Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hans C. Ohanian Einstein's Mistakes

Hans C. Ohanian Einstein's Mistakes

Subtitled, "The Human Failings of Genius." This is a very different book. Nominally, it is about Einstein's many mistakes as a scientist. Okay, scientists are allowed to make mistakes--but Ohanian makes the point that some of Einstein's mistakes were because he was something of a mystic who started out with his destination firmly in mind--and then tried to make the physics and math fit his destination. Often as not, Einstein knew what the right answer was, and clumsily tried to fit the equations and the data to fit. When they didn't fit, he used a bigger hammer.

Ohanian also tells us a bit about Einstein's private life, some of which I knew (his frequent adultery) and much of which I did not. In a lot of ways, Einstein was the first rock star of scientists in terms of public attention and adulation--and it sounds like Einstein worked like a rock star when it came to women, too. There's a lot here that is surprisingly sleazy--like when he left his first wife for one of his cousins--and then, at the last moment, couldn't decide whether to marry this cousin he had been sleeping with--or her very pretty, very young daughter. (The daughter wasn't interested.)

There's a lot that is very disappointing, but perhaps unsurprising, all things considered. One of Einstein's sons, Hans Albert Einstein, became a prominent academic in his own right. Another had a schizophrenic breakdown while young, and spent the rest of his life in a Swiss mental hospital. Einstein apparently never visited or even wrote to his son for the last 25 years of Einstein's life.

The plus side of Ohanian's book is a very well done explanation of some of the big physics problems that lead to Einstein's work. I think this is the best explanation of the Michelson-Morley interferometer experiment that I think that I have read.

The down side is Ohanian's often quite distracting snarky remarks directed at evangelical Christians who, to hear Ohanian tell it, all think the Earth is 6000 years old. It is distracting, and likely to irritate a fair number of readers who might otherwise find the book a useful math-free introduction to Einstein's work.

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