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Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: The Life of a Flawed Genius- Review

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Title: Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: The Life of a Flawed Genius
Author: David Bodanis
Publisher: Little, Brown
Price: Rs 599/-
Pages: 280

…And the confusion made the brain go ’round.
I went and ask a good friend of mine,
Known to the world as Albert Einstein.
He said “Son, from the beginning of time and creativity
There existed the force of relativity
Pi r square and a minus ten means a routine only when
The solar system in one light year
Make the Hayden planetarium disappear
So if Mt Everest doesn’t move
I am positive that it will prove…

— Man Piaba by Harry Belafonte


When Albert Einstein (76) – theoretical physicist and great mathematician — died on April 18, 1955, mumbling a few words in German to a nurse on duty in Princeton Hospital, USA who couldn’t understand these, the humankind was lost to his last words. However, Dr Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who conducted autopsy, more than compensated this ‘loss’ by removing Einstein’s brain, hoping to explore the secret behind 20th century’s most-celebrated mind. No such explanation or testimony has emerged though, more than 60 years and four reported scientific studies later.

Now we have David Bodanis, an appreciative yet dispassionate biographer of Einstein, who reveals that this “greatest genius of all time” – who revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and heralded human race into the atomic age – had his own share of flaws both at personal and professional plains. “Genius and hubris, triumph and failure, can be inextricable,” explains Bodanis. “Einstein’s 1915 equation (general relativity) and the theory it undergirded, was perhaps the greatest feat of his life, yet it also sowed the seeds of his most astonishing failure.”

Bodanis begins brilliantly by narrating an account of Einstein’s younger life; the years when he was employed in a dull job at the local patent office; his struggles to land a teaching assignment at a university; and the 1905, when he published four groundbreaking papers while working as patent-inspector “at least three of which were worthy of a Nobel Prize”. According to Bodanis, these papers established that Einstein “had seen how clearly the universe’s inner operations were arranged, as with that hitherto unimagined tunnel between mass and energy that E=mc2 so accurately described. These and the other concepts in his 1905 series would gradually revamp our understanding of everything from the operations of light to the nature of space and time.”
While 1905 marked Einstein’s discovery of mass and energy being different forms of the same stuff, the real breakthrough came in 1915 with the theory of general relativity wherein he established that energy and mass distort space and time. “What Einstein discovered, in the chill of wartime Berlin, was the greatest breakthrough in understanding the physical universe since Newton: an achievement for all time,” asserts Bodanis.

While Einstein’s general theory of relativity – again expressed in a simple equation, G=T – indicated that the universe was expanding, the astronomers of the time insisted that it was static. This literally forced Einstein to modify his theory by including a cosmological constant. “This was his first great mistake,” asserts Bodanis, revealing how in later years, experimental astronomers like Eddington, Lemaître and others actually proved that universe was expanding and that Einstein had been correct all along.

Bodanis further argues that Einstein’s first flaw led to an even greater mistake. The great scientist believed that universe could be explained in a logical way since all matter moved in tandem with precise laws. However, by mid-1920s, scientists like Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr and others had discovered that behaviour of subatomic particles defied the old paradigm, leading to age of quantum mechanics. This was unacceptable to Einstein. “By staying away from the latest findings in quantum mechanics, Einstein was also isolating himself from the era’s breakthroughs in recognizing new particles within the atom,” reveals Bodanis.

No wonder, from 1933 to 1955, Einstein spent his years in Princeton closing himself off from intellectual connections and in virtual isolation. The personal qualities that allowed the young Einstein to make such enormous breakthroughs kept him from making similar advances in later years, writes Bodanis in this rather unconventional and provocative biography of a great mind.

Bodanis is certainly a great storyteller, simplifying complex scientific ideas and making lay readers understand what was going on in the world of physics. The book is replete with simple yet illuminating sketches depicting complicated theories and even an appendix on ‘A Layman’s Guide to Relativity.’ Bodanis not only chronicles Einstein’s research and creation of his theories in great details but also his lady loves and his family life. That’s what makes the book a delightful read.

Finally, no one is infallible and even a genius can make a mistake. But what makes Einstein stand tall is his insatiable curiosity and great kindness. Like everyone, he had his faults, and over the course of his life they were magnified by his outsize achievements. His underlying impulse was pure, even as at the end of his career he got locked-in by his own mistakes. As he famously once said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”