and the logic to define truth. The self referent statements are allowed in fuzzy logic and are mostly half truths unless defined by other statements. However, to allow "Proof" I define a subset Formal Logic, i.e. defuzzify. Other logic may be defined, such as a sorting algorithm, or an AI perspective of truth. But never are we to use fuzzy statements within the Formal Logic. Hence, Modern Physics is naive.
DarkLordKelvin
5 / 5 (8) Jun 18, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen, another word salad of unsourced, unsupported and unexplained math & physics claims, courtesy of RGW.
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2015
WG, I apologize for including you with the particular folk I was thinking of at the time.

Thanks, G...
It's not just me, tho... There are others who might take umbrage...
Anyway, the 1/4 Scot in me would just tell ya to fark off...;-)
And then go play some golf and drink whiskey...
Whydening Gyre
5 / 5 (4) Jun 18, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen, another word salad of unsourced, unsupported and unexplained math & physics claims, courtesy of RGW.

He does have a certain with words, doesn't he....

Rufus,
Were you aware that languages, modern or otherwise, ARE mathematics in action?
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen, another word salad of unsourced, unsupported and unexplained math & physics claims, courtesy of RGW.

He does have a certain with words, doesn't he....

Rufus,
Were you aware that languages, modern or otherwise, ARE mathematics in action?


Define what you are talking about, scientifically.
Your last statement has no meaning.
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (1) Jun 18, 2015
Lets all give logic a fair try, huh?
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2015
Ladies and Gentlemen, another word salad of unsourced, unsupported and unexplained math & physics claims, courtesy of RGW.


This comment is indicative of non-evolved humans, "non-" because it appears based upon a bias, i.e. self defined. The same as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, if A is true the B is unacceptable! This logic has no basis. The comment is simply mute. Something like noise!

Lacking worth!
gkam
3.7 / 5 (3) Jun 18, 2015
"The comment is simply mute."
---------------------------------

Or moot.
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (2) Jun 18, 2015
"The comment is simply mute."
---------------------------------

Or moot.


Yeah, you get it. Maybe we should get an English teacher to define physics, at least they follow syntax.
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Jun 19, 2015
I don't think the author was making a numerical comparison,.... nor was mention of fraud made,... but merely that such predilections are a function of the person rather than the field one is in.

That any person can be fraudulent is not the thing I was taking issue with. It's with the statement that conflates a positive correlation between fraudulent behavior (politicians are more likley to be fraudulent than the average human) with a negative correlation (scientists are less likely to be fraudulent than the average human).

The type of job you take (given choice between many jobs) does say something about what type of person you are.
KBK
1 / 5 (2) Jun 22, 2015
It's almost as if this is a set-up, a 'hit piece' to prepare for the onslaught against the Japanese giants of Mitsubishi Heavy industries, and Toyota motors corporation. Between them, that's $250 billion in corporate might.

(the article as dark corporate Politics in play, in order to lay the scenario into the public eye)

They have patented successful methods of transmutation, ie LENR based transmutation.

They came in via the works of Walter Gerlach of Germany, and the works of Professor Nagaoka, of Japan. Both works based in experimentalism, of the 1920's.

The results speak on simple matter conversion as the norm, not the exception. To tickle the structures correctly, with no radiation issues or whatnot.

Simple table top apparatus, and we have elemental transform.

This is exactly what these two industrial giants are saying is true, and they back it utterly.

They have patented processes for doing exactly that.

Once that door opens -elitist control is finished.
rufusgwarren
1 / 5 (1) Jun 22, 2015
It is simply human nature, a desire to be productive with "false" teachings, PhD Theoretical Physics, without the use of hard work, simulation, wisdom (poor professors). Compare to modern TV! Count the number of individuals that do not use "New Physics" or Dark matter or Gluons and Sh#t like that. You will need to back up a hundred years to remove the SYFY! The media misconglomerated physics. The internalized falsehoods are rampant, a sort of proof of self worth while taking measurements with-out the scientific method. The acceptance of GR was without knowledge and wisdom. Anti-antisemitism of that age of inverted political correctness (human insanity and bias). Noting to do with real physics, only a measurement previously taken and GR adjusted to fit. Make-believe! The fission Bomb! Think! This was easy! Nothing to do with GR! Why do we keep hitting ourselves in the head with this heavy hammer!? Exotic for effect but not-realism!

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