Book Review: Ohanian’s ‘Einstein’s Mistakes’

Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius
By Hans C. Ohanian
New York: W.W. Norton: 394 pp., $24.95
Hans C. Ohanian’s insightful book, Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius, explores Einstein’s life and work, and provides an engaging narrative that effectively incorporates a modern history of physics. The author delves deep into Einstein’s physics, focusing especially on his mistakes, and presents a man who, driven by his “mystical” intuition and “bursts of inspiration,” became known to the world as a genius, and in Bernard Shaw’s words, a “maker of a universe.”

'Simply put, Einstein’s Mistakes is an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read.'

Upon receiving this book, I was reluctant to read it. I thought it would be too scientific and, well, dull. However, I soon found myself fully immersed in its pages. Ohanian’s writing style and occasional rants infuse the pages with humor and wit. At times, he writes in an informal manner, using words such as “zany,” “bonkers,” and “slick.” Simply put, Einstein’s Mistakes is an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read.

“The several years I spent exploring Einstein’s mistakes were an exciting and enjoyable experience for me,” Ohanian writes. “These mistakes made Einstein appear so much more human. They brought him down from the Olympian heights of his great discoveries to my own level, where I could imagine talking to him as a colleague, and may be bluntly say, in the give-and-take of a friendly discussion among colleagues, ‘Albert, now that is really stupid!’”

In another passage, Ohanian calls him “an incorrigible and tactless loudmouth,” and chides him for his “unwarranted” extrapolations.

According to Ohanian, Einstein’s greatest discovery, E=mc2, was neither original nor all that significant. “The equation E=mc2, relating the energy of any physical system to its mass, has been variously hailed as the world’s most famous equation; Einstein’s greatest discovery; the equation that changed the world and gave us nuclear fission and the atomic bomb; the equation that holds the secret to the stars and drives the universe, etc., etc. … All of this is hype and nonsense. It illustrates that 50 million Frenchmen can be wrong, and they often are. Einstein was not the discoverer of E=mc2,” Ohanian writes.

It was interesting to learn that in 1907, Einstein’s lectures were attended by one to three students, and he eventually had to cancel them. His teaching style was informal to the point of carelessness, as was his appearance—“sloppy.” Once Einstein’s theory of the bending of light was confirmed, his popularity soared. Ohanian attributes Einstein’s rise to fame to his personality, premeditated propaganda, and advertising campaigns, as well as “fortuitously coincident factors, two of which were war weariness and sensationalism of the press.”

He adds, “The newspaper editors would have preferred the discovery of centaurs on Venus or mermaids on Mars; but, in lack of better, the Einstein story wasn’t half bad.”

The book also explores Einstein’s intimate relationships—his adulteries, divorce, and relationship with his children. We learn that his greatest motive for leaving Zurich in 1914 to teach at the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin was the possibility of an adulterous liaison with Elsa, his double cousin (a cousin both on his mother’s and father’s side), whom he eventually married (but not before he made a pass at her 20-year-old daughter, Ilse). In discussing these relationships, Ohanian reveals Einstein’s unattractive and at times cruel side. Einstein’s memo to his first wife Milevia “…reads like a set of orders issued by a Prussian officer to his batman,” he writes. “What makes this memo even uglier is the undercurrent of hypocrisy that runs through it. Einstein acts as though he were the offended party, and that Milevia was guilty of adultery or some worse offense.” Some of Einstein’s letters to Mileva are included, as are his letters to Elsa.

Five decades ago, in his book The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe, Arthur Koestler wrote, “The intellectual giants of the scientific revolution were only moral dwarfs.” Koestler referred to those giants as sleepwalkers: men who made the greatest discoveries, guided by faith, mystical intuition, and reason.

Ohanian suggests the same about Einstein, and succeeds in presenting us with an utterly human genius. “Whatever murky roads he may have taken, in the end Einstein’s intuition led him to create a theory of dazzling beauty. If, using Arthur Koestler’s image, we regard Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton as sleepwalkers, who knew where they wanted to go and managed to get there without quite knowing how, then Einstein was the greatest sleepwalker of them all,” writes Ohanian in his book, Gravitation and Spacetime (1994), coauthored by Remo Ruffini.

Nanore Barsoumian is a staff writer for the Armenian Weekly.

About Hans C. Ohanian

Ohanian received his B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from Princeton University. He has taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, and the University of Vermont. He has authored a number of undergraduate level textbooks and written many articles about gravitation, relativity, and quantum theory, some of which have appeared in the American Journal of Physics, where he was the associate editor for some time. He currently resides in Vermont.

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian

Nanore Barsoumian was the editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2014 to 2016. She served as assistant editor of the Armenian Weekly from 2010 to 2014. Her writings focus on human rights, politics, poverty, and environmental and gender issues. She has reported from Armenia, Nagorno-Karabagh, Javakhk and Turkey. She earned her B.A. degree in Political Science and English and her M.A. in Conflict Resolution from the University of Massachusetts (Boston).
Nanore Barsoumian

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this review. I have a very short time frame in which to prepare for a meeting with an older American who is said to have been associated with both Einstein and Oppenheimer… I am intrigued by a book which calls Einstein among other things a “loudmouth” whose “extrapolations” could be unjustified. I don’t know if the book is merely iconoclastic, since ours is an age that destroys heroes, but it will help me not to be too overawed to speak; the only people in front of whom I am overly silent (being a loudmouth myself) are those who I deem to be smarter than I; the fact that Einstein could not see a God who punishes evil and rewards good, which has been exhaustively reported elsewhere, serves as undeniable evidence that he could make mistakes; but to hear about some additional ones will allow me to delve more into his humanity, as I get the feeling that he was quite “brain-proud” from quotes of his; despite having an initial love of Christian religion and (soon denied and tempered by embarrassed backpedaling) the figure of Jesus Christ. Since I have become a Christian, I have become LESS brain-proud, and I am not old enough to be accused of senility, as Einstein says HE was, by grad student types who objected to his rejection of a “God who Plays Dice.” (I have found God to be so personal that his care for me borders on the impossible, looking at the improbability of “coincidences” I’ve benefited from since becoming a believer, AND I increasingly see, from birth.) I only begin to doubt God and fear, as Einstein accused religious folk of doing, when I forget the SECOND half of believing in reward and punishment: When Einsteins religion of Judaism found (as hinted by the prophets) that they COULD NOT follow the law and be rewarded, but were constantly saved by God’s GRACE, and Christ was predicted by Jeremiah to be coming, and to be named “God OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”, he spoke of the same mind-bending kind of relativity theory that perhaps made many scientists, as your book quotes, “moral dwarfs”…The idea that merely ADMITTING our sins (Did Einstein ever admit his?) and standing behind a CHAMPION from our race, provided by God, named Christ, who, like in the old testament story of David and Goliath, was set up against a giant (Satan and man’s sin) with the outcome to benefit his whole tribe (in Christ’s case, all of mankind) was too much for this physicist to handle, so he kept, it seems, harping on the injustice of punishment of good and evil her perceived, while never admitting his need for the remedy Christ provided: Our righteousness is NOT in “moral living”– even scientific moral living which your reviewed books says had an ugly private dark side.

    Many have fashioned Einstein as a God on Earth, and his ideas now spawn new-age speculations I’m sure HE’d even be ashamed of, that we are somehow gods who can vibrate ourselves into new realities.

    Since there is so much on the internet of that type, some of which I have a premonition I will hear at the meeting. But to hear he could be ugly and insensitive, while being very concerned with morality and family in other areas, scans with my upbringing by a physicist who was as he said pretty well known in certain circles, was interested in history, and often a good parent, but nevertheless could easily “get it wrong” in the human and religious realms.

    Thanks again

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