From English: Haim Shmueli. Philosophy and Science series edited by Dr. Yehuda Meltzer Attic Books and Yediot Books 312 pages.
Many consider Albert Einstein the greatest of geniuses: his theory of general relativity revolutionized our understanding of the universe, and his discoveries led us to the atomic age. But in the later decades of his life, most active scientists ignored him, and even his closest friends did not take his ideas seriously.
In the book Einstein's big mistake David Bodanis reveals the roots of this deterioration: the qualities that brought Einstein his fame at the beginning of his career - imagination, boldness, absolute self-confidence - and served him faithfully in his quest to reveal the structure of the universe, are the same qualities that caused him not to accept the new discoveries in quantum mechanics and harmed his search after the absolute truth.
Bodanis traces Einstein's intellectual career and personal life, and shows how his absolute belief in his abilities and intuitions brought him to the pinnacle of human thinking, but also to the fact that at the end of his life he was pushed from the forefront of science.
Einstein's big mistake It is an intimate and enlightening biography, describing what a tremendous legacy Einstein left us - and how much greater it could have been had he not succumbed to these all-too-human weaknesses.
David Bodanis He studied mathematics, physics and history at the University of Chicago, and taught at the University of Oxford. Budanis is the author of many books, including E = mc ^ 2 (crown). Articles written by him have been published in the Guardian, the New York Times and more.
He lives in London.
The origins of genius
The scientists of the late Victorian era knew that energy behaved according to certain fixed principles. Miners could extract coal from the ground, and technicians could feed gases produced from burning this coal into pressure pipes that then lit the street lights in London. But if something were to go wrong and the gas exploded, the energy of that explosion—the energy of shards of glass flying everywhere, plus the acoustic energy of the shock wave and even the potential energy of stray metal shards from streetlights being thrown onto the roofs of nearby buildings—would be exactly equal to the energy that would have been stored in the gas itself. And if such a shard of metal were to later fall onto the pavement, its acoustic energy and the energy of impact with the ground, plus the energy of the gusts of wind as the shard dived, would exactly equal the energy that lifted it up in the first place.
The realization that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only changed form, seemed simple, but it had extraordinary consequences. For example, when one of Queen Victoria's servants opened the door of her carriage when she arrived at Buckingham Palace in central London, the energy that was in his shoulder began to drain from it... and at the same moment the same amount of energy appeared in the oscillation of the elegant carriage door and the slight temperature rise of the door shaft due to the friction created by the rotary movement . When the queen got off the carriage, the kinetic energy she had in her descent was transferred to the ground under her feet. The latter remained stationary, of course, but our planet vibrated slightly during its revolution around the Sun.
All types of energy are related to each other; All types of energy precisely balance each other. This simple truth became known in the form of the law of conservation of energy, and was universally agreed upon in the middle of the nineteenth century. Victorian confidence in religion was shaken when Charles Darwin showed that the traditional God was not necessary for the formation of the various species living on our planet. But this vision of unchanging total energy was a comforting alternative. It seemed as if such a miraculous balance in the amount of energy proved that some heavenly hand had touched our world and was still active among us.
By the time the law of conservation of energy was understood, European scientists were already well acquainted with the second great idea that dominated nineteenth-century physics: matter never completely disappears either. In the great fire that raged in London in 1666, for example, the largest city in Europe was engulfed in flames originating from the tar and wood of the bakery building where the fire broke out; They roared through the roofs of the wooden houses, emitting enormous amounts of burning smoke, and turning residences, offices, stables and even plague-carrying rats into piles of hot ash.
No person in the seventeenth century could have seen all this as anything more than violent chaos, but in 1800, a hundred years before Einstein, scientists had already realized that if it were possible to consider everything that was in London before the fire - all the planks from which the floors were built, All the bricks and furniture, all the beer barrels and even the rats running around - then, with even more effort, to weigh all the smoke and ash and crumbling bricks produced by the flames, it would turn out that these two weights are exactly equal.
This principle has since become known as the law of conservation of matter, and it gradually became clear from the end of the eighteenth century. The idea was stated in different terms at different times, but its essence was always the same: if we burn wood in a wood stove, we will end up with ash and smoke. But if we could wrap the chimney and the wide open windows in a huge sealed bag, then weigh all the smoke trapped in the bag and all the ash - and take into account the oxygen taken from the air during the fire - we would find that the total weight is again exactly the same as the weight of the firewood. Matter can change shape, turn from wood to ash, but it will never, under any circumstances, disappear from our world.
These two ideas - the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy - occupied a central place in the education of the young Einstein and in his remarkable achievements.
When Einstein was born in 1879 in the city of Ulm in Germany, about one hundred and twenty kilometers from Munich, his family was only a few generations removed from the life of the Jewish ghettos of the Middle Ages. In the eyes of many of the German Christians in the nineteenth century, the Jews living among them seemed strange and perhaps even inferior and troublesome. On the other hand, in the eyes of the Jews, who were mostly Orthodox, the world outside the community seemed threatening and disturbing, especially in times when Christianity itself began to weaken, which lowered the walls separating the two religions. As a result, the ideas of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century began to penetrate the Jewish community - ideas about free research and science, and the belief that the study of the outer universe might yield wisdom - first by stealth, and later more strongly.
In the generation of Einstein's parents, it already seemed that German Jews benefited greatly from these ideas. His father Herman and his uncle Jacob were electrical engineers, who taught themselves the ropes of the profession and worked in the fields of the most advanced technology of their time - building engines and lighting systems. When Albert was a baby, in 1880, Hermann and Jacob moved together to Munich and opened a business there that bore the uncle's name, Jacob Einstein Co., hoping to meet the city's growing needs for electricity. Einstein's uncle was the more practical partner. His father, Herman, was a more dreamy type, a math lover who had to drop out of high school to help support the family.
It was a warm family, and Albert's parents took care of him as he grew up. When he was about four years old, Einstein was allowed to roam the streets of Munich alone - or so his parents let him think. At least once, one of them—probably his caring mother Pauline—followed him secretly, watching from afar as little Albert crossed the roads among the galloping horses.
When Albert was old enough to understand, his father and uncle and the regular guests at their house explained to him how engines work, how light bulbs work - and how the universe is divided between matter and energy. Albert absorbed these ideas, just as he assimilated his parents' view that their Judaism was a heritage to be proud of, even if they felt that a significant part of the Bible and synagogue practices were not much more than superstitions. If only they left these behind, they believed, the modern world would embrace them as good citizens.
But already at the age of ten, Einstein realized that Munich was not a welcoming city, despite all the efforts of his family to integrate into life there. When he was six years old, his father's company was tasked with lighting the "Oktoberfest" - Munich's autumn festival - with electricity for the first time. But in the years that followed, municipal contracts for the supply of lighting systems and generators were increasingly awarded to non-Jewish companies, even if the products they offered fell short of those of the Einstein brothers. There were rumors of better business opportunities in prosperous Fabia, in northern Italy, near Milan. His parents and sister Maya moved there with the uncle in 1894 to try and re-establish the business. Fifteen-year-old Albert stayed behind and stayed with another family until he finished high school.
It was not a happy time. The pleasantness and gentleness of the Einstein family stood in sharp contrast to the rigidity of the schools Albert attended. "The teachers... seemed to me more like department symbols in a rookie base," Einstein recalled a few decades later. They insisted on rote learning with the intention of producing terrified and obedient students. When Einstein was about fifteen years old, after he was getting more and more tired of studying, the incident is remembered when his Greek teacher, Mr. Degenhart, screamed at him, "Einstein, you will never amount to anything!" - A comment that later drew a sting from his devoted sister, who recorded the anecdote: "And really, Albert Einstein never won the title of professor in Greek grammar."
Einstein dropped out of school when he was sixteen. If he had been kicked out, he might have considered it a failure, but since he chose to do so, he felt proud and considered it a sign of rebellion. He traveled alone to Italy and joined his family there, worked for a while in his father's and uncle's factory, then reassured his worried parents and informed them that he had found a university where the language of instruction was German and which required neither a matriculation certificate nor a minimum age for admission. It was the Zurich Institute of Technology, and he hurriedly enrolled to study there. Despite his excellent grades in math and physics - the many family conversations were really not a waste of time - it became clear that he should have paid more attention to Teacher Degenhart. As Einstein recalled some time later, he did not even try to prepare for the entrance exams, and failed them because of his grades in French and chemistry. He was not accepted to study at the Swiss Institute.
His parents were not particularly surprised. "I've long since gotten used to it," his father wrote, "to see not very good grades alongside very good grades." Einstein agreed that he was in too much of a hurry to submit his candidacy. The following year, he found a family who offered a room for rent in their house in Emekim in northern Switzerland, near Zurich, and took tutoring lessons in preparation for another attempt.
Einstein's hosts in Switzerland, the Wintler family, took it for granted that he would return to the table with them for reading aloud or scholarly discussions. They held musical evenings - Einstein was a talented violinist, and the expert evaluators at the school he attended in Germany ranked him quite high - and not only that, but they had a daughter, Marie, only slightly older than him. Einstein suggested that Marie take care of his laundry, as his mother did, probably seeing it as a sign of affection. But soon he adapted more sophisticated courting methods to him, and so began his first novel. This relationship led to his mother's first bout of snooping. When he returned to his family during the holidays and wrote to Marie: "My sweet love... you are dearer to my heart than the whole world was before", his mother wrote on the envelope the unconvincing statement that she did not read what was written inside.
Einstein managed to get accepted to the Zurich Institute of Technology on his second attempt, at the age of seventeen, in 1896, for a program designed to train future high school teachers. He had just enough preparation to follow the lessons, but his life experience up to that point helped him take a cautious critical approach towards them. It was a perfect background for developing an independent view in relation to what the teachers suggested.
Even though the Zurich Institute of Technology is considered a first class school, the time of some of the teachers there has already passed, and Einstein also managed to annoy them. Professor Heinrich Weber, for example, who taught physics, was helpful to Einstein at first, but as it turned out, found no interest in the new theories that appeared at the time, and refused to include in his physics lectures the groundbreaking work of the Scottish physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, on the connections between Electric fields to magnetic fields. This upset Einstein, who recognized the importance of Maxwell's work. Weber, like many physicists in the nineties of the nineteenth century, did not feel that it was necessary to learn something fundamentally new, and believed that his role was simply to fill in some missing details. In his view, the main work required to find the laws that govern the universe has already been done, and even if future generations of physicists may have to improve their measuring equipment to more accurately describe the known principles, there are no more important insights left to pursue.
Weber was also extremely strict, and once forced Einstein to rewrite an entire research summary on the pretext that the first submission was not written on the right size paper. Einstein, for his part, mocked the professor, defiantly calling him Herr Weber instead of Professor Weber, and many years later resented him for his teaching style. "It is simply a miracle that [our] modern teaching methods have not yet completely stifled the holy curiosity of inquiry," Einstein wrote about his university education half a century later.
Since there was little point in going to Weber's lectures, Einstein spent a lot of time getting to know the cafes and taverns in Zurich: sipping cold coffee, smoking a pipe, hours of reading and gossiping. He also found time to study, on his own, the works of von Helmholtz, Boltzmann and other great physicists of that time. But his reading was not systematic, and when the time came for the annual exams he realized that he would need help to complete his proficiency in Herr Weber's lesson plan.
What Einstein really needed was a fellow student to lean on. His best friend was Michel Angelo Besso, an Italian of Jewish origin, a recent graduate of the Institute of Technology and a few years older than Einstein. Beso was a friendly and cultured guy - he and Einstein met at a musical evening where they both played the violin - but in class he was almost as dreamy as Einstein. Therefore, Einstein needed someone else to allow him to review the summaries of his lectures in order for him to have any chance of passing the exam, also because one of his academic reports at the Institute of Technology had an ominous handwritten note: "Reprimand from the principal for lack of diligence in practicing physics."
Einstein's best friend, Michel Besso, 1898. "Einstein the eagle took Besso the anchor under his wing," Besso once said when describing their intellectual partnership, "and the anchor flew a little higher."
Fortunately, another acquaintance of Einstein's, Marcel Grossmann, was exactly the kind of person that every undergraduate student would dream of being friends with. Like Einstein and Besso, Grossman was also Jewish, and had recently arrived in Switzerland. Swiss universities had a semi-official anti-Semitic policy that channeled Jews and other exceptions into departments that were considered to have a lower status, for example theoretical physics, rather than into fields such as engineering or applied physics, where salaries were usually higher. Not really terrible from Einstein's point of view, since it was only through theoretical physics that he was able to deeply understand concepts such as energy and matter that interested him so much. The knowledge that both are subject to a similar social bias probably strengthened the relationship between Einstein and Grossman.
When the final exams approached, Grossman's lecture summaries - with neat and meticulous drawings of all the important diagrams - worked wonders for Einstein ("It is better not to think how I would manage without them", Einstein wrote to Grossman's wife long after) and allowed him to pass the geometry test, For example, with a respectable grade of 4.25 out of 6. The grade he received was of course not equal to Grossman's, which was a round 6 as everyone expected, but none of his friends were surprised because another thing distracted Einstein at the time.
Besides Beso and Grossman, Einstein spent a lot of time in the company of another student, even more unusual than him: a Serbian Orthodox Christian, and the only woman in the course. Mileva Maric's sharpness of thought, combined with her darkly sensual appearance, attracted the attention of more than one student at the Institute of Technology. She was a few years older than the other students, a talented musician and painter, excelled in languages, and also studied medicine before converting to physics. Einstein had long since separated from Marie Wintler, the member of the family in whose home he was staying, and was ready to move on.