Hear Albert Einstein Read “The Common Language of Science” (1941)

Albert Ein­stein, 1921, by Fer­di­nand Schmutzer via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Here’s an extra­or­di­nary record­ing of Albert Ein­stein from the fall of 1941, read­ing a full-length essay in Eng­lish:

The essay is called “The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence.” It was record­ed in Sep­tem­ber of 1941 as a radio address to the British Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence. The record­ing was appar­ent­ly made in Amer­i­ca, as Ein­stein nev­er returned to Europe after emi­grat­ing from Ger­many in 1933.

Ein­stein begins by sketch­ing a brief out­line of the devel­op­ment of lan­guage, before explor­ing the con­nec­tion between lan­guage and think­ing. “Is there no think­ing with­out the use of lan­guage,” asks Ein­stein, “name­ly in con­cepts and con­cept-com­bi­na­tions for which words need not nec­es­sar­i­ly come to mind? Has not every one of us strug­gled for words although the con­nec­tion between ‘things’ was already clear?”

Despite this evi­dent sep­a­ra­tion between lan­guage and think­ing, Ein­stein quick­ly points out that it would be a gross mis­take to con­clude that the two are entire­ly inde­pen­dent. In fact, he says, “the men­tal devel­op­ment of the indi­vid­ual and his way of form­ing con­cepts depend to a high degree upon lan­guage.” Thus a shared lan­guage implies a shared men­tal­i­ty. For this rea­son Ein­stein sees the lan­guage of sci­ence, with its math­e­mat­i­cal signs, as hav­ing a tru­ly glob­al role in influ­enc­ing the way peo­ple think:

The super­na­tion­al char­ac­ter of sci­en­tif­ic con­cepts and sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage is due to the fact that they have been set up by the best brains of all coun­tries and all times. In soli­tude, and yet in coop­er­a­tive effort as regards the final effect, they cre­at­ed the spir­i­tu­al tools for the tech­ni­cal rev­o­lu­tions which have trans­formed the life of mankind in the last cen­turies. Their sys­tem of con­cepts has served as a guide in the bewil­der­ing chaos of per­cep­tions so that we learned to grasp gen­er­al truths from par­tic­u­lar obser­va­tions.

Ein­stein con­cludes with a cau­tion­ary reminder that the sci­en­tif­ic method is only a means toward an end, and that the wel­fare of human­i­ty depends ulti­mate­ly on shared goals.

Per­fec­tion of means and con­fu­sion of goals seem–in my opinion–to char­ac­ter­ize our age. If we desire sin­cere­ly and pas­sion­ate­ly for the safe­ty, the wel­fare, and the free devel­op­ment of the tal­ents of all men, we shall not be in want of the means to approach such a state. Even if only a small part of mankind strives for such goals, their supe­ri­or­i­ty will prove itself in the long run.

The imme­di­ate con­text of Ein­stein’s mes­sage was, of course, World War II. The air force of Ein­stein’s native coun­try had only recent­ly called off its bomb­ing cam­paign against Eng­land. A year before, Lon­don weath­ered 57 straight nights of bomb­ing by the Luft­waffe. Ein­stein had always felt a deep sense of grat­i­tude to the British sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty for its efforts dur­ing World War I to test the Gen­er­al The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty, despite the fact that its author was from an ene­my nation.

“The Com­mon Lan­guage of Sci­ence” was first pub­lished a year after the radio address, in Advance­ment of Sci­ence 2, no. 5. It is cur­rent­ly avail­able in the Ein­stein antholo­gies Out of My Lat­er Years and Ideas and Opin­ions.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in March 2013.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Albert Ein­stein on Indi­vid­ual Lib­er­ty, With­out Which There Would Be ‘No Shake­speare, No Goethe, No New­ton’

Albert Ein­stein Tells His Son The Key to Learn­ing & Hap­pi­ness is Los­ing Your­self in Cre­ativ­i­ty (or “Find­ing Flow”)

Albert Ein­stein Called Racism “A Dis­ease of White Peo­ple” in His Lit­tle-Known Fight for Civ­il Rights

Find Cours­es on Ein­stein in the Physics Sec­tion of our Free Online Cours­es Col­lec­tion

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