Einstein, Preprints, & the Press

Einstein cut off a collaborator for releasing information early to the press

I’m currently reading an excellent new book about quantum physics by Sean Carroll, “Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime.”

As usual with books about quantum mechanics and its many counterintuitive aspects, it’s a little bit of a twisted thrill. Carroll is an excellent writer who makes things far more clear than most who take on translating quantum physics into the public sphere.

In the midst of the book, I came across this little sidenote about the famous Einstein–Podolsky–Rosen (EPR) paper from 1935 entitled, “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?

While the paper itself has been portrayed in various ways since its publication — with the least flattering but most enduring image being that of an obstinate and unimaginative Einstein resisting quantum physics’ traits — Carroll believes that Einstein and his co-authors were simply elucidating a problem that haunts quantum physics to this day, namely that it is not a complete and coherent theory, but merely a set of equations and principles that work, without us completely understanding why.

It is practically robust, but theoretically incomplete.

The EPR paper was submitted to Physical Review on March 25, 1935, and published in the May 15, 1935 edition (Vol. 47, pages 777-780). Einstein was at Princeton at this point. Putting to lie the perception that the EPR team did not embrace quantum physics, the paper ends with:

While we have thus shown that the wave function does not provide a complete description of the physical reality, we left open the question of whether or not such a description exists. We believe, however, that such a theory is possible.

The paper would spur at least two major advances as other scientists wrestled with its implications — Bohm’s variant and, most importantly, Bell’s theorem.

While the paper was ostensibly still “in press” — but likely when copies were being received in the mail — Podolsky contacted a reporter at the New York Times to convey details of the paper, which resulted in the following headline, appearing on May 4, 1935 — before the official publication date:

The paper devoted nearly a full column to it, as shown below. (However, the pending nuptials of Elizabeth Leonard to Carlo Zezza, making her the new Baroness Carlo Zezza, also earned a full column and a photograph.)

Einstein was not pleased to see this in the press, writing immediately to the Times in a letter published just three days later, on May 7, 1935:

Imagine believing there is such a thing as an “appropriate forum” for scientific exchanges — something more cautious and constrained then just flinging them out into the public sphere — for instance, posting them on a preprint server and pushing them on Twitter/X or Instagram.

As Carroll writes:

[The advance release of the findings in the popular press] outraged Einstein, who penned a stern letter that the Times published, in which he decried advance discussion of scientific results in the ’secular press.’ It’s been said that he never spoke to Podolsky again.

The cautiousness serious scientists exhibit when it comes to public perceptions of preliminary, speculative, or routine communications is something we’ve demolished with the Internet — a medium that puts almost constant pressures on people to produce information.

An exhausted and distracted public is not receptive to nuanced pronouncements from scientists and experts. A public sphere waist-deep in floating garbage as preprints have flooded the zone and inexperienced authors and reporters have super-charged the information space with static is not very safe.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that we’re mishandling scientific exchanges and our role relative to the public sphere. But it’s not a bad place to start.