The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Alexander Moszkowski:

Chapter Two

Beyond Our Power

2014 March 17

Photo by Janos Korom.

SOURCE: Einstein: Einblicke in seine Gedankenwelt -- Gemeinverständliche Betrachtegung über die Relativitätstheorie und ein neues Weltsystem entwickelt aus Gesprächen mit Einstein von Alexander Moszkowski [Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1921]
English translation: Einstein the Searcher translated by Henry L. Brose [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1922], with a few additions and modifications.

Moszkowski's words are in bold.


Useful and Latent Forces. --- Connexion between Mass, Energy, and Velocity of Light. --- Deriving Power by Combustion. --- One Gramme of Coal. --- Unobtainable Calories. --- Economics of Coal, --- Hopes and Fears. --- Dissociated Atoms.

29th March 1920 --- We spoke of the forces that are available for man and which he derives from Nature as being necessary for his existence and for the development of life. What forces are at our disposal ? What hopes have we of elaborating our supply of these forces ?

Einstein first explained the conception of energy, which is intimately connected with the conception of mass itself.

Every amount of substance (I am paraphrasing his words), the greatest as well as the smallest, may be regarded as a store of power, indeed, it is essentially identical with energy. All that appears to our senses and our ordinary understanding as the visible, tangible mass, as the objective body corresponding to which we, in virtue of our individual bodies, abstract the conceptual outlines, and become aware of the existence of a definite copy is, from the physical point of view, a complex of energies. These in part act directly, in part exist in a latent form as strains which, for us, begin to act only when we release them from their state of strain by some mechanical or chemical process, that is, when we succeed in converting the potential energy into kinetic energy.

It may be said, indeed, that we have here a physical picture of what Kant called the "thing in itself.'' Things as they appear in ordinary experience are composed of the sum of our direct sensations ; each thing acts on us through its outline, colour, tone, pressure, impact, temperature, motion, chemical behaviour, whereas the thing in itself is the sum-total of its energy, in which there is an enormous predominance of those energies which remain latent and are quite inaccessible in practice.

But this "thing in itself," to which we shall have occasion to refer often with a certain regard to its metaphysical significance, may be calculated. The fact that it is possible to calculate it takes its origin, like many other things which had in no wise been suspected, in Einstein's Theory of Relativity.

Quite objectively and without betraying in the slightest degree that an astonishing world-problem was being discussed, Einstein expressed himself thus :

"According to the Theory of Relativity there is a calculable relation between mass, energy, and the velocity of light. The velocity of light (denoted by c, as usual) is equal to 3 times ten to the tenth power [cm. per second]. Accordingly the square of c is equal to 9 times ten to the twentieth power, or, in round numbers, ten to the twenty-first power [cm. squared per second squared]. This c plays an essential part if we introduce into the calculation the mechanical equivalent of heat, that is, the ratio of a certain amount of energy to the heat theoretically derivable from it ; we get for each gramme 20 times ten to the twelfth, that is 20 billion, calories." [Both Brose's translation and Moszkowski's original use "billion" for a million millions, or ten to the twelfth ; the American billion is called a "milliard".]

We shall have to explain the meaning of this brief physical statement in its bearing on our practical lives. It operates with only a small array of symbols, and yet encloses a whole universe, widening our perspective to a world-wide range !

To simplify the reasoning and make it more evident we shall not think of the conception of substance as an inimitable whole, but shall fix our ideas on a definite substance, say coal. There seems little that may strike us when we set down the words :

"One Gramme of Coal."

We shall soon see what this one gramme of coal conveys when we translate the above-mentioned numbers into a language to which a meaning may be attached in ordinary life. I endeavoured to do this during the above conversation, and was grateful to Einstein for agreeing to simplify his argument by confining his attention to the most valuable fuel in our economic life.

Once whilst I was attending a students' meeting, paying homage to Wilhelm Dove, that celebrated discoverer took us aback with the following remark : When a man succeeds in climbing the highest mountain of Europe he performs a task which, judged from his personal point of view, represents something stupendous. The physicist smiles and says quite simply, "Two pounds of coal." He means to say that by burning 2 lb. of coal we gain sufficient energy to lift a man from the sea-level to the summit of Mont Blanc.

It is assumed, of course, that an ideal machine is used, which converts the heat of combustion without loss into work. Such a machine does not exist, but may easily be imagined by supposing the imperfections of machines made by human hands to be eliminated.

Such effective heat is usually expressed in calories. A calorie is the amount of heat that is necessary to raise the temperature of a gramme of water by one degree centigrade. Now the theorem of the Mechanical Equivalent, which is founded on the investigations of Carnot, Robert Mayer, and Clausius, states that from one calorie we may obtain sufficient energy to lift a pound weight about 3 feet. Since 2 lb. of coal may be made to yield 8 million calories, they will enable us to lift a pound weight through 24 million feet, theoretically, or, what comes to the same approximately, to lift a 17-stone man through 100,000 feet, that is, nearly 19 miles : this is nearly seven times the height of Mont Blanc.

At the time when Dove was lecturing, Einstein had not yet been born, and when Einstein was working out his Theory of Relativity, Dove had long passed away, and with him there vanished the idea of the small value of the energy stored in substance to give way to a very much greater value of which we can scarce form an estimate. We should feel dumb-founded if the new calculation were to be a matter of millions, but actually we are to imagine a magnification to the extent of billions. This sounds almost like a fable when expressed in words. But a million is related to a billion in about the same way as a fairly wide city street to the width of the Atlantic Ocean. Our Mont Blanc sinks to insignificance. In the above calculation it would have to be replaced by a mountain 50 million miles high. Since this would lead far out into space, we may say that the energy contained in a kilogramme of coal is sufficient to project a man so far that he will never return, converting him into a human comet. But for the present this is only a theoretical store of energy which cannot yet be utilized in practice.

Figure by J. T. Barnabas.

Nevertheless, we cannot avoid it in our calculations just as we cannot avoid that remarkable quantity c, the velocity of light that plays its part in the tiny portion of substance as it does in everything, asserting itself as a regulative factor in all world phenomena. It is a natural constant that preserves itself unchanged as 180,000 miles per second under all conditions, and which truly represents what appeared to the Poet [Goethe] as "the immovable rock in the surging sea of phenomena" as a phantasm beyond the reach of investigators.

It is difficult for one who has not been soaked in all the elements of physical thought to get an idea of what a natural constant means ; so much the more when he feels himself impelled to picture the constant, so to speak, as the rigid axis of a world constructed on relativity. Everything, without exception, is to be subjected not only to continual change (and this was what Heraclitus assumed as a fundamental truth in his assertion "panta rhei," everything flows), but every length-measurement and time-measurement, every motion, every form and figure are dependent on, and change with, the position of the observer, so that the last vestige of the absolute vanishes from whatever comes into the realm of observation.

Nevertheless, there is an absolute despot, who preserves his identity inflexibly among all phenomena -- the velocity of light, c, of incalculable influence in practice and yet capable of measurement. Its nature has been characterized in one of the main propositions of Einstein stated in 1905 : "Every ray of light is propagated in a system at rest with a definite, constant velocity independent of whether the ray is emitted by a body at rest or in motion." But this constancy of the omnipotent c is not only in accordance with world relativity : it is actually the main pillar which supports the whole doctrine ; the further one penetrates into the theory, the more clearly does one feel that it is just this c which is responsible for the unity, connectivity, and invincibility of Einstein's world system.

In our example of the coal, from which we started, c occurs as a square, and it is as a result of multiplying 300,000 by itself (that is, squaring c) that we arrive at the thousands of milliards of energy units which we associated above with such a comparatively insignificant mass. Let us picture this astounding circumstance in another way, although we shall soon see that Einstein clips the wings of our soaring imagination. The huge ocean liner Imperator, which can develop a greater horse-power than could the whole of the Prussian cavalry before the war, used to require for one day's travel the contents of two very long series of coal-trucks (each series being as long as it takes the strongest locomotive to pull). We now know that there is enough energy in two pounds of coal to enable this boat to do the whole trip from Hamburg to New York at its maximum speed.

Nuclear Task Force One, 1964. Einstein would not have been pleased.

I quoted this fact, which, although it sounds so incredibly fantastic, is quite true, to Einstein with the intention of justifying the opinion that it contained the key to a development which would initiate a new epoch in history and would be the panacea of all human woe. I drew an enthusiastic picture of a dazzling Utopia, an orgy of hopeful dreams, but immediately noticed that I received no support from Einstein for these visionary aspirations. To my disappointment, indeed, I perceived that Einstein did not even show a special interest in this circumstance which sprang from his own theory, and which promised such bountiful gifts. And to state the conclusion of the story straight away I must confess that his objections were strong enough not only to weaken my rising hopes, but to annihilate them completely.

Einstein commenced by saying : "At present there is not the slightest indication of when this energy will be obtainable, or whether it will be obtainable at all. For it would presuppose a disintegration of the atom effected at will -- a shattering of the atom. And up to the present there is scarcely a sign that this will be possible. We observe atomic disintegration only where Nature herself presents it, as in the case of radium, the activity of which depends upon the continual explosive decomposition of its atom. Nevertheless, we can only establish the presence of this process, but cannot produce it ; Science in its present state makes it appear almost impossible that we shall ever succeed in so doing."

The fact that we are able to abstract a certain number of calories from coal and put them to practical use comes about owing to the circumstance that combustion is only a molecular process, a change of configuration, which leaves fully intact the atoms of which the molecules are composed. When carbon and oxygen combine, the elementary constituent, the atom, remains quite unimpaired. The above calculation, "mass multiplied by the square of the velocity of light," would have a technical significance only if we were able to attack the interior of the atom ; and of this there seems, as remarked, not the remotest hope.

Out of the history of technical science it might seem possible to draw on examples contradictory to this first argument (which is soon to be followed by others equally important). As a matter of fact, rigorous science has often declared to be impossible what was later discovered to be within the reach of technical attainment -- things that seem to us nowadays to be ordinary and self-evident. Werner Siemens considered it impossible to fly by means of machines heavier than air, and Helmholtz proved mathematically that it was impossible. Antecedent to the discovery of the locomotive the "impossible " of the academicians played an important part ; Stephenson as well as Riggenbach (the inventors of the locomotive) had no easy task to establish their inventions in the face of the general reproach of craziness hurled at them. The eminent physicist Babinet applied his mathematical artillery to demolish the ideas of the advocates of a telegraphic cable between Europe and America. Philipp Reis, the forerunner of the telephone, failed only as a result of the "impossible" of the learned physicist Poggendorff ; and even when the practical telephone of Graham Bell (1876) had been found to work in Boston, on this side of the Atlantic there was still a hubbub of "impossible" owing to scientific reasons. To these illustrations is to be added Robert Mayer's mechanical equivalent of heat, a determining factor in our above calculations of billions ; it likewise had to overcome very strong opposition on the part of leading scientists.

Diorama at National Museum of Mongolian History.

Let us imagine the state of mankind before the advent of machines and before coal had been made available as a source of power. Even at that time a far-seeing investigator would have been able to discover from theoretical grounds the 8000 calories mentioned earlier and also their transformation into useful forces. He would have expressed it in another way and would have got different figures, but he would have arrived at the conclusion : Here is a virtual possibility which must unfortunately remain virtual, as we have no machine in which it can be used. And however far-sighted he may have been, the idea of, say, a modern dynamo or a turbine-steamer would have been utterly inconceivable to him. He would not have dreamed such a thing. Nay, we may even imagine a human being of the misty dawn of prehistoric ages, of the diluvial period, who had suddenly had a presentiment of the connexion between a log of wood and the sun's heat, but who was yet unaware of the uses of fire ; he would argue from his primordial logic that it was not possible and never would be possible to derive from the piece of wood something which sends out warmth like the sun.

I believe now, indeed, that we have grounds for considering ourselves able to mark off the limits of possibility more clearly than the present position of science would seem to warrant. There is the same relation between such possibilities and absolute impossibilities as there is between Leibniz's vérités de fait and the vérités éternelles.

The fact that we shall never succeed in constructing a plane isosceles triangle with unequal base angles is a vérité éternelle. On the other hand, it is only a vérité de fait that science is precluded from giving mortal man eternal life. This is only improbable in the highest degree, for the fact that, up to the present, all our ancestors have died is only a finite proof. The well-known Cajus of our logic books need not die ; the chances of his dying are only n / (n+1) where we denote the total of all persons that have passed away up to this moment by n. If I ask a present-day authority in biology or medicine what evidence there is that it will be possible to preserve an individual person permanently from death, he would confess : not the slightest. Nevertheless, Helmholtz declared : "To a person who tells me that, by using certain means, the life of a person may be prolonged indefinitely, I can oppose my extreme disbelief, but I cannot contradict him absolutely."

Einstein himself once pointed out to me such very remote possibilities ; it was in connexion with the following circumstance. It is quite impossible for a moving body ever to attain a velocity greater than that of light, because it is scientifically inconceivable. On the other hand, it is conceivable, and therefore within the range of possibility, that man may yet fly to the most distant constellations.

There is, therefore, no absolute contradiction to the notion of making available for technical purposes the billions of calories that occurred in our problem. As soon as we admit it as possible for discussion, we find ourselves inquiring what the solution of the problem could signify. In our intercourse we actually arrived at this question, and discovered the most radical answer in a dissertation which Friedrich Siemens has written about coal in general without touching in the slightest on these possibilities of the future [F. Siemens, "Im Zeitalter der Kohle", Nord und Süd 44, 125 (1920)]. I imagined that this dissertation was a big trump in my hand, but had soon to learn from the reasoned contradiction of Einstein that the point at issue was not to be decided in this way.

Nevertheless, it will repay us to consider these arguments for a moment.

Friedrich Siemens starts from two premises which he seemingly bases on scientific reasoning, thus claiming their validity generally. They are [first] :

Coal is the measure of all things. The price of every product represents, directly or indirectly, the value of the coal contained in it. As all economic values in over-populated countries are the result of work, and as work presupposes coal, capital is synonymous with coal. The economic value of each object is the sum-total of the coal that had to be used to manufacture the object in question. In over-populated states each wage is the value of the coal that is necessary to make this extra life possible. If there is a scarcity of coal, the wages go down in value ; if there is no coal, the wages are of no value at all, no matter how much paper money be issued.

As soon as agriculture requires coal (this occurs when it is practised intensively and necessitates the use of railways, machines, artificial manures), coal becomes involved with food-stuffs. Thanks to industrialism, coal is involved in clothing and housing, too.

Since money is equivalent to coal, proper administration of finance is equivalent to a proper administration of coal resources, and our standard of currency is in the last instance a coal-currency. Gold as money is now concentrated coal.

The most advanced people is that which derives from one kilogramme of coal the greatest possibilities conducive to life. Wise statesmanship must resolve itself into wise administration of coal. Or, as it has been expressed in other words elsewhere : "We must think in terms of coal."

These fundamental ideas were discussed, and the result was that Einstein admitted the premises in the main, but failed to see the conclusiveness of the inferences. He proved to me, step by step, that Siemens' line of thought followed a vicious circle, and, by begging the question, arrived at a false conclusion. The essential factor, he said, is man-power, and so it will remain ; it is this that we have to regard as the primary factor. Just so much can be saved to advantage as there is man-power available for purposes other than for the production of coal from which they are now released. If we succeed in getting greater use out of a kilogramme of coal by better management, then this is measurable in man-power, with which one may dispense for the mining of coal, and which may be applied to other purposes.

If the assertion : "Coal is the measure of all things," were generally valid, it should stand every test. We need only try it in a few instances to see that the thesis does not apply. For example, said Einstein : However much coal we may use, and however cleverly we may dispose of it, it will not produce cotton. Certainly the freightage of cotton-wool could be reduced in price, but the value-factor represented by man-power can never disappear from the price of the cotton.

The most that can be admitted is that an increase of the amount of power obtained from coal would make it possible for more people to exist than is possible at present, that is, that the margin of over-population would become extended. But we must not conclude that this would be a boon to mankind. "A maximum is not an optimum !"

He who proclaims the maximum without qualification as the greatest measure of good is like one who studies the various gases in the atmosphere to ascertain their good or bad effect on our breathing, and arrives at the conclusion : the nitrogen in the air is harmful, so we must double the proportion of oxygen to counteract it ; this will confer a great benefit on humanity !

(NOTE BY MOSKOWSKI: The parts following between * . . . * are to be regarded as supplementary portions intended to elucidate the arguments involved in the dialogue. In many points they are founded on utterances of Einstein, but also contain reflections drawn from other sources, as well as opinions and inferences which fall to the account of the author, as already remarked in the preface. One will not get far by judging these statements as right or wrong, for even the debatable view may prove itself to be expeditious and suggestive in the perspective of these conversations. Wherever it was possible, without the connexion being broken, I have called attention to the parts which Einstein corrected or disapproved of. In other places I refrained from this, particularly when the subject under discussion demanded an even flow of argument. It would have disturbed the exposition if I had made mention of every counter-argument of the opposing side in all such cases while the explanation was proceeding along broad lines.)


Armed with this striking analogy, we can now subject the foundation of Siemens' theory to a new scrutiny, and we shall then discover that even the premises contain a trace of the petitio principii that finally receives expression in the radical and one-sided expression : "Coal is everything."

As if built on solid foundations, this first statement looms before us : Coal is solar energy. This is so far indisputable. For all the coal deposits that are still slumbering in the earth were once stately plants, dense woods of fern, which, bearing the burden of millions of years, have saved up for us what they had once extracted as nutrition from the sun's rays. We may let the parallel idea pass without contention : In the beginning was not the Word, nor the Deed, but, in the beginning was the Sun. The energy sent out by the sun to the earth for mankind is the only necessary and inevitable condition for deeds. Deeds mean work, and work necessitates life.

But we immediately become involved in an unjustifiable subdivision of the idea, for the propounder of the theory says next : "... Coal is solar energy, therefore coal is necessary if we are to work ..." and this has already thrust us from the paths of logic ; the prematurely victorious ergo breaks down. For, apart from the solar energy converted into coal, the warmth of our mother planet radiates on us, and furnishes us with the possibility of work. Siemens' conclusion, from the point of view of logic, is tantamount to : Graphite is solar energy ; hence graphite is necessary, if we are to be able to work. The true expression of the state of affairs is : Coal is, for our present conditions of life, the most important, if not the exclusive, preliminary for human work.

And when we learn from political economy that "in a social state only the necessary human labour and the demand for power-installations which require coal, and hence again labour for their production, come into question," this in no way implies the assertion, as Siemens appears to assume, that coal can be made out of labour. But it does signify that work founded on the sun's energy need not necessarily be reducible to coal. And this probably coincides with Einstein's opinion, which is so much the more significant, as his own doctrine points to the highest measure of effect in forces, even if only theoretically.


Nevertheless, it is a fact that every increase in the quantity of power derived, when expressed per kilo, denotes a mitigation of life's burdens ; it is only a question of the limits involved.

Firstly, is technical science with its possibilities, as far as they can be judged at present, still able to guarantee the future for us ? Can it spread out the effective work so far that we may rely peacefully on the treasures of coal slumbering in the interior of the earth ?

One of the first discussions of "peak coal", half a century before Einstein and Moszkowski.

Evidently not. For in this case we are dealing with quantities that may be approximately estimated. And even if we get three times, nay ten times, as many useful calories as before, there is a parallel calculation of evil omen that informs us : there will be an end to this feast of energy !

In spite of all the embarrassments due to the present shortage of coal we have still always been able to console ourselves with the thought that there is really a sufficiency, and that it is only a question of overcoming stoppages. It is a matter of fact that from the time of the foundation of the German Empire to the beginning of the World War coal production had been rising steadily, and it was possible to calculate that in spite of the stupendous quantities that were being removed from the black caves of Germany, there remained at least 2000 milliards of marks in value (taken at the nominal rate, that is, £100,000,000,000). Nevertheless, geologists and mining experts tell us that our whole supply will not last longer than 2000 years, in the case of England 700 years, and in that of France 500 years. [So the original ; Brose's translation gives smaller numbers.] Even if we allow amply for the opening up of new coal-fields in other continents, we cannot get over the fact that in the prehistoric fern forests the sun has stored up only a finite, exhaustible amount of energy, and that, within a few hundred years, humanity will be faced with a coal famine [Kohlenvakuum].

Now, if coal were really the measure of all things, and if the possibility of life depended only on the coal supply, then our distant descendants would not only relapse into barbarity, but they would have to expect the absolute zero of existence. We should not need to worry at all about the entropy death of the universe, as our own extinction on this earthly planet beckons to us from an incomparably nearer point of time.

At this stage of the discussion Einstein revealed prospects which were entirely in accordance with his conviction that the whole argument based on the coal assumption was untenable. He stated that it was by no means a Utopian idea that technical science will yet discover totally new ways of setting free forces, such as using the sun's radiation, or water power, or the movement of the tides, or power reservoirs of Nature, among which the present coal supply denotes only one branch. Since the beginning of coal extraction we have lived only on the remains of a prehistoric capital that has lain in the treasure-chests of the earth. It is to be conjectured that the interest on the actual capital of force will be very much in excess of what we can fetch out of the depositories of former ages.

To form an estimate of this actual capital, entirely independent of coal, we may present some figures. Let us consider a tiny water canal, a mere nothing in the watery network of the earth, the Rhine-falls at Schaffhausen, that may appear mighty to the beholder, but only because he applies his tourist's measure instead of a planetary one. But even this bagatelle in the household of Nature represents very considerable effectual values for us : 200 cubic metres spread over a terrace 20 metres high yield 67,000 horse-power, equivalent to 50,000 kilowatts. This cascade alone would suffice to keep illuminated to their full intensity 1,000,000 glow-lamps, each of 50 candle-power, and according to our present tariff we should have to pay at least 70,000 marks (£3500 nominally) per hour. The coal-worshipper will be more impressed by a different calculation. The Rhine-falls at Schaffhausen is equivalent in value to a mine that yields every day 145 tons of the finest brown coal. If we took the Niagara Falls as an illustration, these figures would have to be multiplied by about 80.

And by what factor would we have to multiply them, if we wished to get only an approximate estimate of the energy that the breathing earth rolls about in the form of the tides ? The astronomer Bessel and the philosopher-physicist Fechner once endeavoured to get at some comparative picture of these events. It required 360,000 men twenty years to build the greatest Egyptian pyramid, and yet its cubical contents are only about the millionth of a cubic mile, and perhaps if we sum up everything that men and machinery have moved since the time of the Flood till now, a cubic mile would not yet have been completed. In contrast with this, the earth in its tidal motion moves 200 cubic miles of water from one quadrant of the earth's circumference to another in every quarter of a day. From this we see at once that all the coal-mines in the world would mean nothing to us if we could once succeed in making even a fraction of the pulse-beat of the earth available for purposes of industry.

If, however, we should be compelled to depend on coal, our imaginations cling so much more closely to that enormous quantity given by the expression mc2, which was derived from the theory of relativity. The 20 billion calories that are contained in each gramme of coal exercise a fascination on our minds. And although Einstein states that there is not the slightest indication that we shall get at this supply, we get carried along by an irresistible impulse to picture what it would mean if we should actually succeed in tapping it. The transition from the golden to the iron age, as pictured in Hesiod, Aratus, and Ovid, takes shape before our eyes, and following our bent of continuing this cyclically, we take pleasure in fancying ourselves being rescued from the serfdom of the iron and of the coal age to a new golden age.

A supply, such as is piled up in an average city storing-place, would be sufficient to supply the whole world with energy for an immeasurable time. All the troubles and miseries arising from the running of machines, the mechanical production of wares, house-fires would vanish, and all the human labour at present occupied in mining coal would become free to cultivate the land, all railways and boats would run almost without expense, an inconceivable wave of happiness would sweep over mankind. It would mean an end of coal-, freight-, and food-shortage ! We should at last be able to escape out of the hardships of the day, which is broken up by strenuous work, and soar upwards to brighter spheres where we would be welcomed by the true values of life. How alluring is the song of Sirens chanted by our physics with its high " C," the velocity of light to the second power, which we have got to know as a factor in this secret store of energy.

But these dreams are futile. For Einstein, to whom we owe this formula so promising of wonders, not only denies that it can be applied practically, but also brings forward another argument that casts us down to earth again. Supposing, he explained, it were possible to set free this enormous store of energy, then we should only arrive at an age, compared with which the present coal age would have to be called golden.

Image: FEMA.

And, unfortunately, we find ourselves obliged to fall in with this view, which is based in the wise old saw MHΔEN AΓAN, ne quid nimis, nothing in excess. Applied to our case, this means that when such a measure of power is set free, it does not serve a useful purpose, but leads to destruction. The process of burning, which we used as an illustration, calls up the picture of an oven in which we can imagine this wholesale production of energy, and experience tells us that we should not heat an oven with dynamite.

If technical developments of this kind were to come about, the energy supply would probably not be capable of regulation at all. It makes no difference if we say that we only want a part of those 20 billion calories, and that we should be glad to be able to multiply the 8000 calories required to-day by 100. That is not possible, for if we should succeed in disintegrating the atom, it seems that we should have the billions of calories rushing unchecked on us, and we should find ourselves unable to cope with them, nay, perhaps even the solid ground, on which we move, could not withstand them.

No discovery remains a monopoly of only a few people. If a very careful scientist should really succeed in producing a practical heating or driving effect from the atom, then any untrained person would be able to blow up a whole town by means of only a minute quantity of substance. And any suicidal maniac who hated his fellows and wished to pulverize all habitations within a wide range would only have to conceive the plan to carry it out at a moment's notice. All the bombardments that have taken place ever since fire-arms were invented would be mere child's play compared with the destruction that could be caused by two buckets of coal.

At intervals we see stars light up in the heavens, and then become extinguished again ; from these we infer that world catastrophes have occurred. We do not know whether it is due to the explosion of hydrogen with other gases, or to collisions between two stellar bodies. There is still room for the assumption that, immeasurably far away in yonder regions of celestial space, something is happening which a malevolent inhabitant of our earth, who has discovered the secret of smashing the atom, might here repeat. And even if our imaginations can be stretched to paint the blessings of this release of energy, they certainly fail to conjure up visions of the disastrous effects which would result.

Einstein turned to a page in a learned work of the mathematical physicist Weyl of Zürich, and pointed out a part that dealt with such an appalling liberation of energy. It seemed to me to be of the nature of a fervent prayer that Heaven preserve us from such explosive forces ever being let loose on mankind !

[The reference is probably to §25 of Hermann Weyl's Space, Time, Matter (1918) -- also translated by Brose -- where we read " The energy of the composite atomic nucleus, of which a part is set free during radioactive disintegration, far exceeds the amounts mentioned above ... We know it only through inertial effects, as we have hitherto -- owing to a merciful Providence -- not discovered a means of bringing it to 'explosion'."]

Subject to present impossibility, it is possible to weave many parallel instances. It is conceivable that by some yet undiscovered process alcohol may be prepared as plentifully and as cheaply as ordinary water. This would end the shortage of alcohol, and would assure delirium tremens for hundreds of thousands. The evil would far outweigh the good, although it might be avoidable, for one can, even if with great difficulty, imagine precautionary measures.

Image: US DoD.

War technique might lead to the use of weapons of great range, which would enable a small number of adventurers to conquer a Great Power. It will be objected : this will hold vice versa, too. Nevertheless, this would not alter the fact that such long-range weapons would probably lead to the destruction of civilization. Our last hope of an escape would be in a superior moral outlook of future generations, which the optimist may imagine to himself as the force majeure.

There are apparently only two inventions, in themselves triumphs of intellect, against which one would have no defence. The first would be thought-reading made applicable to all, and with which Kant has dealt under the term "thinking aloud." What is nowadays a rare and very imperfect telepathic "turn" may yet be generalized and perfected, in a manner which Kant supposed not impossible on some distant planet. The association and converse of man with his fellows would not stand the test of this invention, and we should have to be angels to survive it even for a day.

The second invention would be the solution of this mc2 problem, which I call a "problem" only because I fail to discover a proper term, whereas so far was it from being a problem for Einstein that it was only in my presence he began to reckon it out in figures from the symbolic formula. To us average beings a Utopia may disclose itself, a short frenzy of joy followed by a cold douche : Einstein stands above it as the pure searcher, who is interested only in the scientific fact, and who, even at the first knowledge of it, preserves its essentially theoretical importance from attempts to apply it practically. If, then, another wishes to hammer out into a fantastic gold-leaf what he has produced as a little particle of gold in his physical investigations, he offers no opposition to such thought-experiments, for one of the deepest traits of his nature is tolerance.

A. Pflüger, one of the best qualified heralds of the new doctrine, has touched on the above matter in his essay, Das Relativitätsprinzip [Bonn: Cohen, 1920]. Einstein praised this pamphlet ; I mentioned that the author took a view different from that of Einstein, of the possibility of making accessible the mc2. In discussing the practical significance of this eventuality, Pflüger says : "It will be time to talk of this point again a hundred years hence." This seems a short time-limit, even if none of us will live to be present at the discussion. Einstein smiled at this pause of a hundred years, and merely repeated, "A very good essay !" It is not for me to offer contradictions ; and, as far as the implied prognostication is concerned, it will be best for mankind if it should prove to be false. If the optimum is unattainable, at least we shall be spared the worst, which is what the realization of this prophecy would inflict on us.

Some months after the above discussion had first been put to paper, the world was confronted by a new scientific event. The English physicist Rutherford had, with deliberate intention, actually succeeded in splitting up the atom. When I questioned Einstein on the possible consequences of this experimental achievement, he declared with his usual frankness, one of the treasures of his character, that he had now occasion to modify somewhat the opinion he had shortly before expressed. This is not to mean that he now considered the practical goal of getting unlimited supply of energy as having been brought within the realm of possibility. He gave it as his view that we are now entering on a new stage of development, which may perhaps disclose fresh openings for technical science. The scientific importance of these new experiments with the atom was certainly to be considered very great.

In Rutherford's operations the atom is treated as if he were dealing with a fortress : he subjects it to a bombardment and then seeks to fire into the breach. The fortress is still certainly far from capitulating, but signs of disruption have become observable. A hail of bullets caused holes, tears, and splinterings.

The projectiles hurled by Rutherford are alpha-particles shot out by radium, and their velocity approaches two-thirds that of light. Owing to the extreme violence of the impact, they succeeded in doing damage to certain atoms enclosed in evacuated glass tubes. It was shown that atoms of nitrogen had been disrupted. It is still unknown what quantities of energy are released in this process. This splitting up of the atom carried out with intention can, indeed, be detected only by the most careful investigations.

As far as practical applications are concerned, then, we have got no further, although we have renewed grounds for hope. The unit of measure, as it were, is still out of proportion to the material to be cut. For the forces which Rutherford had to use to attain this result are relatively very considerable. He derived them from a gramme of radium, which is able to liberate several milliard calories, whereas the net practical result in Rutherford's experiment is still immeasurably small. Nevertheless, it is scientifically established that it is possible to split up atoms of one's own free will, and thus the fundamental objection raised above falls to the ground.

There is also another reason for increased hope. It seems feasible that, under certain conditions, Nature would automatically continue the disruption of the atom, after a human being had intentionally started it, as in the analogous case of a conflagration which extends, although it may have started from a mere spark.

A by-product of future research might lead to the transmutation of lead into gold. The possibility of this transformation of elements is subject to the same arguments as those above about the splitting up of the atom and the release of great quantities of energy. The path of decay from radium to lead lies clearly exposed even now, but it is very questionable whether mankind will finally have cause to offer up hymns of thanksgiving if this line from lead on to the precious metals should be continued, for it would cause our conception of the latter to be shattered. Gold made from lead would not give rise to an increase in the value of the meaner metal, but to the utter depreciation of gold, and hence the loss of the standard of value that has been valid since the beginning of our civilization. No economist would be possessed of a sufficiently far-sighted vision to be able to measure the consequences on the world's market of such a revolution in values.

The chief product would, of course, be the gain in energy, and we must bear this in mind when we give ourselves up to our speculations, however optimistic or catastrophic they may be. The impenetrable barrier "impossible" no longer exists. Einstein's wonderful "Open Sesame," mass times the square of the velocity of light, is thundering at the portals.

And mankind finds a new meaning in the old saw : One should never say never !

"For this Science must ever secret be // The Cause whereof is this as ye may see ; // If one evil man had hereof all his will // All Christian Peace he might hastilie spill ..." -- Thomas Norton, Ordinall of Alchimy, 1477

Friedrich Siemens was not very happy with this critique of his essay on coal, and wrote to Einstein about it. Einstein's reply (Collected Papers in Translation XII, No. 45) was apologetic: "Imagine that you chatted without inhibition with a person about all sorts of things and he ... pinned down your every word in black and white ... And then serious men came along with grave frowns ... and held you responsible for ... your own statements, with foundations more or less real ? Wouldn't that be a bad dream ? ... I am going to forward your letter, along with many other, considerably more prickly ones, to the old sinner Moszkowski."

He then repeats some of the same points made above, but with a somewhat different emphasis: "No existence, without water. Why not therefore be able to establish a national economic policy based on water? Answer: For a desert region ... such an approach would not be so foolish, but for our country, it certainly would be, because water is abundant over here. Now, what is the coal situation here? The exhaustibility of the reserves is practically not being considered ; instead, one thinks and acts as if the reserves of the Earth were infinite ... Then, in my opinion, coal would be a product like any other and not suited to serve as a starting point for a value scale ..."


  1. Phenomena of the Heavens
  2. Beyond our Power
  3. Valhalla
  4. Education
  5. The Discoverer
  6. Of Different Worlds
  7. Problems
  8. Highways and By-ways
  9. An Experimental Analogy
  10. Disconnected Suggestions
  11. Einstein's Life and Personality