Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.

I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someone read this book than didn't know anything about Einstein, other than he was that crazy clever guy with the big white hair. Einstein's Greatest Mistake  isn't going to impress popular science regulars, but it is likely to appeal to many readers who would never pick up a Gribbin or a Carroll. Because of this, I think we need to overcome any worries about inaccuracies and be genuinely grateful - and just as some viewers of the movie Lincoln will go on to read a good biography to find out more, so I believe that reading this book will draw some readers into the wider sphere of popular science.

What Bodanis does brilliantly is to give us a feel for Einstein as a person. I don't think I've ever read a book that does this as well, both in terms of the social life of young Einstein and what he went through in his Princeton years, which most scientific biographies don't give much time to, because he produced very little that was new and interesting. Apart from that, Einstein's Greatest Mistake is also very good when it comes to descriptions of supporting events, such as Eddington's eclipse expeditions of 1919 or the way that Hubble made sure he got himself in the limelight when Einstein visited. Whenever there's a chance for storytelling, Bodanis triumphs.

It seems almost breaking a butterfly on the wheel to say where things go wrong with science or history, a bit like those irritating people who insist on telling you what's illogical in the plot of a fun film. But I do think I need to pick out a few examples to show what I mean.

In describing Einstein's remarkable 1905 work, Bodanis portrays this as being driven by an urge to combine the nature of matter and energy, culminating in Einstein's E=mc2 paper (in reality, the closest the paper gets to this is m=L/V2). Yet this paper was pretty much an afterthought. The driver for special relativity was Maxwell's revelations about the nature of light, while the book pretty much ignores the paper for which Einstein won the Nobel Prize, one of the foundations of quantum physics.

When covering that same area, which Bodanis accurately identifies as the greatest mistake - quantum theory - the approach taken is to make Bohr, Born and Heisenberg the 'pro' faction and Einstein plus Schrödinger the 'antis'. Although this was true in terms of interpretation, the stance means that the Schrödinger equation is pretty much ignored, which gives a weirdly unbalanced picture of quantum physics. Bodanis picks on the uncertainty principle as the heart of quantum physics. Unfortunately, he then uses Heisenberg's microscope thought experiment as the definitive proof of the principle - entirely omitting that Bohr immediately tore the idea to shreds, to Heisenberg's embarrassment, pointing out that the thought experiment totally misunderstands the uncertainty principle, as it isn't produced by observation.

This isn't, then, a book for the science or history of science enthusiast. However, I stand by my assertion that this kind of biopic popular science does have an important role - I am sure the book will appeal to a wide range of people who think that science is difficult and unapproachable. And as such I heartily endorse it.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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