Spoilers for Watchmen are relatively plentiful below.
Like Watchmen itself, The Annotated Watchmen v2.0 is divided into chapters, and the beginning of each chapter’s annotations outlines its motifs, its focus, its cover, and the source of its title quotation. Thus it is that as we enter Chapter 4, we focus on its epigraph, which the annotations cite as “A quotation from Albert Einstein.” Specifically, the epigraph is this:
The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking… The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.
— Albert Einstein
There’s only one problem: Einstein never said this. As Leslie Klinger correctly points out, the source of this alleged quote has not been found, and professional quote verifier Ralph Keyes has flatly stated that “Einstein said no such thing.” (The Quote Verifier, pg. 53.)
The “quote” is in fact cobbled together from various things that Einstein said or sort-of said, but assembled to imply a sense that is quite false to Einstein’s actual viewpoints. There are three fundamental pieces to the epigraph:
1) “The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking.”
Our world faces crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
In the context created by Watchmen, this first portion of the Einstein “quote” sounds a bit resigned. In its true context, however, and with its final clause restored, it’s meant to instill a driving sense of urgency. The telegram winds up with a pitch for money — two hundred thousand dollars for a “nationwide campaign to let the people know that new type of thinking essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.”
Einstein passionately believed that atomic weapons were too dangerous to rest in the hands of individual nations, and that the information on how to create them should be held only by a “supranational” world government organization. This was the mode of thinking he wished to change — a focus away from nationalism, and toward a one-world philosophy. Away from competition, toward cooperation. Having lived through two World Wars and having seen a Holocaust perpetrated against his people, Einstein felt convinced that if individual nations held atomic weapons, they would certainly use them against each other. He saw arms control as humanity’s best hope.
Unfortunately, though the Emergency Committee promoted peace plans, gave speeches, and even produced a couple of short movies to support its peaceful message, that message failed to gain a foothold in a world whose international temperature was rapidly plummeting toward Cold War. The Committee disbanded in 1951. Incidentally, one of the groups it funded during its lifespan was the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, also co-founded by Einstein, and more importantly for our purposes, creators of the Doomsday Clock whose iconography Moore and Gibbons weave into every issue of Watchmen.
2) “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.”
The ellipsis in Chapter 4’s epigraph is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Normally that punctuation mark suggests that we’re skipping over some superfluous material to arrive at a later point in the same quoted document. However, this “heart of mankind” sentence does not appear at all in the Emergency Committee’s fundraising telegram. It instead paraphrases a sentiment that the post-WWII Einstein frequently expressed, one which was arguably most prominent in a June 23, 1946 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Real Problem Is In the Hearts of Men.” Note that here Einstein does not argue that the solution is to be found in humanity’s heart, but rather the problem itself.
This article leads off with a recapitulation of the “new type of thinking” quote from the Emergency Committee’s telegram, so it’s reasonable enough to assume that “this problem” does in fact refer to the change in thinking Einstein saw as necessary. He then goes on to argue that the bomb makes armies irrelevant, now that nations can wage war on each other with rockets while never crossing each other’s borders. Furthermore, science has no defense against this kind of attack, and therefore national military buildup has become an obsolete strategy to secure safety. This article has several versions of Einstein’s famous “We cannot simultaneously plan for war and peace” sentiment, in service once again of the world government proposal.
The problem, as he states it, is that humans must cooperate to avoid self-inflicted destruction, but that competition comes much more easily to us than does cooperation. “It is easier to denature plutonium,” he asserts, “than it is to denature the evil spirit of man.” And yet, his only option is to speak to our higher selves, hoping to persuade enough people to change their way of thinking. “We will not change the hearts of other men by mechanisms,” he says, “but by changing our hearts and speaking bravely… When we are clear in heart and mind — only then shall we find courage to surmount the fear which haunts the world.”
This topic comes up a lot in a book called Einstein and the Poet, a fairly low-quality retelling of some Einstein interviews in which “the poet” (as the author has dubbed himself) speaks with Einstein on four different occasions: once before World War II, once during, and twice after. In the later discussions, Einstein returns again and again to the theme that humanity’s only hope is to alter its own heart. A sample:
I agree with you, intellect has never saved the world. If we want to improve the world we cannot do it with scientific knowledge but with ideals. Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Gandhi have done more for humanity than science has done. We must begin with the heart of man — with his conscience — and the values of conscience can only be manifested by selfless service to mankind. (The pages are unnumbered in this book, so I can’t cite a page number.)
However, while it’s true that Einstein saw this change as humanity’s only hope, his outlook was not optimistic. When “the poet” asks him, “Why is it that you stand so alone in your plan to create a supranational government?”, Einstein replies, “Because men don’t want to change their hearts. At the bottom of all problems stands the human animal, with his greed.”
If the need to change our way of thinking is the problem, than of course the solution must come from within us, but Einstein didn’t tend to see “the heart of mankind” as a solution, but rather as a problem which must be overcome despite humanity’s natural inclinations.
3) “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”
Here we come to the most problematic piece of them all. While it’s very difficult to prove a negative, no one who has researched this quote can find any place where Einstein expresses any wistful proclivity for making watches. More’s the pity (I almost said “Moore’s the pity”) for Watchmen, which relies on that sentiment to tie Jon Osterman the walking bomb to his watchmaking father, and to the clock motif of the whole book. The very chapter title, “Watchmaker”, relies on the one word of this quote that Einstein does not seem to have said at all.
Not only that, but where Einstein did express this sort of regretful sentiment (albeit always with other professions like plumber or cobbler), it was not in the context that this epigraph tries to present. In the “quote” of Chapter 4’s last panel, the “if only I had known” seems to refer back to “the release of atom power”, and “this problem” of needing to instill new thinking in old human brains. The suggestion seems to be that if Einstein had known his investigations into relativity would result in the atomic bomb, he would never have become a scientist at all. But while he did feel some amount of guilt for his role in the bomb’s arrival, he never tied that guilt to any hindsight renunciation of his scientific career. On the contrary, science remained the guiding light of his entire life through his old age, and he continued passionately to advocate on behalf of its search for truth.
Now, he was certainly known to inveigh against things that irritated him in the human or physical realm, and to do so by rhetorically making a retroactive change to his profession — just not about his role in the creation of the bomb. Probably his most well-known use of this formula was in an 1954 interview in which he was bemoaning McCarthyism’s effects on academia.
In pushing back against the politicization of his profession, he stated that if he were young again and had to decide how to make a living in 1954, “I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope of finding that modest degree of independence still available.” In other words, he’d still pursue science, just outside the academic cloister that had become a target of the political right. (This assertion, by the way, won him an honorary membership card in a plumber’s union.) (Einstein: His Life And Universe, pg. 533-4)
Even thirty years earlier, in a 1924 letter to Max Born, he made a statement like this about his deep discomfort with quantum physics and its notions of using probabilities and uncertainties in its model of the physical world:
I find it quite intolerable that an electron exposed to radiation should choose of its own free will not only its moment to jump off but also its direction. In that case, I would rather be a cobbler, or even an employee of a gaming house, than a physicist. (Ibid., pg. 325)
This is not a statement of regret or guilt, but more an ultimatum delivered to physics itself. Though he’s often mistakenly associated with relativism (rather than relativity), Einstein in fact believed wholly in a physics whose rules were certain and unvarying — in fact he nearly named his theory of relativity the Invariance Theory, due to its strict causality and its assertion that the relationship between space and time remains constant no matter from what perspective it is viewed.
He spent the latter half of his career challenging Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Niels Bohr’s probabilistic model of the atom, frequently reiterating various versions of “God does not play dice with the universe.” Far from dramatically abandoning his discoveries, his letter to Born about wanting to be a cobbler or gaming-house employee was a rhetorical position that demanded the falsity of quantum theory in order for physics to retain Einstein’s allegiance. He remained loyal to his deterministic vision throughout his life, ironically displaying a reluctance to change his own mode of thinking.
The closest approximation I could find to any wish on Einstein’s part to revise his past because of the bomb didn’t invoke any other profession at all. In 1939, Einstein had co-authored a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, warning him that a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium could be made into an extremely powerful bomb, and that German scientists might be pursuing such a bomb. The letter suggested that Roosevelt may want to have “some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.” Roosevelt agreed, and the result was the Manhattan Project.
After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the conclusion of World War II, Einstein was horrified by the moral dimensions of the bomb. Due to his letter to Roosevelt and his E=mc2 equation demonstrating the relationship between mass and energy, the popular press tagged Einstein as “father of the bomb”, though he’d done none of the technological work necessary to bring it to fruition. He was deeply uncomfortable with this label, lamenting the Roosevelt letter in a 1947 Newsweek article: “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”
Again, this quote does not in the slightest shy away from a career in physics, let alone yearn for one in watchmaking. Instead, his sense of regret spurred his quest for a world government. Meanwhile Truman, that leader so beloved by Rorschach, dropped the bomb “with little high-level debate.” (Ibid, pg. 484)
Pieces of Time
So okay, Einstein didn’t really say what Watchmen says he said. But Chapter 4 focuses on Doctor Manhattan, and even choosing Einstein as the figure for the epigraph, regardless of the accuracy of the words, feels like a rich connection. What light can Einstein shed on the good Doctor?
Well, for one thing, their personalities have some attributes in common. Einstein was rebellious where Jon is passive, but they shared a similar difficulty in dealing with humans, especially in Einstein’s childhood. Einstein biographer Walter Isaacson wrote, “To use the language of psychologists, the young Einstein’s ability to systemize (identify the laws that govern a system) was far greater than his ability to empathize (sense and care about what other humans are feeling).” (Ibid., pg. 12) This doesn’t necessarily mean that he was “on the spectrum” as we say now (though some have certainly argued that case) — in fact he became very socially skilled in his adulthood. But human beings did pose more of a puzzle for him throughout his life than other natural phenomena — he knew how everything in this world fits together except people.
Perhaps related to this sense of remove, Einstein seemed to share with Dr. Manhattan a certain indifference to death. Here’s a quote from his letter of condolence to the family of his dear friend Michele Besso:
Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion. (The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, pg. 113)
Not only does his quote (to a grieving family!) veer rather close to “A live body and a dead body contain the same number of particles” territory, he also seems to echo Doctor Manhattan’s insistence that linear time is an illusion.
From here, it’s probably worth a step or two into the theory of relativity, a theory that has some rather surprising implications for the Watchmen universe. I’m hardly an expert on the topic, and I’d welcome any corrections, but based on my understanding, the first piece of this theory that Einstein worked out, leading to his landmark paper on special relativity in 1905, was a realization about time. In the Newtonian model of the 19th century and prior, time exists in a pure form, detached from observation — Newton wrote in his Principia, “Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external.”
Einstein, however, asserted that time is not absolute, but rather localized to each individual observer, with no way to determine what observation is “correct”. What seems simultaneous to one observer may not be so to another, and those observations depend upon the observer’s position and movement through space, thus revealing time and space as dimensions of the same fundamental fabric.
Now, consider that realization in light of a universe in which one tall blue observer experiences all occurrences as simultaneous, independent of his relationship to space. Does this disrupt the relativistic model? Jon certainly seems to think so. In his frustration at how humans insist on on seeing the “intricately structured jewel” of time edge by edge, he strongly implies that his viewpoint is the correct one, whereas in a relativistic model, he might see that his experience of time is no more or less true than Laurie’s. The notion of time as an “intricately structured jewel” rather than a quality woven together with space seems to me somehow even more Newtonian than time as “absolute, true, and mathematical.” One wonders if Jon is mistaking his own observations for fact, just as Newton did before he was upended by Einstein.
But while Jon’s experience of a whole and “true” time may seem Newtonian, the idea that all of it is predetermined actually fits quite well into Einstein’s worldview. In a 1929 interview, Einstein stated plainly: “I am a determinist. I do not believe in free will.” In this way, his viewpoint comports well with Dr. Manhattan’s experience of reality. As Isaacson explains, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet, or star.” (Ibid, pg. 391) For Einstein, everything was governed by natural laws, including humans. It must have been enticing to believe that if he could only discover the full truth of those laws, the future would be laid out before him, just as it is for Doctor Manhattan.
Spooky Action At A Distance
This is why Einstein was so deeply discomfited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which states that, “an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it… It asserts that there is no objective reality — not even objective position of a particle — outside of our observations.” (Again, summarized by Isaacson, pg. 331-32) This assertion undermined the strict causality in which Einstein believed, and further fueled the arguments he had been having with Bohr about the structure of the atom and, by a web of interconnections, about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Bohr’s theories and observations seemed to argue against the existence of laws that determined a strict system of causation, and therefore against the existence of an objective reality, and certainly against Einstein’s determinism.
It would seem a question more for philosophers than physicists, but the quantum theory of Bohr and Heisenberg stood against Einstein’s notions of invariance to pose the fundamental query, “Is everything in the universe predetermined?” In the Watchmen universe, at least as experienced by Doctor Manhattan, the answer would seem to be: yes! It would have to be, in order for the Doctor to perceive time as all one piece. Einstein insists that God does not play dice, and Dr. Manhattan’s experience proves him right. But in fact, it appears that in our universe, he is wrong. In our universe, Bohr’s rejoinder is relevant: that it is not for us to tell God how to run his creation.
Einstein refused to accept quantum mechanical theory throughout his life, asserting that at best it is incomplete — he steadfastly refused to believe in the “spooky action at a distance” its tenets seemed to require. Consequently, he devoted much of his brilliance in the latter half of his career to devising thought experiments that could undermine the foundations of quantum physics. He co-published one of the most effective of these with Nathan Rosen and Boris Podolsky, and it became known as the EPR paradox, after the initials of its authors’ last names.
Put simply, the argument asks us to consider two particles that have collided or been emitted from the same source, and whose properties are thus correlated. Quantum theory states that until these particles are observed, their position and momentum exist in multiple states at once. But once we observe the first particle, we know something about the second due to their correlation, without ever having observed the second. For Einstein, this meant that the second particle has a reality of its own which exists independent of its observation — otherwise the first particle would have to somehow communicate with the second particle faster than the speed of light, which would violate the theory of relativity.
Bohr responded by introducing the concept of quantum entanglement. Because the particles have affected each other, they are “entangled” despite their distance from each other, and thus part of the same system. To deal further with the EPR paradox, some quantum theorists introduced the notion of branching alternate histories. Isaacson:
In the case of the EPR thought experiment, the position of one of the two particles is measured on one branch of history. Because of the common origin of the particles, the position of the other one is determined as well. On a different branch of history, the momentum of one of the particles may be measured, and the momentum of the other one is also determined. On each branch nothing occurs that violates the laws of classical physics. The information about one particle implies the corresponding information about the other one, but nothing happens to the second particle as a result of the measurement of the first one. So there is no threat to special relativity and its prohibition of instantaneous transmission of information. What is special about quantum mechanics is that the simultaneous determination of the position and the momentum of a particle is impossible, so if these two determinations occur, it must be on different branches of history.(pg. 460)
Thus histories branch out from each other based on the “decisions” made by particles of their direction & speed. This “decoherent histories” view is fundamentally antithetical to Einstein’s determinism, and to Dr. Manhattan’s experience of time as a single coherent block. Yet the Doctor is no stranger to submatomic physics, locating gluinos & being muddled by tachyons. How can we reconcile his subatomic awareness with his encompassing knowledge of the future, which seems fundamentally hostile to the notion of probabilities and uncertainties?
Are alternate histories a way out? Perhaps what the Doctor thinks of as his single jewel of perceived time is only one of an infinite array of such jewels? I think this line of reasoning shuts down rather quickly. Doctor Manhattan doesn’t just know or predict the future — Chapter 4 demonstrates clearly that he experiences the future even as he experiences what the rest of us would call the present and the past, all simultaneously. If there were any uncertainty involved, he’d be experiencing a range of possible futures all at once, not just one. His experience still stands with the theories of Einstein, shutting down those of Bohr.
But wait. We may be able to reconcile these two seemingly antagonistic theories through the work of one more quantum physicist: Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger, like Einstein, had his doubts about the prevailing interpretations of quantum theory, and also like Einstein, loved a good thought experiment. In fact, his most famous thought experiment by far was directly influenced by Einstein, both his work and Schrödinger’s discussions with him. I’m referring of course to the unfortunate feline known as Schrödinger’s cat.
A brief summary: Schrödinger posited a cat inside a closed, opaque box, in which there is a tiny amount of a radioactive substance, one which has a 50% chance of decaying in the course of an hour. If the substance decays, it emits a particle which causes the cat to be poisoned. If it doesn’t, the cat is safe. The prevailing quantum theory of the time (called the Copenhagen interpretation) asserts that the particle’s behavior is governed by a probability waveform until such time as its behavior is observed, at which point the waveform collapses into an observed behavior which conforms to classical mechanics. Thus, until the box is opened, the cat is (according to the Copenhagen interpretation) both alive and dead at the same time.
For us humans, the future is rather like that closed box — indeterminate and existing in a variety of possible states at once, until we observe what actually occurs. As it becomes the present and then instantly the past, its waveform collapses into a single, clear reality. Up until November 22, 1959, that’s what the future was like in the Watchmen universe too. But on that day, Jon Osterman reassembled his components in the correct sequence, and became the fully fleshed Doctor Manhattan for the first time. On that day, he became aware of all times simultaneously, experiencing them as a coherent whole. On that day, he opened the box.
Might it be the case that Jon’s incarnation as Doctor Manhattan is the event that collapsed the waveform of the future into a single reality? And if so, knowing that his powers also allow him to control that reality down to its smallest particle, what part might his consciousness have played in the shape that future took? In becoming unmoored from linear time, could his sudden awareness of the future have created that future? At the end of the book, Jon decides he’s going to go to some less complicated galaxy and create some human life. But what if he already has?
All the living and dead cats and other beings of Watchmen snapped into a single observed reality in that one November moment. What influence Jon had over them, it’s obviously impossible to say. He was an oddly passive 20th century man, a frustrated watchmaker and a reluctant physicist. The course of his life was forcibly altered by his father, based on the existence of the atomic bomb. He had recently experienced the profound trauma of having his body dismantled down to the atomic level, then putting it back together for himself. If he decided the future, might it look like a confused horrorshow that somehow does stop the bombs from falling? Perhaps it might.
But if Jon truly is the observer of the open box of time, there are some things we’re hard pressed to explain given the evidence of the text. There are several times we witness limits to Jon’s understanding, superior though it may be to any human’s. What are we to make of his drive to search out particles and add them to the bestiary? Surely if he’s aware of every infinitesimal piece of reality, he’d already know where all the gluinos are, wouldn’t he? So there must be a frontier of his awareness at the subatomic level. Furthermore, his awareness of the single jewel of time must be incomplete if he can be muddled by tachyons, right? There must be parts of the future whose waveform is still intact, still within that closed box, shielded even from his sight.
This is the level at which Watchmen itself begins to decohere. For all its astonishing structural integrity, the early issues of the book were released before the final ones had been written. Moore himself has affirmed on numerous occasions his surprise at some of the deeper levels that he and Gibbons found themselves reaching as the creation continued. Thus are inconsistencies introduced, and although Moore and Gibbons do a marvelous job of spackling most of the cracks, they don’t get them all. If Watchmen were a true “graphic novel” — created as a single whole and released as such — rather than a Dickensian serial collage, perhaps we wouldn’t bump into these logical problems with Doctor Manhattan.
In the world of comics, we call these continuity problems — the way something established in an early issue grates against something in a later one. People loved to write into Marvel and point them out, and Marvel decided to give those people a little award made of words only, literally called a “no-prize”. Then they got even cleverer, crowdsourcing solutions to these problems by saying that they’d only give no-prizes to those readers who not only find the problems but find an explanation to solve them.
So let me take my own shot at a Watchmen no-prize, with this suggestion about Doctor Manhattan. On the day he becomes himself, he experiences all his times at once, and perceives himself as knowing how he’d act in all of those times, and how others would too. But his understanding is more limited than he knows it is, and his freedom less limited than he believes. He could in fact choose to behave differently than he experiences himself doing, but if he did, he wouldn’t be Jon Osterman anymore, the man whose moves are all made by other people. His fate isn’t pre-determined, but rather calculated on a scale that is precise but not infinitely precise. He is still vulnerable to thermodynamic miracles he wasn’t expecting.