Skip to main content

The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein - Albert Einstein ***

This is a handsomely bound and presented collection of Albert Einstein's diary notes, jotted down on his trip to the far East, Palestine and Spain from 1922-23.

The very lengthy introduction (over a quarter of the main text) has a tendency to state the obvious e.g. 'The diary reveals that Einstein's perceptions are often filtered through European - in particular Swiss and German - lenses.' Well, duh. 

The author of the introduction also feels rather painfully unable to use anything other than a 21st century American lens. The phraseology can sink into what seems to someone with a physics background as pseudo-scientific babble e.g. 'Cultural studies on alterity [sic] can provide us with some insights into the representation of the Other in Einstein's diary. At the basis of the relationship of the traveler and the indigenous populations is the Self/Other dyad. Internally, the traveler projects a reflection of the Self onto the Other…' Probably best to ignore the introduction and get straight onto Einstein's own words.

Here, the mode of writing is staccato. Lots of little sentences. Observations as and when. Something like this with the odd crustacean crossing out. Each page of the translation has opposite it a photograph of the equivalent original text in Einstein's hand. It's good to see these where, for instance, he has done a drawing, but apart from having a few examples to get a feel for his handwriting, seems a little overawed by it being the big E's own hand - once you've seen one page of scrawl, you've seen them all.

It's fascinating to have little snippets of physics dropped in, clearly as something just occurs to him, or he's pondering a topic and wants to make a note - though the references tend to be very high level such as telling us he has been thinking about general relativity and electricity, so it's not going to provide any scientific insight.

Much has been made in the media coverage when this was published (and is made at great length in the introduction) about Einstein's racism. In reality, by the standards of the day, he is restrained. I've seen it argued that as Einstein is held up as such a figurehead, he should have been different from ordinary people of his time, but that's a facile argument. Some of the comments that have been criticised seem reasonable observations - for example, he quite often remarks how the heat makes it difficult to think, which is apparently not PC. Similarly when he talks of filth and stench - these are hardly unrealistic portrayals. Was he supposed to sanitise everything? Elsewhere there is no doubt that he is applying racist stereotypes. But on the whole, he was far less unpleasant than many period descriptions of foreigners.

Any travel journal from a century ago is likely to provide interesting insights into cultures which have since changed profoundly, and Einstein's is no exception - but there is something special about reading these, almost as if the reader has an inside track to celebrity - which inevitably Einstein was. We get occasional asides reflecting this, such as 'Usual daft questions as always,' which add to the feeling of being a confidante. The experience is bolstered by a reasonable collection of photographs taken along the way.

It clearly wasn't the author's intent, as the diary was written for personal consumption, but the way Einstein quite often carries on his text from page to page - which in the 2 page layout used means turning a page to continue a sentence - makes it very tempting to keep turning on. I found I'd got about one third through before I could force myself to pause. 

The book is interesting, but it is quite a specialist interest (which is why I've only given it 3 stars on this site, but 4 on more general sites). The expensive-looking presentation seems to suggest that the market is Einstein memorabilia, but I think it will be useful for anyone writing about Einstein, however, don't expect to get insights into his science. It's a curiosity, certainly.



Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

Bits to Bitcoin - Mark Stuart Day ***

When I saw the title of this book, I got all excited - at last we were going to get an explanation of bitcoin for the rest of us, who struggle to understand what the heck it really involves. There certainly is an explanation of bitcoin, but it comes in chapter 26 - in practice, the book contains far more. Almost every popular computer science title I've read has effectively been history of computer science - this is one of the first examples I've ever come across that is actually trying to make the 'science' part of computer science accessible to the general reader.

I don't mean by this that it's an equivalent of Programming for Dummies. Instead, Bits to Bitcoin takes the reader through the concepts lying behind programming. If we think of programming as engineering, this is the physics that the engineering depends on. This is a really interesting proposition. Many years ago, I was a professional programmer, but I never studied computer science, so I was only fa…

How to Speak Science - Bruce Benamran ***

I can't remember a book where my mental picture of what the star rating would be has varied so much. At first glance, it looked like a solid 4 star title. It looks fun (despite the odd title - it sounds like it's a book on public speaking for geeks) and a flick through showed that it covers a huge amount of science topics, mostly physics - so it was promising as a beginner's overview. There is one small issue to be got out of the way on the coverage side. There's a whole lot of physics, with a gaping hole that is quantum theory. More on that later.

After reading a few pages, I had to downgrade that score to 3 stars because of the writing style. It oozes smugness. All became clear when I read the words 'For those of you who aren't familiar with my YouTube channel.' How to Speak Science reads like a transcript of a YouTube rant. The reason I love reading books and can hardly ever be bothered to watch videos is to get away from this kind of thing. However, I ac…

By the Pricking of Her Thumb (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

Sometimes a sequel betters the original - think Terminator 2 - and Adam Roberts has done this with his follow-up to The Real-Town Murders. (It's sensible to read the first book before this: while it's not essential, there are plenty of references you will miss otherwise.)

Ostensibly this is a murder mystery, or, as Roberts tells us, a combination of a howdunnit and a whodunnit-to, as the central character Alma is called on to work out how someone found with a needle stuck through her thumb was killed and which of a group of four super-rich individuals is dead when all claim to still be alive - though one of the group who hires Alma is convinced that the death has occurred. 

However, this is anything but a conventional murder mystery - far more so than the strange crimes suggest. Alma and her partner Marguerite (the latter still trapped by an engineered polyvalent illness that requires treatment every 4 hours and 4 minutes) don't do a lot of detecting. In fact Marguerite hard…