Skip to main content

Einstein’s Mistakes – Hans C. Ohanian ****

This is, without doubt, one of the most fascinating popular science books I have ever read. When I first saw the title, I was filled with dread, because the bookshelves are filled with crank titles that try to take on Einstein and prove him wrong. But this is quite different. It’s a carefully constructed exploration of Einstein’s life and scientific work, built around the errors in his work that are often glossed over in presenting the triumph of his great ideas.
The only slight concern about the approach is that this does result in a rather smug feel to the book, a sort of ‘aren’t I clever, I can tell you where Einstein went wrong’ aura that isn’t helped by occasional descents into loose language (apparently Van Gogh became a great artist ‘when he went bonkers.’) Building the book around Einstein’s mistakes is an excellent idea, but sometimes it results in excessive weight being put on a relatively small point, such as an assertion in the original Special Relativity paper that allegedly drove a lone yachtsman mad.
However there certainly is a wealth of material here that I have never seen before, or not seen presented anywhere near so well. We see some historical examples of error that don’t get enough mention, such as Galileo’s strange idea that the tides were caused by the rotation of the Earth, or Newton’s fudged experimental values which somehow managed to match his theoretical predictions exactly, even when he got those predictions wrong.
Perhaps the best example from Einstein himself was a wonderful mistake called the Principle of Equivalence. This was the idea that started him on the stunning ideas about curved spacetime that lie beneath general relativity. I have often seen this principle, stating that a gravitational field and acceleration are equivalent, so in a closed box you couldn’t tell if you were feeling gravity or being accelerated (say by a rocket), used to introduce general relativity, just as Einstein did. Unfortunately this principle is flawed. It was the inspiration behind general relativity, but it happens to be wrong. Now that is interesting!
My biggest worry about the book is that in the one aspect of Einstein’s work I do know in a lot of detail, the EPR paper of 1935, Hans Ohanian gets things horribly wrong. He seems to think that the paper’s arguments against quantum theory are based on the uncertainty principle, a common mistake because the paper mentions both position and momentum. But mistake it is. In fact Einstein later emphasized this, commenting that his attitude to the use of position and momentum was ‘Ist mir Wurst’, literally ‘is sausage to me’, or approximately ‘I couldn’t care less.’ Either of the measurements was sufficient, because the argument is nothing to do with uncertainty. Now it’s an easy enough mistake to make, as it has been made by several other books – but it does throw some doubt on whether any of the other assertions about Einstein’s mistakes are equally flawed. I’m inclined to give Ohanian the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever, it is an intriguing book. It’s probably best left to those with some previous experience of physics, at least to high school level, because the details of the errors can be quite subtle – but it’s well worth the effort. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…