Quantum leap toshed light on a genius

10th February 2006 at 00:00
Please, Mr Einstein

By Jean-Claude Carriere

Harvill Secker pound;12.99

There are two stories about Einstein that M Carri re could profitably have consulted when he embarked on his coruscating, yet gently whimsical, tour through what Einstein has taught us about space-time. One is attributed to Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, who brought relativity to the English-speaking public.

He supposedly said, when asked if it was true that there were only three people in the world who understood relativity, "I'm just trying to think of who the third person might be."

And the other tale, quoted in David Bodanis's E=mc2: Biography of an Equation, tells of Einstein's Greek teacher at secondary school who always swore that the boy would never amount to anything as he seemed unable to master ancient Greek. "And it is true," remarked an old family friend.

"Right until the end of his life, Einstein was useless at ancient Greek."

Both these stories embody the kind of humour which made Einstein not just the greatest theoretical physicist of the modern age, but also an icon, wild woolly hair, zany grin and all.

The man of whom Julius Robert Oppenheimer declared in 1966 that he "was almost wholly without sophistication and wholly without worldliness" was also the man who explained his theory, according to recollections trotted out on his death in 1955: "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute - and it's longer than any hour. That's relativity." Who was also, importantly, the man who put in place the capstone for the theoretical underpinnings for nuclear power, of all kinds.

Sadly, though, you wouldn't necessarily understand all this on reading Please, Mr Einstein, whose slightly arch title with its music hall resonance ("Oh! Mr Porter" was a song of faux innocence sung by variety star Marie Lloyd) covers yet another attempt to make Einstein available to the general public. Or does it?

Carri re, who has an impeccable pedigree in science publishing, having collaborated with Stephen Jay Gould, Umberto Eco and others on Conversations About the End of Time, uses the device of a charming young woman on a mission to research Einstein's ideas to create a fictional situation in which to elucidate Einstein's achievement.

The girl, aged 25, travels beyond our normal space and time to find the ghost of Einstein in a dingy flat in a dull street, with Sir Isaac Newton and assembled scientists from the centuries thronging the waiting room.

It's a device that is typically French, in its suggestion that the young woman is "on the slim side" and that "most men find her extremely attractive", all the more relevant, the text suggests, since Einstein "has never been indifferent to the opposite sex - far from it". Ooh la la: Sophie's World was never like this.

There is nowhere Carri re can go with this idea, of course, since Einstein, a ghost, can hardly be romantically entangled with a fictional character, and this fictional character, moreover, has neither name nor clearly defined role. It seems that she has just decided to pop outside of normal reality to see if she can get a grip on all this relativity stuff.

There are some sharp incidental pleasures and some witty reflections to be enjoyed, probably, by those with A-level physics (at least). Einstein was born in 1879, the same year that Thomas Edison succeeded in making his electric lightbulb: electric lighting was catching on and was called a "fairy". The uncanny was in the air.

Einstein's breakthrough year, 1905, in which he published Annus Mirabilis - five papers which fundamentally shifted scientists' concept of the universe - is set in the context of others, such as Max Planck and Leonard Mandel, who were ploughing the same conceptual furrow. Cometh the man, cometh the hour. There's an encounter with Newton, exasperated and fearful lest his pre-eminence is unseated by this fanciful newcomer, which makes play with the relative merits of the four forces: strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic and gravitational.

Forces are often defined in purely Newtonian forms, to do with propulsion, friction and the like. This is the very model which Einstein transcended.

(Here's an example of how basic physics will not help.) As Newton is known to have been a tetchy, difficult character, this makes for better drama than declamatory exposition to the blank fiction of the girl enquirer.

There's an entertaining history of some discarded versions of the cosmos, such as the idea of the ether within which light was thought to travel, like the currents of sour cream in beetroot soup, as well as a witty explanation of why our ordinary notions of space and time using our ideas of "up" and "down", can't be used to understand the wider picture of dimensions in space.

The fine rhetorical spiel at the end lays out the questions that concern modern physicists, from dark matter to the number of dimensions necessary to accommodate Big Bang theories and quantum understandings.

Other aspects of Einstein jar in this account. His Jewishness, his pacificism, sit so ill with his support for the fledgling state of Israel and the atomic programme, not to mention his personal vagaries. These require more understanding of the complexities of human existence than Carri re's approach allows. But I guess it's all relative.

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