A Giant Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and Time. By Michio Kaku. Atlas books. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2004. ISBN 0-393-05165-X. 251 pp. Hardcover, $22.95.
The year 2005 brings the centennial of the publication of the seventeenth volume of Annalen der Physik, one of the leading academic physics journals of its day. This particular issue has achieved a legend all its own, because its contents included three papers by a hitherto obscure patent clerk and physicist named Albert Einstein. Addressing the topics of statistical mechanics, electromagnetism, and relativity, the author painstakingly and clearly laid out a vision of time, space, and the physical forces of the universe that would eventually transform our understanding of our place in time and the universe.
Einstein’s “miracle year” of 1905 did not come about easily. As Michio Kaku depicts in his nimbly written and absorbing new biography, the path to this breakthrough was strewn with academic setbacks and hardships due to young Einstein’s very individualistic learning methods. Balking at the pointless rigidity of German schooling, Einstein grew to become an accomplished autodidact both from orientation and necessity. Difficulties in the use of expressive language led instructors of the young Einstein to forsake his education, predicting a future of simple labor. His peripatetic family life (his father tried and failed at several businesses during Einstein’s youth, resulting in many relocations across eastern Europe) also disrupted young Einstein’s education. It is an irony treasured by countless parents that the muttering child forsaken by an inflexible educational system was in reality the greatest genius of the age, perhaps of all time. Einstein had to educate himself, but, more profoundly, he could educate himself, usually far beyond the abilities of his instructors.
This blazing mind singed more than a few egos, and his attempts at earning a doctorate or even a teaching position were actively thwarted by professors and administrators he had alienated with his superior intellect and impatience with their inability to recognize the gifts he possessed. He was finally awarded a doctorate just a few months before the publication of his landmark papers, while still working as a clerk in a Swiss patent office.
The reaction to these papers was muted at first, as the science community digested ideas that, if correct, would at the very least amend shortcomings in Newton’s theories of motion, but, in fact, would cause an upheaval in contemporary views of time, space, gravity, and quantum physics. Eventually the theories were acclaimed, and as subsequent experimental testing of the theories validated Einstein’s conjectures, his fame erupted from the enclosed world of mathematical physics into the nascent world of celebrity culture. In the time between the world wars, Einstein became the most recognized science figure in the world and one of the most famous by any measure.
This burst of fame roughly coincided with an increasing hostility toward Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe, hostility that was faced by even a nonobservant Jew like Einstein. His prominence made him a highly visible target for the rising Nazi movement. A German magazine published an edition listing perceived enemies of the Nazi movement with Einstein as its cover model and a caption reading, “Not yet hanged.” In short order, Einstein fled to America, where his celebrity was fixed.
It was while in America, at Princeton University, that Einstein became the tousle-haired, pipe-smoking, sockless, and sweatshirt-wearing figure that is his widely recognized caricature. He spent his time in America working on a grand unified theory, the Holy Grail of physics, but with no success. He used his celebrity for activism (and irritating J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI) and charitable works, seemingly enjoying a fame that baffled him, until his death in 1955. Kaku addresses these last few decades of Einstein’s life with great sympathy and admiration. Most biographers gloss over this period as the fading glory of a once-great scientist, but Kaku argues persuasively that the groundwork for much latter-day research was laid during these years. As Kaku writes, “crumbs that have tumbled off Einstein’s plate are now winning Nobel Prizes for oth- er scientists.”
Kaku’s book, the third volume in W.W. Norton’s “Great Discoveries” series of popular-science books, is a fine accomplishment, balancing a sensitive and sympathetic narrative of Einstein’s difficult life with marvelously clear and lucid explanations of theories that are truly mind-boggling and genuinely awe- inspiring. As technologies have advanced, experimental science has been able to catch up with the thought experiments of a lonely patent clerk with a seemingly boundless mind, and he has been vindicated repeatedly. The first century of Einstein’s influence has been remarkable and thrilling; one can only dream about what the second century may bring.