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The Human Failings of Genius

by Hans C. Ohanian

Pub Date: Sept. 8th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-393-06293-9
Publisher: Norton

A close examination of Einstein’s work, emphasizing the errors and wrong turns that even colleagues overlooked.

Ohanian, a former editor of the American Journal of Physics, proceeds through the years, rarely missing a paper, speech, interview or controversy. The author covers many fields, because Einstein made not one but several breakthrough discoveries; his Nobel, in fact, was for the photoelectric effect, not relativity. Einstein admitted that mathematics was not his strong suit, but beyond the torrent of errors in that area, Ohanian also finds mistakes in physical assumptions that range from oversimplification to outright nuttiness. Max Planck, working as a journal editor, read the unknown Einstein’s revolutionary 1905 paper on special relativity and found a major error in the discussion of relativistic mass. Recognizing the paper’s importance, Planck approved it and later worked out a correct recalculation for which he has never received credit. Because of Einstein’s fame, everyone believes he discovered the equation linking mass to energy. In fact, other physicists knew of it for years, and his 1905 proof was incomplete; once Max Von Laue produced a complete proof in 1911, Einstein adopted it. Ohanian emphasizes two absolute laws of research. One: If a scientist makes a brilliant discovery, everyone forgives mistakes he made along the way. Two: If he becomes a scientific superstar, he gets credit for everything in his field. Thus Einstein gets credit for everything connected with relativity, including earlier discoveries and those of colleagues who improved his work. Dennis Overbye’s Einstein in Love (2000) gives the best popular account of his science, while Walter Isaacson’s bestselling Einstein (2007) is the best on his life. Ohanion’s book delves more deeply into physics and into Einstein’s thought processes, so readers will have to pay close attention.

A sophisticated overview of modern physics, including more of Einstein’s missteps than readers usually encounter.