Widely considered the greatest genius of all time, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and helped lead us into the atomic age. Read more...
Widely considered the greatest genius of all time, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and helped lead us into the atomic age. Yet in the final decades of his life, he was ignored by most working scientists, and his ideas were opposed by even his closest friends.
How did this happen? Einstein's imagination and self-confidence served him well when he was young. But when it came to the new field of quantum mechanics, the same traits undermined him. Bestselling biographer David Bodanis traces Einstein from the skeptical, erratic student to the world's most brilliant physicist--and then to the desolate, fallen-from-grace celebrity.
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.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-07-25
- Reviewer: Staff
Writer and futurist Bodanis (Passionate Minds) imparts fresh insight into the genius—and failures—of the 20th century’s most celebrated scientist. Einstein learned early on to follow his own curiosity rather than his teachers, and Bodanis shows how Einstein’s close friendships with a few young scientists gave him a supportive sounding board for his ideas. Later, Einstein’s dull patent-inspector job gave him time to work out the basics of relativity. Trouble arose when astronomical observations suggested, in opposition to Einstein’s equations, that the universe was unchanging. To make his math agree, Einstein reluctantly added a fudge factor called the cosmological constant, only to regret it when later observations showed the universe really was expanding and his original math had been correct all along. That experience, Bodanis says, made the scientist “downright obdurate” about considering experimental results—exactly the wrong tactic to take as quantum mechanics became the new language of modern physics. Bodanis is sympathetic but realistic: Einstein’s stubbornness effectively ended his career, leaving him isolated and marginalized as the rest of physics moved forward. This provocative biography illuminates the human flaws that operate subtly in the shadows of scientific endeavor. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville & Walsh. (Oct.)
Einstein's imperfect theory
Wait—Albert Einstein, whose equations revolutionized our understanding of the origins of the universe, made a mistake? That’s what science writer David Bodanis posits in Einstein’s Greatest Mistake. The personal qualities that allowed the young Einstein to make such enormous breakthroughs kept him from making similar advances in later years, Bodanis writes.
In this chatty account, Bodanis gives us Einstein the young man, trapped in his Bern Patent Office clerkship, struggling to find a teaching post and attached to Mileva Marić, a former mathematics student whom his parents couldn’t stand. Bodanis makes Einstein’s theories graspable, using analogies and illustrations to explain Einstein’s 1905 paper linking energy and mass (E = mc2), and his 1915 general relativity theory (G = T), which indicated that the universe was expanding. Contemporary astronomers saw the universe as static, and so Einstein revised his theory, a mistake that laid the groundwork for another mistake, in Bodanis’ view. Later, experimental scientists like Cambridge astronomer Arthur Eddington, Radcliffe graduate Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proved that Einstein had been correct at the start: The universe was expanding.
Meanwhile, the state of subatomic physics changed too, as physicists Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger theorized that the tiniest particles don’t behave according to the expected laws of physics. Even as experimental evidence supporting this theory grew, Einstein disagreed, assuming future experiments would prove him right. Einstein’s stubborn refusal to accept this concept was his greatest mistake, Bodanis writes: “In his theory of 1915, [Einstein] had revealed the underlying structure of our universe, and he had been right when everyone else had been wrong. He wasn’t going to be misled again.” This refusal isolated him from the younger generation of scientists.
Bodanis’ 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.