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Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius Hardcover – September 17, 2008

3.5 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

In Einstein's Mistakes, Hans C. Ohanian draws on his own background in physics to gleefully point out some of Einstein's more glaring errors. That part of the book is solid, and readers will find a capable guide in Ohanian. What might be less engaging is the author's fast-and-loose writing style (Van Gogh became a great artist "when he went bonkers") and a tendency to botch some of the historical facts (related to Einstein's research, his Nobel Prize, and so forth) that underpin much of the narrative. Still, the book's ambitious scope—when calling out Einstein, writers weak of heart need not apply—and Ohanian's self-assured reportage make this a worthwhile read. Bring your thinking cap.
Copyright 2008 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

From Booklist

*Starred Review* In this “forensic biography,” Ohanian shows astonished readers that the most brilliant scientist of the twentieth century was frequently found making—in his own words—“a sacrifice on the altar of stupidity.” The great physicist’s admirers may already know that Einstein foolishly defied the quantum revolution he helped launch. The well-informed may even know something of Einstein’s disastrous missteps in his personal life. But it will come as a revelation to most readers that scientists have identified serious flaws in four of the five papers that established Einstein’s reputation during his annus mirabilis of 1905. Ohanian drops an even bigger bombshell in documenting Einstein’s repeated failure to provide a valid proof for his most famous equation: E = mc2. More surprising than the number and severity of Einstein’s errors, however, is the mystifying way the Berne genius reached correct—even revolutionary—conclusions despite these mistakes. In strange ways, some of Einstein’s blunders (such as the synchronization error in his “Special Relativity” paper) actually helped him achieve theoretical breakthroughs. Drawing on Arthur Koestler’s provocative analysis of Kepler, Ohanian characterizes Einstein as a similarly charmed sleepwalker whose profound intuition guided him to epoch-making conclusions along tortured pathways. A compelling portrait of a titan who stumbled his way into immortality. --Bryce Christensen

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (September 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062937
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062939
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,312,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Hans Ohanian studied physics at Berkeley and at Princeton, where he worked on relativity with John A. Wheeler. He has taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, the University of Rome, and the University of Vermont. He is the author of several physics textbooks and dozens of articles dealing with relativity, gravitation, and quantum theory, including many articles on fundamental physics published in the American Journal of Physics, where he served as associate editor for several years. Of late, he has become interested in the ecological and economic aspects of renewable energy systems in Vermont, where he lives. His favorite renewable system is his sailboat "ARCHIMEDES," on which he cruises on Lake Champlain.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I really enjoyed reading this book, because Ohanian covers some ground that I have not seen anywhere else, and he calls it the way he sees it. As a genuine trained relativist, he knows what he is talking about when he argues the physics.

However, I believe that he is a bit unfair to Einstein in calling him out for so many "mistakes":

- I do not agree that Einstein's argument for time synchronization was a "mistake": It was a REQUIREMENT following from the fact that no velocity of the Earth relative to the ether could be found. It is true that, if the Michelson-Morley result had given a positive result, Einstein's synchronization mechanism would have failed as being self-inconsistent, so in that sense it was an over-statement by Einstein to call his mechanism a "free act of will." But the argument itself is valid as an expression of what followed from the null result of M&M.

- The later argument by Swann that explained the Lorentz contraction in terms of dynamical effects was also valuable, but different. The preceding work by Lorentz and Poincare are also more in this school of thought: What do you expect to happen starting from Maxwell's equations and so forth? But these two approaches are both valuable and complementary.

- I do not agree that Einstein's argument for E = mc^2 is a "mistake". It is not valid as a mathematical proof, but it is an excellent heuristic argument. Given that it comes out of the blue, it is very suggestive, and convinces one that "there's gold in them thar hills." For a pioneer that is stumbling across this for the first time, it is like a miracle. The fact that more systematic and complete arguments are needed do not change that.
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Format: Hardcover
The text presents a mix of light biography, theory explanation, and analysis of errors in a blend appropriate to support the major thesis--that Einstein made mistakes. The text is well written, generally balanced in structure, and enjoyable. Early chapters develop Einstein's career in the greater field of physics, first presenting the advances of Galileo, Newton, Lorentz, and others. Einstein is then presented as a young man working as a patent clerk and desiring a university posting--a posting beyond his grasp due to mediocre grades, poor personal hygiene, and challenged interpersonal skills. The book then follows his entire career. The included biography however is spotty and highlights anecdotes, but does not attempt to explain the man in notable detail--though the text is not intended as a comprehensive biography. Throughout, Einstein is presented as self-promoting, prone to foibles, a lousy mathematician, excessively proud, human--and also intelligent in the arena of physics. The author clearly does not hold Einstein in the same fabled light favored by conventional wisdom, for example presenting Einstein's initial forays into general relatively as "a performance worthy of Elmer Fudd" (p. 196) and suggesting that many of Einstein's theoretical advances were either proposed earlier by others, co-discovered but not co-attributed, or were invalid in detail while only accidentally correct in the general case. These various issues form the bulk of what the text terms Einstein's mistakes, noting "Einstein made so many mistakes in his scientific work that it is hard to keep track of them" (p. 327). The text does not claim to discover any mistakes--they are all attributed to other sources in the two-dozen pages of endnotes.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
Ohanian seems willing to be sloppy or distort the truth in order to rack up points against Einstein. For example, he writes: "It was not until 1941 that the American physicist W.F.G. Swann revisited Lorentz's arguments in the context of relativistic quantum mechanics and showed that, indeed, the length contraction emerges from a quantum-theoretical calculation of the length of a solid body when the length of a moving solid body is compared with the length of a similar body at rest."

I was inclined to accept this statement until I went to the trouble of looking up the actual paper, W.F.G. Swann, "Relativity, the Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction, and Quantum Theory," Rev. Mod. Phys., 13, 197 (1941). What the Swann actually does is this. He describes the process of accelerating a measuring rod from an initial state of rest in the lab frame. He considers the problem that it may be difficult to distinguish between two possibilities: (1) the rod becomes Lorentz-contracted, and (2) the rod suffers a mechanical contraction because of the stress imposed by accelerating it. He claims (and I think this is correct) that if all you know is the Lorentz transformation, you can't tell whether the result of the experiment actually verifies the Lorentz transformation (#1) or not (#2); you need some specific physical theory that's capable of describing the structure and dynamics of solid rods. He hypothesizes a Lorentz-invariant theory of quantum mechanics capable of addressing this problem, which didn't actually exist at the time. What he does know, based on the state of the art at the time, is that quantum-mechanical systems have ground states. Then he argues that after you're done accelerating the rod, it will settle back down into its ground state (assuming you accelerate it gently enough).
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