Einstein vs Bohr. Does God throw dice?

In the world of physics, it can be called the Clash of the Titans. Many believe that the upheaval in the scientific world that sparked in the 20th century is unsurpassed by any event or spate of events that pertain to our understanding of the cosmos. The advent of the Planck’s constant, proposed by Max Planck in 1900 would revolutionize our knowledge of atoms and the universe.

In 1905, Albert Einstein, with his sharp visual imagination and youthful energy was able to incorporate Planck’s idea by putting forward the idea that light comes not just in waves but in tiny packets – called quanta (photons). However, as he admitted himself, he struggled to comprehend the unsettling implications of this theory; as it was incongruous with his vision of the underlying reality of the universe (Isaacson, 2007).

Niels Bohr, in 1913 proposed that the electrons in an atom revolve in certain paths called orbits and as an atom agitates under heat, the electrons jump from one orbit to the other and vice versa without ever landing in the space between the two orbits. He defined the quanta as the energy required to displace an electron between two successive orbits.  Einstein, though initially wary succumbed to Bohr’s such proposition in the ensuing years.

The Uncertainty Principle

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg, a student of Niels Bohr pioneered the uncertainty principle which states

The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.  

In the words of Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein, his life and universe,

The very act of observing something – of allowing photons or electrons or any other particles or waves of energy to strike the object affects the observation. But Heisenberg’s theory went beyond that. An electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it.

The uncertainty principle, so simple yet so startling, was a stake at the heart of physics. It asserts that there is no objective reality – not even an objective position of a particle – outside of our observations. Heisenberg’s principle and other aspects of quantum mechanics undermine the notion that the universe obeys strict causal laws. 

This was such a huge blow to Einstein’s reasoning behind the mystics of the universe that he regarded the uncertainty principle as unpropitious, if at best incomplete. As the ensuing experiments continued to demonstrate the uncertain nature of the quanta, Einstein embarked in his quest for a Unified Field Theory that would expound the subatomic world in a way the uncertainty principle did not. His quest itself would remain incomplete if not unavailing.

The impression of a world ruled by probabilities and not by determinism based on Newton’s laws was a concept he would never relent to until his death; as he once famously remarked to his friend and physicist Max Born,

“….but I am convinced that at any rate he (God) does not throw dice.”

There was yet another problem with the quantum mechanics that Einstein could not reconcile with – entanglement; a property where an observation made on a particle instantaneously affects another particle at a distance. His Special Theory of Relativity had ascribed the speed of light as the “cosmic speed limit”. In other words, nothing can travel faster than light. So he considered the idea of entanglement an absurdity as he called it

spooky action at a distance”

The two gangsters of theoretical physics first met in 1920 when Bohr visited Einstein in his Berlin apartment. Following their obverse discussion on the quanta, the two parted; each admiring the other’s personality and intellect. Einstein found the Dane “personally endearing” and the latter, for his part also “revered” him. In their next meeting in Copenhagen, the two got in a streetcar and had an intense intellectual debate as Bohr drove desultorily forgetful of his home where he was supposed to take him to (Cromwell, 2010).

Their biggest clash was at the 1927 and 1930 Solvay conferences with Einstein attacking the quantum interpretation of the world with his witty, astute reasoning and Bohr, with Heisenberg and Pauli’s support, pulling together a rational answer usually pointing the inaccuracies in Einstein’s thought experiment-contrived questions. The detailed description of the two debates can be read here.

One on occasion Bohr responded to Einstein’s adage that God does not play dice by saying

“….stop telling God what to do.”

An excerpt from Isaacson’s biography of Einstein goes as follows:

“More than just a friendship, their relationship became an intellectual entanglement that began with divergent views about quantum mechanics but then expanded into related issues of science, knowledge and philosophy. ‘In all the history of human thought, there is no greater dialogue than that which took place over the years between Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein about the meaning of the quantum’, says the physicist John Wheeler, who studied under Bohr.”

So what do the experiments reveal?

In 1964, after both Einstein and Bohr had died, John Bell, an Irish theorist working at the CERN in Geneva, proposed a way for testing the two approaches. In 1982, Alain Aspect, a French physicist and his co-workers were able to conduct the experiment using two-photon laser excitation and the results conformed with the quantum approach i.e. the entanglement. Other experiments carried out since then have all pointed to the predictions of the quantum theory.

So was Einstein wrong? Perhaps. From what we know until now,

At the fundamental level, we live in a world of uncertainty, of probability rather than predictability. In the everyday world, if we know the initial state of an object then by using Newtonian Laws, its final state can be calculated precisely. At the quantum level, however, no matter how much you know about the present, the future can only be predicted in terms of probabilities.

Our universe is one ruled by uncertainty. At least from what we know until now, God really does play dice.


Cromwell, R. L. (2010). Being Human: Human Being: Manifesto for a New Psychology. Indiana, USA: iUniverse.

Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein, His Life And Universe. Croydon, UK: CPI Group.

Phys.org. (2010). New light shed on old dispute between Einstein and Bohr. Retrieved from http://phys.org/news183054425.html.

Sarahana. (2012). Einstein vs. Bohr: how their career-long debate led to parallel universes. Retrieved from http://www.imposemagazine.com/bytes/einstein-vs-bohr. 

The Most Important Discovery of Man (Part 2)

Fire in Religions and Myths

The strange properties of fire and the power it rendered to our ancestors made them believe that it must have some “divine” roots. Hereafter, the sun was regarded as the “blazing ball of fire” and the divinity itself, and coupled with the descrying of the constellations overtime gave birth to the cosmic religions we know today.

It was, therefore, inevitable that he who controlled fire would manifest superiority over the rest. This would mean that an esoteric entity had to be formed for managing the flame endowed from the heavens – the ministries of priesthood. For the thousands of years that followed the ministry would cultivate and accrue an understanding of flame far beyond that possessed by a layman. The priests would ultimately be seen as having supernatural powers and delegates of the divine. All the scientific and spiritual erudition that followed over the millennia would be in the possession of the priesthood.

In Hinduism

Glorifying the virtues of fire are some of the most ancient texts in the world. The earliest non-hieroglyphic account of fire (called agni in Sanskrit) worship and exaltation is found in the following Sanskrit hymns of the Rig Veda (c.1500 BCE), the oldest of the sacred books in Hinduism

अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं रत्वीजम |
होतारं रत्नधातमम ||
अग्निः पूर्वेभिर्र्षिभिरीड्यो नूतनैरुत |
स देवानेह वक्षति ||
अग्निना रयिमश्नवत पोषमेव दिवे-दिवे |
यशसं वीरवत्तमम ||
अग्ने यं यज्ञमध्वरं विश्वतः परिभूरसि |
स इद्देवेषु गछति ||
अग्निर्होता कविक्रतुः सत्यश्चित्रश्रवस्तमः |
देवो देवेभिरा गमत ||
यदङग दाशुषे तवमग्ने भद्रं करिष्यसि |
तवेत तत सत्यमङगिरः ||
उप तवाग्ने दिवे-दिवे दोषावस्तर्धिया वयम |
नमो भरन्त एमसि ||
राजन्तमध्वराणां गोपां रतस्य दीदिविम |
वर्धमानंस्वे दमे ||
स नः पितेव सूनवे.अग्ने सूपायनो भव |
सचस्वा नः सवस्तये ||

1 I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
2 Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring hitherward the Gods.
3 Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
4 Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
5 May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
6 Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshipper,
That, Aṅgiras, is indeed thy truth.
7 To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
8 Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
9 Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.

(tr. by T.H. Griffith, 1896. Souce: sacred-texts.com)

 According to a popular account when Edison invented his gramophone in the 19th century he wanted a veteran scholar to record the first piece for which he asked Prof. Max Muller of Germany. Muller, being a scholar of Indian religious studies recorded the fist hymns of the Rig Veda

अग्नि॒म् ई॑ळे पुरो॒हि॑तं

(agni meele purohitam)

much to the surprise of the audience. Later Muller revealed that the words coming out of the gramophone, agni meele purohitam, were the very first words of the Rig Veda, the book of philosophies laid down by the Indians who had attained high civilization and learning at a time the rest of the world was just coming out from its savage past.

The Hindus regarded fire as one of the five elements; the other being earth, water, air and sky (collectively called panchamahabhuta) essential for life and growth of all beings. In the scriptures they regarded agni as the God of fire, ruler over all forms of fire in earth and in heavens and is depicted as being born from the friction between two fire sticks. It is from this word agni that the Latin gets its word for fire – Ignis.  The Hindu practice of cremation is a form of worshipping the agni. The Rig Veda extolls agni as a divine messenger between the mortals and Gods, the conduit, the means of communication between Gods and worshippers; the sanctifier, without whom no sacred ritual is consummated; who is ever young and immortal.

In Greek and Roman

In the Greek Pantheon, Prometheus, the Titan first gave the precious fire to mankind having stolen it from Mt. Olympus, home of the gods. He lighted his torch from the chariot of the sun god Phoebus and brought the ‘divine’ flame to earth salvaging the humans from the cold and ferocious predators; an endeavor directly contradicting Zeus’ ideas which sees him penalized to eternity. The Greek god of fire is Hephaestus; his counterpart being Vulcan in Roman. Vesta the Roman goddess of the hearth, equivalent of Hestia in Greek had on her altar a sacred fire brought by Aeneas of Troy burning perpetually, extinguished and renewed only on March 1, the then Roman New Year by the chief priest or Pontifex Maximus and guarded by Vestal Virgins all year round. The Caesars also had sacred fire carried before them, signifying their power and glory.

Outside of their pantheon, The Greeks considered fire as one of the four classical elements (the rest being air, water and earth akin to the Hindus). Heraclitus (c. 535 BCE – c. 435 BCE), famous for his doctrines on universal flux and the unity of opposites, insisted that all the classical elements and thus everything in the physical world is a manifestation of fire which later was disapproved by Empedocles and Aristotle.

In Pre-Christian and Christian tradition

Regarding fire symbolism in pre-Christian/pagan rituals authors Janet and Colin Bord (1972) note,

Fire always played an important part in the pre-Christian rituals and there are probably more vestiges of our Sun/fire worshipping ancestors in our present calendar and traditional observances than any other aspect of pagan rites.”

The Zoroastrians, for example, though not fire-worshippers, maintained flames in their temples (called Agiaries) symbolizing the light of the god Ahur Mazda and were never extinguished. The Native American tribe worshipped ancestral fire spirits just like the West African tribes. The Aztecs worshipped Xiuhtecuhtli, the lord of volcanoes, fire, day and heat. Similarly, the Inca of Peru paid homage to Manco Cápac, their fire and solar deity.

In Christianity, the flames represent the Holy Ghost, as he descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost. Hell is believed to be full of fire. Author Garry R. Varner (2009) comments in his article Fire Symbolism in Myth and Religion,

“Christianity continued many of the ancient pagan rituals and embraced many of their symbols as a way to induce the “heathen” population to convert. Candles, censers and ancient imagery continue to reflect the mysterious nature of fire. Relying on the ancient belief that fire is the ultimate purifier and punisher fire became a tool for the ultimate destruction of evil and witchcraft, and over time the destroyer of contrary thought.” 


BBC News. (2009). Religions. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/zoroastrian/worship/worship.shtml 

Bord, J. & Bord. Colin. (1972). Mysterious Britain: Ancient Secrets of Britain and Ireland. London: Thorsons.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. Vesta. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/626927/Vesta

Faber, H.B. (1919). Military Pyrotechnics. Washington, USA: Government Printing Office.

Graham, D.W. (2011). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heraclitus/

Mackenzie, D. A. (1985). India Myths and Legends. London: Bracken Books.

Ward, M. (2011). Breathedreamgo. Retrieved from http://breathedreamgo.com/2011/03/first-recording-sanskrit/

O’Looney, K. (2014). Fire as a symbol in religion. Summer session #2. Gonzaga University, Washington.

Varner, R.G. (2009). Fire Symbolism in Myth and Religion. Circle Magazine: Sacred Flames, Sacred Fires, (105).

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopaedia (2013). Fire (Classical Element). Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_(classical_element)