Albert Einstein - a lasting contribution to human culture

The universe demystified

Danny Hammill reviews Denis Brian's ‘Einstein: a life’

This book comes covered in accolades and superlatives. The Spectator praises its “unobtrusive informality”, The Times believes it to be the “best account” yet written about Albert Einstein. The author himself observes: “Although in recent years some 400 books about Einstein and his work have appeared, they tell only part of the truth ... My aim is to balance the equation by retrieving as much of the missing half as I can, to reveal some of the long-guarded secrets. My intent is not to diminish, but to enlarge the man” (p xi).

In the last analysis, though, this fails to live up to the mega-hype. I confess that I find it hard to believe that this is the “best” book available on the subject. However, if this boast is correct, then this only proves that there is a large gap in the market, which needs to be filled urgently.

One of the flaws of this book is its almost obsessive chattiness. Denis Brian’s idea is to give us a feel for the ‘real’ Einstein or, as the press release puts it, to treat us “to a deeper and more complex vision of this remarkable man”. To this extent, it succeeds partially. But there is a price to pay for adopting this approach. The wider picture gets eclipsed - ie, you end up not being able to see the wood for the trees. You get bogged down in biographical trivia and tittle-tattle. Einstein’s intellectual ‘centre’ fades from view at many points. 

Einstein: a life is riddled with conversations, giving the feel of a novel on occasion. It is impossible not to wonder about the veracity of some of the supposed remarks, especially those that he was said to have made in his youth - perhaps everyone who encountered Einstein was so overawed that every word he uttered was seared into their memory cells forever. Then again, perhaps not.

Given this novelistic approach, it is not surprising that Brian lingers in some detail on Einstein’s admittedly florid relationships with women. I have no quasi-puritanical objections to such revelations. Human beings are complex. If they help to throw light on Einstein’s intellectual/scientific genius, then let us hear all about them. But at times it leads to an over-speculative style of writing. Thus, chapter two is entitled ‘First romance’, referring to Marie Winteler: “If she and Albert spent less time bird-watching than in watching each other, it was because these field trips were their few chances to be almost alone together. In Italy he had been infatuated by a flock of young women who found him charming, but had kept his distance and his head. Now, at 16, he believed he was really in love” (p10). This is just one typical example.

Sometimes, Brian’s novelistic imagery borders on the comical - quite unintentionally, I suspect. Chapter three begins like this: “Because of Einstein’s arresting looks and personality, his college friends were puzzled when he gravitated to Mileva Maric, a somewhat shapeless woman of awkward gait caused by a congenital dislocation of the hip. She was the only female in his class, four years his senior, and showed little sense of humour, while even the tamest joke set off his explosive laughter” (p15).

The main criticism of this book, undoubtedly, resides in the attempt by the author to puff up and exaggerate Einstein’s political acumen. Brian clearly thinks Einstein was some sort of political visionary, if not a semi-guru. This is a mistake - and utterly unnecessary. The genius of Einstein is located in his scientific breakthroughs and discoveries - which revolutionised the way humanity looks at the natural/physical world.

Of course, Einstein’s world view is extremely interesting - especially as his politics could be defined as progressive. He was a passionate supporter of the World Federalist Movement, convinced as he was that the solution to the world’s problems could only be found on a supranational basis. He also took a dim view of the capitalist education system, which he believed led to “the crippling of individuals … An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career” (p378).

But there were certain limitations to his progressive and internationalistic outlook For instance, he was a committed Zionist, on the grounds that it “gives Jews a common interest. This nationalism is no threat to other people. Zion is too small to develop imperialistic designs” (p185). Brian comments that he regarded “the birth of Israel as one of the few political acts in his lifetime which had an essentially moral quality and wanted to alert the world to the threat to its existence” (p425).

He also had a life-long suspicion of “the communists”. This came out strongly in 1953, during the infamous trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason - ie, passing on nuclear secrets to the Soviets. In a letter dated September 12 1953 he wrote: “Unhappily, the Rosenberg case was used as an instrument by communists, which circumstances had a very unfortunate influence on the course of events” (p410). His views on Leon Trotsky and the Russian Revolution are also revealing. Though, for example, in 1929 he strongly urged the German finance minister, Rudolf Hilferding, to grant political asylum to Trotsky, he nevertheless thought that “from my point of view both Stalin and Trotsky are political gangsters” (p300).

I do not say any of this to detract from Einstein’s brilliance. But the fact that Brian makes so much of Einstein’s political/philosophical world view forces one to add a corrective. It is also irksome that Brian is in an indecent hurry to disassociate Einstein’s leftish views from communist ones. The author makes clear that he is angered by the fact this “dedicated democrat was constantly accused of being a communist or communist dupe” (p xi).

The book really comes alive when we come to the sections on actual science. Chapter 11, ‘The special theory of relativity’, is fascinating. It details Einstein’s ground-breaking work in 1905, which saw him mailing four papers to the prominent scientific journal, Annalen der Physik. In these papers he developed his theory of relativity - thus turning the cosmos upside down and inside out.

The third paper, On the motion - required by molecular kinetic theory of heat - of small particles suspended in a stationary liquid, represented a brilliant innovation inspired by the Scottish botanist, Robert Brown. The latter, staring through a microscope one day, saw pollen dust executing haphazard, zigzag movements in water, as if alive. Even when he substituted organic and inorganic substances, he noted the same phenomenon. Was this perpetual motion?

Einstein concluded that these ‘Brownian movements’ were in fact actual collisions between invisible molecules of the water itself and the visible particles. He produced a formula stating that the average displacement of the visible particles in any direction increased as the square root of time. By using this formula he estimated that a gram of hydrogen consists of 303,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000 molecules (303 sextillion  - US system; 303 thousand trillion - UK system).

What was the importance of this? As Brian explains, “Not only had Einstein found evidence that atoms of a definite size really exist; he also had created a statistical method to chart their behaviour. Experiments by French physicist Jean Perrin verified Einstein’s work, confirming the perfect accuracy of his equations and demonstrating the physical reality of atoms” (my emphasis, p64). This laid the foundation for a trulymaterialist view of the universe - just as Darwin had done before him in the realm of biological/evolutionary theory. Scientific atheism had arrived big time - or rather the foundations for it had been irrecoverably proved. The fact that neither Darwin nor Einstein ever described themselves as atheists only helped to add weight to the emerging world view.

The fourth paper, On the electrodynamics of moving bodies, was even more revolutionary. It challenged the previously hegemonic Newtonian view of the universe - one which saw space as a fixed, ether-pervaded, physical reality, through which stars and planets move and against which their movements should be measured. Naturally, time itself under this view was regarded as an unvarying absolute, flowing from an infinite past to an infinite future.

Einstein demolished Newton’s Earth-centric, human-centric cosmology with one blow. Einstein’s universe was one in which the stars, planets, galaxies, etc move in relation to each other and not to an exclusive, god-appointed space - ie, one’s relative position in the universe determines one’s viewpoint. The same went for time - there is no more such a thing as absolute time as there is absolute space. Einstein wrote: “We have to take into account that all our judgments in which time plays a part are always judgments of simultaneous events” (original emphasis, p65).

From all this Einstein deducted that light always travels at 186,000 miles per second, that it is completely unaffected by the motion of its source or of its observers. This clashed violently with the Newtonian ‘common sense’ then prevalent - surely light reaches an observer more rapidly if the actual observer is moving towards rather than away from the light (ie, photons)?

 Eventually, using the equations of the Dutch physicist, HA Lorentz - which stated that a flying charged particle foreshortened in its direction of travel would increase in mass - Einstein was able to show that objects moving at great speeds and over vast distances decreased in size and increased in mass. Further, at these speeds time slows down.

It was not long before Einstein went a step further. Later in the same year he leaped to the ‘heretical’ deduction that all energy has a mass. By 1907 he pushed the boundaries of science back even more - proposing that matter and energy are different aspects of the same thing - matter approaching the speed of light becomes energy, and energy slowed becomes matter.

This idea eventually germinated into his general theory of relativity, which he described as the “happiest thought of my life”. He was now attempting to extend special relativity, which applied only to a hypothetical universe where objects moved with constant velocity in gravity-free space. He grappled with the ‘real’ universe, where objects are subjected to gravity and acceleration. This led him to reject Newton again, who saw gravity as a force attracting objects to one another. Instead, argued Einstein, we should see gravitation as an effect of the distortion of space by matter. In other words, space is curved or warped by the presence of matter, and objects move through space along the shortest path following the contours of space - ‘Space tells matter how to move and matter tells space how to curve’.

In 1916 he expanded - and simplified - his theory of gravitation, or general relativity, in his book, On the special and the general relativity theory: a popular exposition, using only elementary mathematics. This book sent Einstein - and his disciples - on the quest for the elusive ‘unified field theory’ (or ‘superstring theory’).

Like nearly all truly great paradigm-shifts, for years it was either ignored or treated with derision. Some devout sceptics questioned Einstein’s sanity. One particularly venomous critic - the engineer, George Francis Gillette - declared that the theory of relativity was the “moronic brainchild of mental colic” and mere “voodoo nonsense”, comparing Einstein to “the Mad Hatter” (p103). Other critics were equally harsh.   

Thanks to the brilliance of Einstein it became possible to scientifically and accurately measure - hence understand - the entire universe. It was now demystified - but still awesome. Even more so, as god receded for good. Humanity, the product of a cosmic accident, stands alone in the universe - with no need for a divine masterplan or ‘Purpose’.

This is the lasting contribution of Einstein to human culture. The man who said “imagination encircles the world” (p185) had unleashed the collective imagination of humanity and allowed it to encircle the entire universe.

Danny Hammill