STARRED REVIEW
November 2016

Einstein’s imperfect theory

By David Bodanis
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.
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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.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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