A modest genius

5th September 1997 at 01:00
Albert Einstein. By Albrecht Folsing. Viking Pounds 25

Yes, it's another biography of Einstein. But this one sheds new light on both the man and his ideas, writes Russell Stannard

More than 40 years after his death, biographies of Albert Einstein continue to roll off the presses. Not only is he still revered by professional colleagues, he casts an enduring spell over the public. So biographies have to be clearly aimed at a particular audience.

At one end of the spectrum there is The Private Lives of Albert Einstein,in which Roger Highfield and Paul Carter use recently discovered personal letters to cast a revealing, cold light on the man's personal relationships. At the other, there is Abraham Pais's magisterial work, Subtle is the Lord, freely quoting complex scientific equations, and clearly aimed at fellow physicists.

Folsing's work targets the middle ground. It is a good, fluent read, as one would expect from someone who is a professional science journalist and broadcaster. Only a handful of simple equations are involved. But the scientific ideas come thick and fast in places, suggesting that the reader should have at least an acquaintance with A-level physics. Despite its accessibility, however, this is a scholarly work, as can be judged from the 2,400 footnotes.

A distinctive characteristic of the treatment is the care with which the author places each of Einstein's innovations in its context. For example, before explaining Einstein's 1905 paper on Brownian motion, Folsing in a few deft touches gives a quick summary of the confusion of viewpoints held at that time as to whether molecules were to be regarded as physical entities. This allows us to appreciate the impact of Einstein's work on his contemporaries, and why it was regarded as revolutionary.

This assessment is then contrasted with Einstein's own evaluation of his efforts as largely being concerned with "a simple systematic development", building on the foundations laid by Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Lorentz.

I personally have always puzzled over how the great 1905 papers to do with the physics of molecules, the photoelectric effect, and special relativity could have originated with someone who had a full time job at the Bern Patent office, working on patents to do with electrical engineering. Where was the connection?

It was thus fascinating to learn that Einstein himself regarded his job as an advantage rather than a hindrance. His need to cultivate a healthy scepticism towards the claims being made by patent applicants gave him a similar attitude towards accepted theories of physics. He had to read widely to keep abreast of developments in different fields, and this led him to "see the connection between phenomena". His non-involvement in conventional university life and its politics left him relatively untouched by academic fashions. He had no need to conform to establishment norms to advance his career, and so was free to pursue his own avenues of enquiry.

Folsing devotes as much space to Einstein the man as to explanations of his science. He loved playing the violin, and sailing. We learn of his self-confessed failure as a husband (twice). He was careless as regards hygiene, refusing, for instance, requests by his second wife-to-be, Elsa, to use a toothbrush. "If I begin to groom my body then I'm no longer myself, " he writes.

We learn how he coped with the sudden fame that came with the vindication of his general theory of relativity through the observation of the bending of light. He thoroughly disliked the "relativity circus", and regarded as "unjust and, indeed, distasteful" the way the media accorded him "superhuman powers of intellect". He went on to declare: "This has become my fate now, yet there is a grotesque contradiction between the capabilities and achievements people attribute to me and what I actually am and can do."

Though never lacking in self-confidence, Einstein was a modest person, using his celebrity only to promote the causes dear to him: pacifism, democracy, and the fate of the Jews. As a teacher he was not a success. He did not prepare his lessons properly, regarding them as an impediment to his creative work. Though not religious in the conventional sense, many regard him as a deeply spiritual person.

This is a fine biography, one I shall refer to over and over again. The only reservations I have are its length and price - 740 pages of main text at Pounds 25 - though for what you get it is good value for money.

Russell Stannard is professor of physics at the Open University, and author of the Uncle Albert books

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