The Closest I Came to Meeting Albert Einstein

Memoirs of my College Days during a course taken under Dr. Max Dresden

Dr. Max Dresden during his days as a Visiting Scientist, SLAC Consulting Professor in History of Physics, Stanford University

Being born in 1955, the year Albert Einstein died, I could never have met him. But as time, being born when I was, serendipity and choice of pursuits would have it, I would someday get to meet and deeply benefit from someone who was Einstein’s colleague and younger protégé. Dr. Max Dresden was a generation younger than Einstein; he was born in 1918, after Einstein had already published his General Theory of Relativity in 1915. He was born in Amsterdam and was educated in Europe during the years immediately preceding World War II. Again, as fate and choice of pursuits would have it, he would travel in the same circles as Dr. Einstein. Although he emigrated to the United States in 1939, and received his doctorate in 1946 from the University of Michigan under fellow Dutchman George Uhlenbeck who, with Goudsmit, discovered electron spin, Dresden loved to travel. That love would bring him in to contact with the elder Einstein and other brilliant lights from that era: Oppenheimer, Bohr, Heisenberg and Fermi, among others.

Dr Dresden receiving the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1988 by then Stony Brook University President John Marberger

From 1964-1989, Dr. Dresden spent the last 25 years of his professional career as an
esteemed professor of Physics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. His tenure at Stony Brook helped build that university’s reputation as a leading institution in the study of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics and it was during that time, between 1966 and 1989, that he was the Executive Officer of the Institute for Theoretical Physics. It was during my junior year in college, during the spring of 1979, that I had taken Classical Newtonian Mechanics with Dr. Dresden. Little did I realize at the time, the stature and reputation of the instructor I had for this required course for all Physics and Astronomy majors. As it would unfold, taking this course with him would turn out to be one of those singular events in my life that would profoundly effect how I view the universe, the natural world and my place in it.

Dr. Max Dresden in his younger days.

Dr. Dresden was a warm and kind individual, overflowing with intellectual generosity. This, combined with his remarkable intelligence and brilliant wit, made each lecture the high point of my Tuesdays and Thursdays. And the conversations between he and Albert Einstein he related kept us all rapt! You were actually transported back in time and were provided with a rare glimpse into the minds of the two men as they spoke, their thoughts, their ideas, the thinking of the day so long ago. On the first day of the course he had recounted a story to us that concerned academic and intellectual honesty. As the story went, he was teaching an introductory course in physics for non-science majors where 75% of the final grade was based on an ongoing paper that each of the students would work on throughout the semester and submit during finals week. The time came for all the students to submit their papers with one particular student’s paper getting a second read by Dr. Dresden. As he read it the second time, he realized that the student had transcribed it, verbatim, from a particular text (we never found out what text it was, nor did anyone have the nerve to ask). Dr. Dresden had remembered the particular text book and chapter from which the student had plagiarized his paper. Needless to say, the student failed the paper and, by extension, the course, with Dr. Dresden admonishing him that, while intellectual and academic dishonesty are reprehensible, he failed him because the student thought he could fool him.

As I remember him at the blackboard in his office, SUNY, Stony Brook.

At the close of the spring, 1979 semester, he called each of us into his office, one by one, for an interview. He asked each of us two questions: 1) what we got from the course we had just completed and; 2) what each of us thought we should receive as a final grade. The final grade I received in the course will remain an open question for now; suffice it to say though, I was able to continue on in the undergraduate physics program at Stony Brook without delay – this course was then and is now a pivotal course in the curriculum as it is in any physics curriculum. I was subsequently admitted to graduate school and the rest is history. Regarding the answer to question number two during my final interview with him, my answer, dear reader, will be left up to you to ponder. It can be stated in all sincerity, that Dr. Max Dresden had a profound impact on my life, the insights he fostered, the wisdom gained, to say nothing of the knowledge, was extraordinary; in short, his was an enormous inspiration to me in ways too numerous to list here. In every sense of the phrase, he “paid it forward” and gave new meaning to that phrase.

After his retirement from Stony Brook in 1989, he lived out the sunset years of his life with his wife of 49 years, Bertha Cummins-Dresden, at Stanford University as visiting scientist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) and as a consulting professor in the history of physics. In 1999, and as a fitting tribute to Dr. Dresden, the Max Dresden Theoretical Thesis Prize at Stony Brook was endowed and is awarded each year to the most outstanding graduating Ph.D student.

On October 29, 1997, at the age of 79, Dr. Max Dresden, physicist, humanitarian, thinker, philosopher, historian, teacher et amicus humani generis, succumbed to cancer. On that day a brilliant light went out but his legacy lives on. It lives on in all the lives he had touched, the least of which is mine, it lives on in the memory of his humanity and humility, his profound understanding of physics: the 62 successful Ph.D students he had mentored, all the graduate students that had studied under him and all those who had taken a course with him, those who shook his hand, the hand of a man who had worked with and had shaken the hand of…..Albert Einstein.

As I remember Dr. Dresden, reclining in his office during a light moment.
Dr. Dresden during a conversation in his office

This article can be considered a continuation of a thread started recently in this blog concerning the long-term future of the human race.

All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike-and yet it is the most precious thing we have

An index of all articles in this blog can be found here


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