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.”
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.