A brief biography of “the greatest mind of the modern age” and his revolutionary ideas.
The 2005 PBS Nova episode “Einstein’s Big Idea” was based on science writer and former Oxford professor Bodanis’ bestselling book. Here, the author takes a similar cinematic approach: the narrative is swift, focusing on personalities and simplifying complex ideas, which often works but occasionally converts science to the usual TV magic show. Bodanis passes quickly over his subject’s early years, including 1905, when Einstein published four groundbreaking papers. The author emphasizes that if Einstein had never been born, a contemporary would have made those discoveries, but it might have taken generations and several geniuses to duplicate his 1915 paper that converted the simple concepts of special relativity into the fiercely complex unification of mass, energy, space, and gravity that was general relativity. “What Einstein discovered,” writes Bodanis, “in the chill of wartime Berlin, was the greatest breakthrough in understanding the physical universe since Newton: an achievement for all time.” Einstein’s equations predicted an expanding universe. Since the 1915 universe was considered static, he added a “cosmological constant” to correct it, only to discard it when astronomers later discovered it was expanding. Although this was a mistake, Bodanis convincingly argues that it provoked a greater mistake. Einstein created general relativity from his own thoughts. On the single occasion he accepted scientific evidence, it was wrong. When quantum mechanics became accepted after 1920, he dissented. Certain that all matter obeyed precise laws, he rejected increasing evidence that subatomic particle behavior defied common sense. By the 1930s, this rejection placed him outside mainstream physics, where he remained, largely ignored, until his death.
Shorter than the best biographies of Einstein (by Walter Isaacson and Dennis Overbye) but still engaging and with more emphasis on the difficulties the scientist faced when physics moved away from the classical view he never abandoned.