Einstein's quantum leap back

Einstein's Greatest Mistake 
The Life of a Flawed Genius
David Bodanis
Hachette India
280 pages; Rs 599

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Arthur C Clarke’s First Law of Science applies even unto to the greatest. 

Serious science is an arena for the young. The mind loses flexibility as it gets older, and it is perhaps impossible for older persons to simply think with the intensity and creativity required for breakthroughs.

Newton was 26 when he did his greatest work. Einstein was 26 when he wrote four papers that changed the world. Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins were in their 20s when they figured out how DNA worked; Darwin was 23 when he embarked on his epochal journey. 

Great science is about being creative and intuitive. The scientist (or mathematician) often jumps to conclusions first and then, post-facto, justifies insights by working out chains of rigorous logic. The young are iconoclastic enough to trust intuition, even when it is at variance with accepted theory. 

But as people get older, intuition often transforms into dogmatism and a refusal to consider new ideas, or even to rate hard evidence pointing in unwelcome directions. 

This biography of Einstein is built around that quirk of intuition ossifying into dogmatism. Einstein’s oeuvre included two papers that expounded the Special Theory of Relativity and Mass-Energy Equivalence (e=mc2), one on the Photoelectric Effect (for which he received the Nobel Prize), and a treatise on Brownian Motion. 

In 1915, while in wartime Berlin, he generalised the Special Theory of Relativity into his greatest achievement, the General Theory of Relativity. The Special Theory turned the Newtonian Universe upside down. But it was rapidly accepted because it built on a sequence of 19th century discoveries. 

The General Theory (GT) was so far ahead of its time that it took four years to find supporting data. It was a century later that the LIGO experiments of 2015 and 2016 found conclusive proof that GT was on the right track. In 1919, Arthur Eddington took photographs during a solar eclipse to confirm starlight was bent by the sun’s mass as Einstein had predicted. In September 2015, the LIGO recorded its first black hole merger and the gravity waves from that event were, again, in line with GT’s predictions. 

The GT included implications that the universe could expand, or collapse, or go through multiple variations of expansion-collapse. But the astrophysical state of the art in the early 20th century suggested the universe was stable. 

Einstein felt a stable universe was intuitively wrong. But he fudged and added a “cosmological constant” to line up GT with accepted wisdom. When evidence arose in the 1920s to indicate that the universe was expanding, he was initially resistant. Then he re-jigged GT again, to get rid of the cosmological constant. 

But his resolve to trust his intuition over accepted wisdom hardened into intellectual stubbornness. This led him into conflict with the new wave of physicists who were looking at quantum mechanics. He refused to accept their probabilistic approach.

As he maintained, “God does not play dice” to which Niels Bohr once responded, “Don’t tell God what to do!” Ironically, Einstein made several major contributions to quantum theory, including a paper on quantum entanglement, which he wrote in near-satirical vein to mock some quantum implications. But he isolated himself from the physics community due to his refusal to countenance quantum theory. 

Mr Bodanis weaves the details of the science into a biography that also delves into Einstein’s personal life.

While not conventionally religious, Einstein’s life was shaped by his secular Jewish heritage and also by his father’s struggles to find a safe haven from anti-Semitism. His electrical engineer father moved to Italy in the 1890s because Germany preferred Gentile-manufactured lamps. Einstein himself fled Germany in the 1930s as the Nazis publicly burnt his books. He was associated with efforts to get Jews out of Europe and he famously advocated that the US get behind efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

Einstein’s conventional academic career was undistinguished, primarily because he “bunked” boring classes.  He was married twice. His first wife was a brilliant, intense colleague, Mileva Maric, who checked calculations in his 1905 papers. The second marriage was to his cousin, a cheerful widow, Elsa Löwenthal, who knew no science. In an extraordinary act of generosity, he gave his Nobel money to Maric long after they had separated. He also had innumerable affairs, always pulling back from commitment. He played the violin, made strange little toys and sailed yachts. 

All of this is well-known. Everything he did and wrote has been discussed and dissected in almost tedious detail. Mr Bodanis does a good job of putting it together but calling the man “flawed” is putting it too strongly. 

As Einstein lay dying in Princeton, he muttered something in his native German. There was a nurse present. But she did not speak German and so, we have no idea what he said. That poignant story sums up his life: He often spoke a language that only a very privileged few could understand.

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