It is a fairly well-known fact that the theoretical physicist Albert Einstein was once invited to become Israel’s second president. The circumstances surrounding this unusual offer gained Einstein admiration, but what people loved about the story was his refusal. With all humility, Professor Einstein declined the offer, admitting that he lacked the proper political aptitude to lead a country barely past its infancy. Here is what Albert Einstein said:
“I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel [to serve as President], and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official functions. For these reasons alone I should be unsuited to fulfill the duties of that high office, even if advancing age was not making increasing inroads on my strength. I am the more distressed over these circumstances because my relationship to the Jewish people has become my strongest human bond, ever since I became fully aware of our precarious situation among the nations of the world.”
But Einstein was hardly silent when it came to politics. An ardent proponent of civil rights and a passionate advocate for peace, Albert Einstein was one of the first scientists to vocalize political opinions in a time of great political turmoil. This part of Einstein gained him half his popularity. Among a scientifically-inept yet politically-involved population, Albert Einstein garnered the appreciation he enjoyed during his life partly due to his political stances, which were popular enough to grab the attention of citizens and leaders from both sides.
The clamor for scientists like Albert Einstein to join the puddle of politics have significantly dwindled over the past years. One reason is that no scientist today is nearly as famous and well-loved as Einstein was back in the day. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, although loved and adored by the intellectuals of today, is sincerely despised by a significantly large group of conservatives. Biologist Richard Dawkins is treated like a rock star among humanist circles, but would be stoned in a minute by extreme religious groups. Scientists aren’t as liked as they were before. Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Carl Sagan, and all other prominent scientists before the millennium enjoyed universal admiration. The case is very different today.
Nevertheless, today’s scientists aren’t exactly distancing themselves from politics. Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a physicist, just like Albert Einstein. An expert on quantum chemistry, Merkel was a research scientist before she actively joined politics. Today, she is one of the most popular European figures, the de facto leader of the EU, and is set to mark her tenth year of service as head of Germany’s government.
In the US, there are a handful of scientists who have penetrated the most powerful seats in the country. Democrat Rush D. Holt, representative from New Jersey’s 12th congressional district, and Democrat Bill Foster, Illinois’ representative for its 11th congressional district are both physicists.
The short answer to the question “would scientists make good politicians” is a yes. Politics could use more Einsteins to make important decisions, especially on crucial topics like climate change and the teaching of evolution – pressing issues that non-scientist politicians like to ignore. Albert Einstein need not be the end of politically-involved scientists.
[Image from Wikimedia]