Is the Universe friendly?

by Michael Colantoni

This is my favorite Einstein story.

Shortly before Einstein’s death, he realized he had very limited time left. He wrote to many of his former students, colleagues, and friends. He had decided to have a final audience with them in Princeton, New Jersey. He wanted to set up a situation wherein they could ask him any question about his work, his life, and his view of the future. He promised to answer any question, personal or scientific.

Around 300 people responded and, aware that Einstein’s energy was limited by his age and condition, they arranged to get together three days before the meeting. Their purpose was to sort out and prioritize their questions so that they would (1) not overtax this generous genius and (2) make sure the more important questions were answered first.

As the story goes, they rented a hotel in Princeton. For the first two and a half days, they did nothing but argue about which questions should be asked first. During the afternoon of the third day, a brilliant scientist from Europe proposed that, with no real prospect for agreement about which questions were the most important, they should ask the “old man himself” to designate the most important question they could ask.

That idea broke the stalemate and brought agreement to the group. Most of those attending suspected that Einstein would propose a question about his current interest, the Unified Field Theory.

The next morning, Einstein sat on the stage, in a rocking chair, before this audience representing many of the world’s most outstanding minds. The moderator asked for quiet and proposed the most agreed-on question: “Dr. Einstein, the first question we would like to ask you is: ‘What is the most important question we could ask today?'”

Without hesitation, Einstein replied, “The most important question you could ever ask is: ‘Is the Universe a friendly place?'” This was not the reply the audience anticipated, but it is the most important question we can ask.