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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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