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Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography Hardcover – October 18, 2016
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One of ABC News' “Top Five Science Books of 2016” (Australia)
"Einstein's Greatest Mistake is a pleasure... Bodanis gives voice to the women in Einstein's life, reflecting on their perspectives and quoting them when possible. Bodanis is nonjudgmental, albeit wistful that Einstein didn't accomplish more... [he] achieves a thoroughly engaging and illuminating read. "
“An intimate biography touching on the romances and rivalries of the celebrated physicist, as much as on his scientific goals, Einstein’s Greatest Mistake reveals what we owe Einstein today – and how much more he might have achieved if not for his all-too-human flaws.”
"The most fascinating aspect of London-based journalist David Bodanis’ biography Einstein’s Greatest Mistake is in revealing just how much of Einstein’s early success was related to his own dogged perseverance... [Bodanis] recounts the details of Einstein’s inspiration and work on the General Theory of Relativity in clear terms and with more historical context than what is usually found in textbooks."
"This perceptive biography shows how a genius fell out of favour with the scientific world."
—Sunday Times (UK), "Science Book of the Year"
"While we now remember Einstein for his early success and have reinvented him as a meme with crazy hair and sticking his tongue out, [Einstein's Greatest Mistake] reminds us to go beyond the cliché and remember the human — flawed, hubristic and alone — but no less the greatest genius of the modern age."
—ABC News (Australia), "Top Five Science Books of 2016"
“The author’s style is highly entertaining. The composition of the manuscript, interweaving stories of people, of scientific principles, of Einstein’s forward vision and troubling challenges, form a narrative that science readers will admire. For anyone interested in the greatest scientist of our time, this book should be required reading.”
“What Bodanis does brilliantly is to give us a feel for Einstein as a person. I don't think I've ever read a book that does this as well... Whenever there's a chance for storytelling, Bodanis triumphs.”
"A wonderful exposition of the life of Einstein... It comes... with Bodanis’ talent for explaining the maths and science of Einstein’s work. But the best part is the real feel it gives of Einstein the man, and his thinking."
“I urge you to buy David Bodanis’s new book Einstein’s Greatest Mistake...it’s a wonderful, fresh and readable take on one of the most fascinating lives in science.”
“An admiring but critical biography finds the great genius guilty of inflexible thinking in his later years.”
“Bodanis has… [an] extraordinary ability to explain complicated physics… Bodanis is a lot like Einstein—minus the great mistake. Both see fun in physics, both love simplicity and brevity. In this book, theories of the universe morph into theories of life.”
“Writer and futurist Bodanis (Passionate Minds) imparts fresh insight into the genius—and failures—of the 20th century’s most celebrated scientist...This provocative biography illuminates the human flaws that operate subtly in the shadows of scientific endeavor.”
“Bodanis explores Einstein’s all-too-human traits, from inflexibility to professional frustrations and the complications of his two marriages. By also explaining the theories that made Einstein Einstein, Bodanis crafts an accessible introduction to this iconic genius.”
“A brief biography of 'the greatest mind of the modern age' and his revolutionary ideas... Engaging and with more emphasis on the difficulties the scientist faced when physics moved away from the classical view he never abandoned.”
"Bodanis makes Einstein’s theories graspable. . . . [His] biography offers a window onto Einstein’s achievements and missteps, as well as his life—his friendships, his complicated love life (two marriages, many affairs) and his isolation from other scientists at the end of his life."
“Einstein’s greatest mistake was not his introduction of the Cosmological Constant in his famous equation of General Relativity, but rather his stubborn unwillingness to accept the reality of quantum mechanics. Once he divorced his thinking from the experimental forefront, his contributions to physics waned. David Bodanis gently describes Einstein’s growing detachment from modern physics, shedding light on both Einstein the man and on several of his theories that did change our concept of the Universe.”
From the Inside Flap
Widely considered the greatest genius of all time, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and helped to lead us into the atomic age. Yet, in the final decades of his life, he was ignored by most working scientists, his ideas opposed by even his closest friends.
As the renowned writer David Bodanis explains in Einsteins Greatest Mistake, this stunning downfall can be traced to Einsteins earliest successes and to personal qualities that were at first his best assets. Einsteins imagination and self-confidence served him well as he sought to reveal the universe's structure, but when it came to newer revelations in the field of quantum mechanics, these same traits undermined his quest for the ultimate truth. Bodanis traces the arc of Einsteins intellectual development across his professional and personal life, showing how Einsteins conviction in his own powers of intuition proved to be both his greatest strength and his ultimate undoing. An intimate and enlightening biography of the celebrated physicist, Einsteins Greatest Mistake reveals how much we owe Einstein todayand how much more he might have achieved if not for his all-too-human flaws.
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The author of Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography, David Bodanis, provides a few rudimentary explanations of Einstein's scientific discoveries using often used metaphors and amorphous descriptions, but crucially provides no context at all for the work, which impedes understanding. The book is essentially a repeat of any number of previously published popular accounts of the Einstein story but containing even less science than earlier books. What the author does seem fascinated by are the "number" of Einstein's so-called "affairs." These are mentioned throughout the book. Of course, no names are given as sources, no evidence of any kind is provided, no purpose for mentioning these "affairs" exists other than offering some titillating gossip. I suppose the author's avowed purpose is to show that Einstein was a flawed human being. I think we all know that all human beings are flawed in some fashion but that is not a license to offer gossip instead of real information. The truth is, this popular notion that we are all privy to the juiciest details of a person's private life is rubbish. In fact, we do have a right to privacy regardless of what an amoral and lascivious media assert. Unfortunately, Dr. Einstein is no longer alive and cannot defend himself. If I did not raise an objection to this, I would feel complicit.
Which leads me to what I found most disturbing about the book: its premise. As if to emphasize its revisionist purpose, the title is vague as to whether this is a biography of Einstein the man or a biography of his "greatest mistake." After publishing his General Theory of Relativity, Einstein became aware that it predicted the possibility of the expansion or contraction of the universe. Since the known universe at the time consisted only of the stable Milky Way galaxy, Einstein thought his Relativity prediction a mistake and added a "fudge factor" that we now call Einstein's Cosmological Constant. This constant removed the prediction of a dynamic universe but made the equation much "uglier" in Einstein's eyes. He hated it but felt it was necessary. Several years later astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe was more than a single, stable galaxy and that it was expanding. And the rate of expansion was linear: if you double the distance from our galaxy you double the rate of recession. Einstein seized on this discovery and quickly (and gratefully) removed his fudge factor, calling it "his greatest mistake."
The author tells this story in great detail but that is not the "Greatest Mistake" he refers to in his title. It's become a bit fashionable in some quarters to portray the last 30 years of Einstein's life as wasted years in which he accomplished nothing, completely isolated from the scientific mainstream, having become a cranky old man who through arrogance and misplaced pride stubbornly refused to acknowledge the absolute validity of Quantum Theory. It was hubris that made Einstein insist on working on his own "Unified Field Theory" (also known as the so-called Theory of Everything or TOE). And it is this that the author is alluding to as "Einstein's Greatest Mistake." The irony is, of course, that far from denying the reality of Quantum Theory, Einstein along with Max Planck was one of its founders. His 1905 paper on the Photoelectric effect was one of the theory's foundation stones. Einstein regarded Quantum Theory as incomplete and incompatible with his view that the universe - although strange and mysterious - was ultimately knowable and explicable. His arguments with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg revolved around their assertion that events on the sub-atomic level were contingent and indeterminate. One cannot visualize events on the quantum scale, Bohr and Heisenberg argued. For several generations of physicists this began the "shut-up and calculate" school of quantum theory.
Einstein rejected this view that nature was fundamentally unknowable, considering this attitude as simply giving-in to our own ignorance. There are many who feel that Einstein's stubbornness was the source of his greatness and not his tragedy. The notion of a Field Theory is hardly removed from mainstream physics. One of Einstein's heroes was James Clerk Maxwell and it was his seminal electromagnetic field equations that were a profound influence on his own thinking. Those equations, although abstract, were still descriptive of nature. Einstein never abandoned this profound viewpoint: that even strange and mysterious phenomena like electromagnetic waves can be understood through physical insight. He thought that sort of insight was missing from the direction quantum theory had taken. And there are intimations, given our increasingly apparent ignorance about the nature of the universe, with Dark Matter and Dark Energy constituting 96% of its material, that quantum theory and the so-called Standard Model of atomic particles are indeed incomplete. We simply don't yet understand the universe. Einstein's genius was evident in his ability to create "thought experiments" and mental pictures that encapsulated a truth about nature. His ability to visualize abstractions was unprecedented. When told that nature cannot be visualized, cannot be described and ultimately cannot be known, Einstein naturally rebelled. He was a great rebel all of his life, it was unlike him to give in without a fight.
The book contains some items of interest, however. The author tells a few moving stories, especially the tale of Henrietta Swan Leavitt and her epochal discovery of the relation between the luminosity and the period of Cepheid variable stars. It meant that their intrinsic brightness could be deduced from their apparent brightness, thus enabling cosmic distances to be determined with considerable accuracy. These stars became crucial "standard candles" useful for measuring vast distances in space. Her story as one of the Harvard College Observatory female "computers" that were treated with such shameful disdain by their male "superiors" is a profoundly touching and infuriating one. She was never recognized during her lifetime for her groundbreaking work. Unaware of her death four years prior, the Swedish mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler considered nominating her for the 1926 Nobel Prize in Physics, and wrote to astronomer Harlow Shapley (one of her "superiors") requesting more information on her work on Cepheid variables, and (touchingly) offering to send her his monograph on Sofia Kovalevskaya (the first major Russian female mathematician). Shapley informed Mittag-Leffler that Leavitt had recently died of cancer, and suggested that the true credit belonged to his (Shapley's) analysis and interpretation of her findings. Ultimately, she was never nominated because the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. Cephied variable stars are a fundamental tool for astronomers and Leavitt was their true discoverer, often forced to work secretly and with neither recognition nor gratitude.Though she was never paid more than $10.50 per week and was forced to hide her work, her discovery of a way to accurately measure distances on galactic scales paved the way for modern astronomy’s fundamental understanding of the structure, composition and scale of the universe. Edwin Hubble himself often said that Leavitt deserved the Nobel Prize for her work. Bodanis includes her story and I thought it an important story to tell. Bodanis is sensitive to the human attributes of science and they are the finest aspects of his book.
Ultimately, despite some interesting stories and a vibrant, highly readable writing style, I felt that there was not enough that was new that warranted a biography of Einstein and that its premise is seriously flawed, perhaps egregiously so. Einstein's contributions to science were so vast that they were sufficient to encompass ten lifetimes. That the greatest scientific genius since Isaac Newton felt strongly enough to reject aspects of a theory he felt did not advance our knowledge of nature, even though it was highly successful for computation purposes, is not surprising. Einstein remembered the Ptolemaic model of the heavens - whose descriptions of the sun, moon, planets and stars were perfectly correct for making calculations, despite requiring revision every few years by including new epicycles and new planetary motions - which lasted for more than 1500 years as our only working model of the heavens. And it was this model that Copernicus' heliocentric theory overthrew, despite its great success as a computational tool for more than 15 centuries. That was the kind of detail that would have made Einstein smile wryly and say " You see, maybe I am not so wrong."
In Einstein’s Greatest Mistake David Bodanis tells the fascinating story of how Einstein’s temperament and his earlier work led both to his scientific achievements and his later isolation from the mainstream of physics. In tracing Einstein’s life, the book covers the first half of the twentieth century and shows the effects of the many wars and political movements on the international physics community. Indeed, it was a community, and Einstein’s friends included pretty much all the important names in the field. We meet well-known people like Heisenberg, Hubble, and Schrodinger and lesser-known but important men, like Milton Humason, and the occasional woman, like Henrietta Leavitt, who did major work with the Magellanic Cloud. We also learn occasional interesting tidbits about their lives as well, including the fact that Olivia Newton-John was Max Born’s grand-daughter .
The full title of this book is “Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: A Biography”, and that might mislead some readers. This book is, indeed, about Einstein the man, but it would be difficult to tell his story without some discussion of the physics that was so central to his thinking. There is a lot of physics throughout the book, perhaps too much for some readers, although there are no equations and no special scientific or mathematical background is required (Sometimes Bodanis carries this a bit too far, such as when he explains what a lightyear is.). For those whose appetite for the science is whetted, though, Bodanis has provided a short Layman’s Guide to Relativity and a link to a further 22,000 words on the subject at his website.
Both science buffs, who are probably already familiar with the fact of Einstein’s alienation from mainstream physics in his later years, and general readers who can tolerate (or will be intrigued by) a fairly hefty dose of science will enjoy this portrayal of the human flaws present in even a legendary person like Albert Einstein.