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26 Jun, 2017
When a poet met a physicist

In 1930, Nobel laureates Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein met near Berlin in Germany. What followed was an intense discussion on the nature of reality. Partha Ghose gives us a glimpse of what happened during that meeting.

Tagore and Einstein
Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein.

"Einstein listened (to Tagore) with studious attention, then gave his characteristic view. Neither sought to press his opinion. They simply exchanged ideas. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat."

Two of the most iconic personalities of the twentieth century, Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein, met at least six times. Superficially it might seem as though a poet and a scientist hold little in common. Despite that, Einstein and Tagore shared many things in common. Tagore received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 "because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West." Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 "for his services to theoretical physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect."

They lived at a time when profound social and historical changes were sweeping across the world. Both of them publicly expressed concern over the rise of aggressive nationalism, and championed the cause of human rights and creative freedom in the pursuit of world peace. At the invitation of Romain Rolland (Nobel Laureate in Literature, 1915), they signed an anti-nationalist document, "Declaration pour l'independence de l'esprit" in 1919. Other signatories included Jane Addams, Tolstoy's secretary Pavel Birukov, Benedetto Croce, Georges Duhamel, Hermann Hesse, Selma Lagerlof, and Bertrand Russell, among others.

In 1930 Tagore delivered the Hibbert lectures in Oxford which were later published as a book entitled The Religion of Man in which Tagore expounded his philosophy of the humanity of God and the divinity of Man. Soon after these lectures he went to Germany and met Einstein. The conversation was reported in The New York Times on 10th August, 1930 with the headline "Einstein and Tagore Plumb the Truth". The reporter was Einstein's step son-in-law, Dmitri Marianoff who, together with Amiya Chakravarty, Tagore's secretary at the time, had taken notes which were approved by Einstein and Tagore. Here is the report.

Near Potsdam is a small place called Caputh. There, upon a hill, stands a brown wooden house with a red tile roof. Round about, like sentinels, stand the slim trunks of pine trees. In this wooden villa dwells the mathematician, Albert Einstein.

At about 4 o'clock one recent afternoon Rabindranath Tagore walked along the sandy path to the house. He wore a suit of soft, blue cloth; he leaned a bit forward as he walked and one hand was bent behind his back. Beside him strode the sturdy, erect Einstein.

Atop the hill, Tagore sat down in an armchair on the lawn with Einstein and his family to enjoy the scene. Then he spoke of his last visit to London and his lecture on "Religion and Humanity".

A lively discussion arose. It was interesting to see them together - Tagore, the poet with the head of a thinker, and Einstein, the thinker with the head of a poet. Tagore's hair is smooth and silver-gray, as is his long beard. His head is usually bent forward and the eyes are sunken. He is visibly absorbed in his mystical world. Every expression of his delicate face - every passing phrase, bears the mark of concentration.

He speaks with a majestic tranquility, as though reciting a poem or delivering a sermon. His slim fingers speak, too, and supplement the gleam of his eyes which, in spite of his seventy years, light up in a youthful way.

Einstein's hair is gray also. It seems to stand as though electrified and then to hang, as that of the old Romans did, in curls upon his powerful head.

Einstein listened with studious attention, then gave his characteristic view. Neither sought to press his opinion. They simply exchanged ideas. But it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat.

Here are the first few sentences of the conversation which capture its gist:

T: You have been busy hunting down with mathematics the two ancient entities, Time and Space, while I have been lecturing in this country on the eternal world of Man, the universe of Reality.

E.: Do you believe in the Divine as isolated from the world?

T.: Not isolated. The infinite personality of Man comprehends the Universe. There cannot be anything that cannot be subsumed by the human personality, and this proves that the Truth of the Universe is human Truth.

I have taken a scientific fact to explain this; Matter is composed of protons and electrons, with gaps between them, but matter may seem to be solid [without the links in the spaces which unify the individual electrons and protons.] Similarly humanity is composed of individuals, yet they have their interconnection of human relationship, which gives living unity to man's world. The entire universe is linked up with us [as individuals] in a similar manner, it is a human universe. I have pursued this thought through art, literature and the religious consciousness of man.

E.: There are two different conceptions about the nature of the universe: (1) The world as a unity dependent on humanity. (2) The world as a reality independent of the human factor.

T.: When our universe is in harmony with Man, the eternal, we know it as Truth, we feel it as beauty.

E.: This is the purely human conception of the universe.

T.: There can be no other conception. This world is a human world - the scientific view of it is also that of the scientific man. [Therefore, the world apart from us does not exist; it is a relative world, depending for its reality upon our consciousness.] There is some standard of reason and enjoyment which gives it Truth, the standard of the Eternal Man whose experiences are through our experiences ....

An impression has gained ground that the Einstein-Tagore conversation was a failure, perhaps because of Marianoff's comment, "it seemed to an observer as though two planets were engaged in a chat." In this context, the famous Bohr-Einstein debate comes to mind. Unlike a brief afternoon chat between a scientist and a poet through an interpreter, the Bohr-Einstein debate was between two of the most outstanding scientists of the time on a subject which both helped to create, and it was extended over nearly twenty eight years (from 1927 to 1955).

The contention was essentially the same, namely the role of an observer in describing nature. Bohr pressed his point about the essential role of measurements (and hence of observers) in describing nature, while Einstein stuck to his faith in an observer independent reality. They did not budge from their points. Einstein was obviously disturbed by the fact that the vast majority of physicists shared Bohr's point of view. Perhaps it was this concern that made him raise the question with Tagore whose views he valued.

Partha Ghose is a physicist and science populariser. He was formerly with the S.N.Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata. In 2016, he was the editor of the book Einstein, Tagore and the Nature of Reality (published by Routledge, UK).