Chalk and cheese

The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud and the search for hidden universes

Richard Panek <em>Fourt

As a young graduate student in New York in 1894, the physicist Robert Millikan was chaffed by his flatmates - who had opted for social science or medicine - for sticking to a "dead subject". Echoing a belief prevalent among physicists themselves, they told him that the work of physics was more or less done. The constants of nature were known; the physicist's duty was now to measure them to ever-remoter decimal places.

The following year, in Germany, Bertha Rontgen obliged her husband, Wilhelm, by placing her hand for 15 minutes between a glass tube and a photographic plate. On the latter, a spectral image materialised, revealing the action of X-rays to the world. In the 20th century, the invisible was made visible as a matter of routine. X-ray machines became standard equipment in hospitals and even shoe shops. Devices were developed to detect radio waves from astronomical distances, or to make images of life forms too small to be observed with glass lenses. In the "invisible century", nobody imagined that physics was winding up - though once it was discovered that atoms could be smashed and could smash cities in turn, many might have wished it had.

Richard Panek's "hidden universes" are not, however, those revealed by artificial extensions to human senses. His interest is in worlds conjured by the imagination. This puts Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud in the same basket, as minds without need of apparatus. Panek tells a story of science resigned to a self-denying positivism, relying only on what the senses could tell it, challenged by thinkers who forced it to admit that speculation is its vital spark. They dissolved what remained of the old universe, of earth below and heavens above. The heavens had once been taken for a fixed, unchanging firmament; after Einstein, not even time was fixed within them. After Freud, the outward self looked like little more than the mind's official spokesperson.

Panek's attention is held by ideas in the abstract rather than in their wider con-text. His determined efforts to demonstrate similarities between Einstein's and Freud's thought are persuasive but not convincing. There is no getting away from it: the chapters on the two men are like chalk and cheese. Their universes were hidden from each other, as they were obliged to accept the one time that they met, passing a couple of hours in an agreeable non-exchange of ideas.

The fundamental obstacle is that Einstein was a scientist and Freud considered himself one. Panek acknowledges the questions about the scientific status of psychoanalysis, but avoids wrestling with them. He would not necessarily have torpedoed the book if he had. It is possible to regard Freud's thought as magnificent without taking it to be scientific, or even true. That entails seeing the broader picture of films and cartoons and novels and 20th-century celebrity in which the two men became stars. It entails admitting the obvious reason they go together: that they are both household names.

When Einstein attended the premiere of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights in 1931, the actor observed to him: "They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you." Panek comments that Freud might have said the same, "except sometimes for the cheering part". Yet it is possible to get a purchase on some of Einstein's ideas without jargon or special skills. That time varies with relative motion can be grasped by imagining lights on moving trains (or ships, in the example that Panek glides through before the reader realises what is afoot), even if the grasp doesn't last much longer than the lesson.

The fundamental difference between Einstein's celebrity and Freud's is that the former's was established by scientific observation. Einstein became a star when the papers splashed the news that observations of bending in starlight matched what his theory had predicted. Nothing in Freud could ever be tested that way, and so there was little to restrain a mind that had started out studying neuroanatomy from ending up in portentous rumination about a "death instinct". Freud's legacy is not a scientific discipline but a body of lore, imagery and insight sufficient to equip a small civilisation. He began as a biologist of the mind and became, in the phrase of the science historian Frank Sulloway, its greatest myth-maker.

Einstein's position remains unchallen-ged, though he was rapidly eclipsed as a dissolver of certainties by the quantum theorists. Lights on trains were plain and homely compared to the sinister mystery of Schrodinger's hypothetical cat, locked in a box with a vial of poison for reasons that, by the nature of the quantum world, remained obscure. In the invisible century, physicists made the universe incomprehensible, while the psychoanalysts made the couch a carriage into the underworld.

Marek Kohn's A Reason for Everything: natural selection and the British imagination is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, What Britain really thinks