“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution.” ―Attributed to Albert Einstein

Intellectual Independence

Nearing the end of his life, the great scientist and thinker Albert Einstein reflected on the question of intellectual independence. “If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living,” he wrote to The Reporter magazine, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances” (November 18, 1954). His remarks were widely quoted at the time. Shortly afterward, the Plumbers and Steamfitters Union local in Washington, D.C., awarded Einstein an honorary membership. The Nobel laureate was especially pleased with this honor.

Less pleased were the four members of the Moss family of Brooklyn, New York. My father, Nat, had dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, and because of economic necessity had gone into the watch parts business. But he put a high value on academic achievement. My older brother, Bob, was busily sending out college applications, the first person in our family to do so.

Einstein’s Statement

We discussed Einstein’s statement, with growing consternation, over the dinner table. At my father’s urging, Bob then typed the following letter to “Dear Doctor Einstein”:

  • “I am a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and am now preparing to enter college. I have always been interested in science and was hoping to continue my education in college in the scientific field. I recently read in the newspaper that you stated that if you were again a young man facing the future that you would not choose the scientific field but that you would rather be a tradesman such as a plumber or an electrician. I am naturally very disturbed about this as you have been my idol and I am wondering if you have been misquoted by the newspaper. Won’t you please answer this letter and help me in this matter?”

The letter was mailed on a Friday. On Monday, Bob received the following reply:

  • “Dear Sir: I received your letter of December 10th. Baruch Spinoza was wholly devoted to the striving for truth and knowledge. But he refused a professorship at the University of Heidelberg and preferred to earn his living as a lens-grinder in order to keep his independence. One can well compare the present situation with that of Spinoza’s time. Sincerely yours, (signed) A. Einstein.”

Einstein Answered

The fact that Einstein answered a 16-year-old boy was itself astonishing. But what struck us, even more, was the speed with which he had replied. Bob’s letter had been sent on December 10th. The envelope, with its embossed 112 Mercer St. return address, had been postmarked in Princeton, New Jersey, on December 12, which was a Sunday. We received our reply the very next day. Truly, nothing in those days could stay the couriers of the US Postal Service from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

What is more, it seemed obvious to us that the letter had been typed by Einstein himself. No secretary had added his or her initials at the bottom. There were also certain German-flavored idioms in the text. For instance, he had initially used the word ‘gründer’ but had then neatly substituted the English word ‘grinder’ in its place. Although it was well known that Einstein had a secretary, Helen Dukas, this letter seemed to have been typed and mailed by him personally, perhaps because he wrote it in haste over the weekend.

The Message

Of course, what was most important was the message. But what did it mean? It seemed enigmatic and even counter-intuitive. The great Einstein urged ambitious boys and girls to become…plumbers?!

We pored over each word of the text as if it were Holy Writ. Who was this Spinoza? Collier’s Encyclopedia referred to him as Benedict Spinoza – so why did Einstein refer to him by this unfamiliar Hebrew name, Baruch? Why would a great philosopher refuse a professorship at a famous university and become a tradesman? Why would Einstein urge young people to follow this rather dubious example? What was this contradiction that Einstein alluded to between “striving for truth and knowledge” and attaining high academic awards? What was so important about independence?

The Einstein letter was an important part of my intellectual awakening. I was eleven at the time and was becoming interested in current events. The letter made me more so. I learned that a few months earlier, in 1954, Einstein’s protégé, J. Robert Oppenheimer, PhD, had been denied a security clearance by the Atomic Energy Commission. Oppenheimer had been the director of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret research effort that led to the development of the atomic bomb. His reward was to be barred from scientific decision-making for life. This of course raised the issue of Sen. Joseph McCarthy who had been making reckless and far-reaching accusations against alleged Communists in every walk of life. Einstein himself died on April 18, 1955. A copy of the letter and a portrait of Einstein have accompanied me through life.

Person of the Century

In 2000, Time magazine judged Einstein the “Person of the Century.” Recently, I was browsing at a newsstand and noticed—50 years after his death—that three different magazines simultaneously had Einstein on their covers! His face has become iconic for genius. Unlike most other scientists, however, his influence is not just in an abstruse, technical realm, but in the domains of philosophy, ethics, and religion. His humanity, modesty, and unselfishness continue to attract a broad public, in much the same way as does that of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela.

My brother was not discouraged from pursuing a career in science by Einstein’s ostensibly off-putting advice. On the contrary. He eventually graduated from Cornell University and then from medical school. Appropriately enough, he finished his residency at a hospital affiliated with New York’s Albert Einstein Medical Center. After completing his formal education he became a physician and remained in private practice for the next 40 years.

Upon Reflection

Einstein’s short letter profoundly influenced my own development. My time as a science writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center certainly convinced me that there was a huge price to pay, in terms of intellectual honesty, for job security.

Since 1977, I have been an independent investigator in the cancer field. Although I may have ignored Einstein’s advice to develop a manual skill, I have been fortunate in being able to make a living as a freelance writer, who can express himself without fear or favor.

If I were asked to give advice to a young person today, I couldn’t improve on the advice that Einstein gave my brother half a century ago. Having useful and marketable skills is a good foundation for an intellectually independent existence. High academic achievement should never come at the expense of serving interests that are antagonistic to the truth. This sort of independence is no less precious now than it was in the days of Spinoza or Einstein.

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