Fuzzy ge­nius

Al­bert Ein­stein’s bril­liance failed him only in fam­ily mat­ters, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Saun­ders

ON the day Al­bert Ein­stein died in 1955, his body was cre­mated and his ashes were scat­tered into the Delaware River. Not all of the old boy went into the drink, though. The doc­tor who con­ducted the au­topsy had re­moved the brain and, with­out per­mis­sion, em­balmed it.

He moved around the coun­try quite a bit dur­ing the next few years with the sa­cred relic, de­posited in a glass jar, slosh­ing around in a cooler, one imag­ines, like a pic­nic lunch.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, he’d slice a bit off and send it away for sci­en­tific scru­tiny. The re­sults were in­con­clu­sive. Was the higher than usual ra­tio of glial cells to neu­rons in the pari­etal cor­tex the cause of greater intelligence or sim­ply the ef­fect of us­ing the brain in a par­tic­u­lar way for many years?

But, as Wal­ter Isaac­son re­marks in this ab­sorb­ing new bi­og­ra­phy, pok­ing around the glia isn’t go­ing to help us un­der­stand Ein­stein’s imag­i­na­tion and in­tu­ition: ‘‘ The rel­e­vant ques­tion was how his mind worked, not his brain.’’

For ex­am­ple, how good was he at math­e­mat­ics? Bet­ter than most of us — there are on­earmed peo­ple who can only count on their fin­gers with bet­ter maths than me — but com­pared with real math­e­ma­ti­cians?

He was never go­ing to be one, though he wasn’t at all bad and he did not, as leg­end has it, flunk maths at high school.

But the leg­end has some­thing go­ing for it, be­cause it cap­tures an es­sen­tial truth: as Isaac­son

re­veals, the the­o­ries that se­cured Ein­stein’s fame arose in a men­tal con­text that was vis­ual and con­crete rather than math­e­mat­i­cal and ab­stract. We owe spe­cial rel­a­tiv­ity not just to his huge knowl­edge of the­o­ret­i­cal physics but also to his abil­ity to vi­su­alise thought ex­per­i­ments ( th­ese, very im­por­tant to Ein­stein, were, as Isaac­son puts it, ‘‘ per­formed in his head rather than in a lab’’) and his ground­ing in em­piri­cist phi­los­o­phy, which taught him to be scep­ti­cal about things that could not be ob­served.

Then there was his up­bring­ing — the fam­ily busi­ness was elec­tron­ics — and his time in Switzer­land work­ing ‘‘ in a pa­tent of­fice that was be­ing flooded with ap­pli­ca­tions for new meth­ods of co- or­di­nat­ing clocks’’.

Isaac­son takes his read­ers through the com­plex­i­ties of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­ity with ad­mirable lu­cid­ity. But this is a per­sonal bi­og­ra­phy, too, the first to make use of all the Ein­stein pa­pers, some of which did not be­come avail­able un­til last year. So, as well as the science, we get the do­mes­tic life of the sci­en­tist.

This was not happy: ul­ti­mately, the great man cared more about physics than about fam­ily and, de­spite his later im­age as a shaggy- haired, cud­dly, avun­cu­lar fig­ure, he could be an aloof fa­ther. In let­ters to his wife, Mil­eva, he re­ferred to spe­cial rel­a­tiv­ity as ‘‘ our the­ory’’, but, though sci­en­tif­i­cally qual­i­fied, she seems to have been a sound­ing board rather than a creative part­ner. Be­fore long, she wasn’t any sort of part­ner at all. In 1914, Ein­stein sent her an un­be­liev­ably heart­less ul­ti­ma­tum ( all sec­tions and num­bered sub- sec­tions) in which he told her in ef­fect that in­ti­macy was over be­tween them but that she could still look af­ter his meals and his laun­dry.

By then, he was busy with gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity, in­cor­po­rat­ing grav­ity into the ge­om­e­try of space­time. This took a lot of maths — ‘‘ I have gained enor­mous re­spect for math­e­mat­ics’’, Ein­stein wrote — and it pro­duced re­sults that seemed im­pos­si­bly para­dox­i­cal to the math­e­mat­i­cally il­lit­er­ate. It seemed space was lim­ited and curved, but what, peo­ple wanted to know, was it lim­ited and curved in?

This be­came an is­sue soon af­ter World War I. Since the 1840s, ob­servers had noted tiny shifts in the or­bit of the planet Mer­cury not pre­dicted by New­ton’s the­o­ries. Ein­stein hoped that gen­eral rel­a­tiv­ity would do the job bet­ter. It did: in Brazil and off the coast of Africa, as­tro­nom­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions made dur­ing an eclipse bore out his pre­dic­tions. Rel­a­tiv­ity hit the head­lines.

The pub­lic­ity was enor­mous, though not al­ways well- in­formed ( The New York Times , lack­ing a science correspondent, as­signed the story to its golf­ing ex­pert), and Ein­stein was now a celebrity. He claimed to hate it but, as Isaac­son ob­serves, peo­ple who re­ally dis­like the spot­light don’t turn up with Char­lie Chap­lin on the red car­pet at a movie pre­miere.

The bad news about the pub­lic­ity was that it fos­tered ig­no­rance. There arose a sense that in­tel­lec­tual moor­ings were adrift and that rel­a­tiv­ity un­der­wrote a new rel­a­tivism in moral­ity, art and pol­i­tics. Not only was this not true in th­ese ar­eas; for Ein­stein it wasn’t true in science, ei­ther. He spent the rest of his life in fu­tile strug­gle against the new physics he had helped in­au­gu­rate, with its quan­tum leaps, its un­cer­tainty prin­ci­ple and its ap­par­ent un­der­min­ing of ob­jec­tive re­al­ity.

To Isaac­son’s credit, he makes this half of Ein­stein’s life as grip­ping as the first. Th­ese are the years not just of a quest for a uni­fied field the­ory, but of Ein­stein the Zion­ist ( the Nazis found some­thing typ­i­cally Jewish in the ab­strac­tions of rel­a­tiv­ity), Ein­stein the world cit­i­zen and Ein­stein the man who, in the face of the Nazi threat, re­luc­tantly per­suaded his adopted coun­try to work on the atom bomb. This is a won­der­ful ac­count not just of the science but of the per­son­al­ity of a man who, though not al­ways as nice as he some­times seemed to be, led a life gov­erned by imag­i­na­tion, in­tu­ition and cu­rios­ity.

Space ben­der: Clock­wise from main, Al­bert Ein­stein ex­plain­ing his the­o­ries; with first wife Mil­eva Maric; and al­leged lover Mar­garita Ko­nenkova

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