A prolific British science writer examines the creation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.
Special relativity—Einstein’s startling 1905 assertion that time and space are flexible, varying predictably according to one’s frame of reference—is easy, writes Gribbin (13.8: The Quest to Find the True Age of the Universe and the Theory of Everything, 2016, etc.). General relativity is considered much more difficult, but the author insists that anyone can understand Einstein’s 1915 theory of gravity as a fourth dimensional distortion of space-time around any massive body. He exaggerates, but careful readers will understand most of this book, which, despite the title, is a fine account of Einstein’s life and work with modest emphasis on general relativity. Gribbin checks all the boxes. Born in a middle-class Jewish German family, Einstein was—despite the myth—a good if obstreperous student. He failed to obtain an academic position after his 1900 graduation from Swiss Federal Polytechnic because theoretical physics professorships were much more rare then, but it’s also a myth that the scientific establishment ignored him. Europe’s leading physics journal, Annalen der Physik, accepted all of his groundbreaking 1905 papers, but it had been accepting his papers since 1900. By 1908, he was a significant figure in the scientific community, and in 1914, Berlin’s pre-eminent Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics created a position especially for him. General relativity turned out to be so difficult for Einstein that he needed help from a mathematician friend to get it right, but it made him a scientific superstar. As Gribbin notes, he had “discovered a fundamental absolute truth about the universe…to rank with such fundamental mathematical truths as Pythagoras’ theorem.”
Walter Isaacson goes deeper into his life and Dennis Overbye into his work, but readers will find this shorter biography entirely satisfactory.