Thursday, December 10, 2015


Not exactly a biography but more of a year by year recounting of Einstein's scientific papers along with significant events of his personal life and world events to situate the science. The book begins with a brief timeline of the years 1879 (when Einstein was born on March 14) to 1900 and opens in the year 1901 with his first scientific paper 'Conclusions drawn from the Phenomena of Capillarity' in Annalen der Physik. not world stunning, but quite competent. From here it's up and away, but there are still only four more papers until the year 1905 when five papers changed physics forever. 'On a Heuristic point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light' introduced the quantum theory of light. 'On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in Liquids at Rest' established the mathematical description of Brownian motion and, believe it or not, is Einstein's most cited paper. There was also 'A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions', A rework of Einstein's doctoral thesis.

There were two papers that presented the theory of special relativity: 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies' and 'Does the Inertia of a Body Depend On Its Energy Content'. All of these papers were presented in Annalen der Physik. The latter two papers presented postulates such as the constancy of the speed of light, the equivalence of mass and energy and the connectedness of space and time. This was Einstein's 'Miraculous Year' when modern physics was born. Note that he early contributed to the theories of quantum mechanics which were to give him so much worry in later years.

Over the next few years Einstein elaborated on the ideas presented in his papers of 1905 and began to publish in journals other than Annalen der Physik. As he developed his theories other experimentalists such as Rutherford developed the nucleus/electron model of the atom, and the gene theory of heredity was being elaborated. It was a time of rapid advance in many fields not just in physics. While the scientists drove forward in their laboratories the world of politics fell back into the modern barbarism od WW1. With this Einstein began his career as a 'public intellectual' by declaring himself as a pacifist associating himself with anti-war initiatives, all of which were fruitless. The first test of Einstein's theory was to occur by observations of a group of German scientists of an eclipse of the sun in Russia. The eclipse happened on the same day war was declared. The scientists were imprisoned, and the test never happened. The confirmation of relativity waited until 1919 and Eddington's expedition.

While WW1 raged Einstein worked further on his relativity theory. In 1915 three new papers, 'On the General Theory of Relativity', 'Explanation of the Perihelion Motion of Mercury from the General Theory of Relativity' and 'The Field Equations of Gravitation' expanded his 1905 special relativity into the 'general theory of relativity'. The new picture of space and time was complete, or at least as complete as it could be given what was known about the Universe at that time. With these papers the flatness of space-time that remained even in special relativity curled up to produce the curved space of his theory of gravitation. All this time Einstein continued his work in quantum theory and his contribution to pacifist causes.

Others began to work with Einstein's theories. In 1916 Karl Schwarzschild solved Einstein's equations for the area surrounding a star. He showed that as the star's radius shrunk to number less than (2GM)/(c^2) the 'Schwarzschild Radius' the curvature became infinite. Thus was born the idea of the 'black hole'. Einstein began to write popular accounts of his theories. In a 1917 paper on the large scale structure of the Universe he introduced his 'cosmological constant' to account for what was believed at the time to be a static universe. As evidence for an expanding universe came to light he began to describe this as, "my greatest error". Yet further on in history with the discovery of 'dark energy', however, it turned out to be right after all. Efforts began to unify the forces of nature, gravitation with all the others. Only electromagnetism was known at the time; the strong and weak nuclear forces were yet to be discovered. Despite the efforts of Einstein and many others the unification of gravity with the other forces remains unsolved today.

The war ended. A new solar eclipse was due, over the Atlantic, and Einstein's explanation of the bending of starlight around the sun could be tested. Eddington's expedition found the proof, four days before Einstein's wedding. It was a good year for Albert.

After this decade of discovery Einstein's life remained productive but never again "reordered the universe". Einstein intensified his pacifist, democratic socialist and Zionist activity. Though he never joined a Zionist organization and even declared that he was not a Zionist he continued to sympathize with the idea of a homeland for the world's Jewry. His socialism could at times be quite radical. It's not in the book, but in a visit to Barcelona he went out of his way to visit the headquarters of the anarchosyndicalist CNT. His nephew Karl was a more convinced anarchist and fought with their militias during the Spanish Civil War.

The story continues year by year, weaving Einstein's personal life with the events of the day, his popularization of physics, his political activity and his continued scientific work. In 1920 he first conceived the idea of nuclear power, but as yet he had no idea of how it would come about. Einstein was 'in demand', and he soon began to travel the world. With the rise of Nazism in Germany Albert and his family wisely decided to emigrate  In 1933 they sailed for America which was to be his home of the rest of his life. In the face of the rise of Hitler Einstein began to modify his pacifism. With the outbreak of WW2 he was one of the motive forces behind convincing the Americans to develop the atomic bomb for fear that the Nazis might develop it first.

He remained in Princeton through the rest of his life, still productive scientifically and mentoring new generations of physicists. After the war he, like many of the scientists connected to the creation of atomic weaponry, developed great concern with their potential for destruction, and he spend much time in his latter years campaigning for the UN as a 'world government' and for disarmament. His original scientific output declines, but with a younger collaborator he continued publication right up to his death in 1955.

I can  heartily recommend this book. The author manages to present all of Einstein's scientific output with clear explanations appended to the most significant ones. His wider political and philosophic writings are also documented if not in such detail. The yearly almanac formula works masterfully and allows the author to situate the science in the context of Einstein's personal life, world events and developments in other scientific fields. She concludes with a useful bibliography, index and photo credit list.

It was a worthwhile read.