lbert Einstein may have been the world's most famous thinker but he was baffled by his own popularity. The genius behind the theory of relativity never understood why a concept so far removed from everyday experience and application should have conferred on him an almost mystical status among scientists and non-scientists alike.
Today's boffins should be so lucky. A recent survey found British teenagers were unable to name a single living scientist. The sample, admittedly, was small. But some bright spark might have recalled Lord Winston or Steven Hawking -- if only from television appearances.
A Hundred Years of Relativity
Ed. Andrew Robinson
Harry N. Abrams $35/£24.99, 256 pages
The Standard of Greatness
by John S. Rigden
Harvard University Press
$21.95/£14.95, 192 pages
THE INVISIBLE CENTURY:
Einstein, Freud and the
Search for Hidden Universes
by Richard Panek
Viking Adult/Fourth Estate
$24.95/£15.99, 272 pages
A WORLD WITHOUT TIME:
The Forgotten Legacy of
Godel and Einstein
by Palle Yourgrau
Basic Books/Penguin $24/£20, 210 pages
I suspect, however, that this cultural blind spot is not limited to the young. When the president of the US finds it difficult to accept hard evidence of global warming or the significance of stem-cell research, it is clear the scientist as superstar is no more. How times change: Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning him the Germans might develop an atomic bomb. "This requires action," Roosevelt responded, setting in train the US atomic project that same evening.
There are practical reasons why scientists no longer enjoy the limelight -- the bewildering increase in their numbers and in the scientific papers they publish, for example. Researchers typically work in teams that cast a cloak of unanimity over individual members; there is little scope for the idiosyncratic genius ploughing a lone furrow.
But Einstein's iconic status remains as secure today as when he died 50 years ago. The same teenagers who struggled to bring to mind living scientists had no difficulty in bracketing Einstein's name with those of Isaac Newton, that other giant of gravitation theory, and the chemist Marie Curie. For the past century, Einstein has represented the gold standard for intellectual excellence. In 1905 he published four scientific papers and a doctoral dissertation, any one of which would have guaranteed his place among the immortals of science. Taken together, and with his work on general relativity published in 1916, they set him on another plane altogether.
He is also, blamelessly, responsible for the Einstein publishing industry: the outpouring of biographies, hagiographies, monographs, histories and textbooks covering every aspect of his life and work exhaustively and exhaustingly. This year, designated the World Year of Physics to mark the centenary of the 1905 papers, there has been a flurry of new books and older titles reissued with a new gloss. But a dilemma faces anybody writing about Einstein today: what is there to say about the man or his science that has not been said 100 times before?
Inevitably, some of the 2005 material is old wine in new bottles. But the best books have found ways to cast fresh light on the subject. There is always room for new attempts to explain Einstein's achievements in simple terms. John Rigden, an American physics professor, provides just such an account in Einstein 1905: The Standard of Greatness. He gives an excellent overview of each of the 1905 papers and tries, not wholly convincingly, to interpret Einstein's thought processes during their creation. "He was intrigued rather than dismayed by apparent contradictions," Rigden writes. "He was driven to unify disparate or contradictory physical ideas and, in the process, to simplify the theories used to represent them."
Well, yes. That is what the best scientists do. Rigden concludes that Einstein had "unshakeable confidence" in his physics because he "worked at the level of basic principles and he did it alone". All of which is undoubtedly true but hardly explains Einstein's unique contribution.
While Rigden has concentrated on Einstein's science, others have sought a broader social context. In A World Without Time, Palle Yourgrau discusses Einstein's relationship with mathematician and philosopher Kurt Godel. The two men met in 1933 and remained friends until Einstein's death. Yourgrau's book is more about Godel than about Einstein but it does introduce some unsettling ideas about the implications of relativity. "Godel," he writes, "had achieved an amazing demonstration that time travel, strictly understood, was consistent with the theory of relativity". But if time travel is possible, the argument goes, time itself cannot exist. Yourgrau explains: "If it is possible ... to return to one's past, then what was past never passed at all."
Tricky stuff. Richard Panek tackles another friendship -- and less mind-bending but no less interesting material -- in The Invisible Century, which compares the influence of Einstein and Sigmund Freud on scientific thought in the early 20th century. It is a book of two halves, which fit together uneasily. As Panek relates, the two men met only once. Afterwards, Freud wrote to a friend: "He understands as much about psychology as I do about physics so we had a very pleasant chat." Panek is stronger on Einstein than Freud; his explanation of relativity is particularly helpful to the non-scientist.
'Einstein was important to the two greatest revolutions in physical science since Galileo and Newton'
Einstein: A Hundred Years of Relativity tries to cover all the bases. Edited by Andrew Robinson, it contains contributions not only from physicists such as Stephen Hawking (a reprint of his 1999 article in Time magazine marking its choice of Einstein as Person of the Century), Steven Weinberg and Philip Anderson but also Robert Schulmann, editor of Einstein's papers and Philip Glass, composer of the opera Einstein on the Beach. Very few intellectuals have the charisma that can translate into popular culture. By the same token, "You don't have to be an Einstein to work it out" has passed into the vernacular. Nobody says, "You don't have to be a Born (or a Bohr or a Heisenberg)", to mention only three of Einstein's brightest contemporaries.
Anderson, a Nobel Prize winner, provides a welcome dash of cold water. Examining Einstein's scientific legacy he describes one of the 1905 papers as "hardly revolutionary", another as a "well-crafted piece of classical statistical mechanics", yet another as convincing "only laggards". He reserves his enthusiasm for the paper in which Einstein laid the foundations for quantum mechanics. "To conclude," he notes, "Einstein was important to the two greatest revolutions in physical science since Galileo and Newton. The lesser one, relativity theory, he created almost alone. But in the one which in my view is by far the greater, the quantum theory, he played a unique and indispensable role."
Which brings us back to the puzzle of Einstein's singular popularity. As Rigden points out with reference to the 1905 papers: "It is probably fair to say that most members of the general public do not understand how the concepts of space and time were changed by these papers, but people do understand that Einstein did something enormously profound."
Einstein grew weary of fending off attempts to imbue relativity with mystical significance. In Einstein (1993), Michael White and John Gribbin quote him telling the archbishop of Canterbury, who was seeking some spiritual connection: "Do not believe a word of it. It makes no difference. It is purely abstract science."
Indeed, general relativity, the theory of gravitation for which Einstein is best known, seems other-worldly. Newton, inspired by falling apples or not, argued that gravity is a mysterious, reciprocal attraction between bodies. Einstein overthrew Newton's ideas, deducing gravity to be the result of the distortion of four-dimensional space time. Most people have difficulty visualising four-dimensional space-time, let alone understanding how it can be warped by massive objects such as the Sun or even Newton's apple (Peter Atkins in Galileo's Finger, 2003, has one of the best goes at an explanation).
It may be abstract science but Einstein's ideas have found practical uses. The technologies behind X-rays, global positioning satellites, lasers, microwave ovens, medical scanners, television cameras and screens, liquid crystal displays, nuclear power and the nuclear bomb, all make use of the ideas he expressed in six months in 1905.
So what did he do? Briefly: in March, he showed light could behave simultaneously as a particle and a wave, a revolutionary idea that laid the foundations for quantum physics. April saw the publication of his doctoral dissertation, which established a way of determining the dimensions of molecules in a liquid. This led to his May paper, which explained Brownian motion, the random movement of particles in a liquid, essentially proving the reality of atoms and molecules, by no means a universal belief at the time.
Then in June came the big one: the special theory of relativity showing space and time are linked in a single space-time continuum. In September, he embellished this work, demonstrating the equivalence of mass and energy. This paper featured the most famous equation, E=mc2 -- the energy in a body is equal to its mass times the velocity of light squared.
Rigden quotes Einstein: "It follows from the theory of relativity that mass and energy are both different manifestations of the same thing -- a somewhat unfamiliar conception for the average man." And for the average scientist. Einstein's ideas created a storm and were by no means immediately accepted. It took years for some of his more abstract notions to yield to experimental proof. But his fame grew remorselessly, to the point where, in November 1928, The New York Times led its pages with rumours, soon proved untrue, that Einstein was on the verge of a new breakthrough.
Rising levels of literacy and the growth of mass circulation newspapers meant local heroes could become international superstars overnight. Scientific developments were becoming big news.
---------------------------------------'Mass and energy are different manifestations of the same thing -- an unfamiliar conception of the average man'
And Einstein was a journalist's dream: handsome, media-friendly and witty, he could always be relied on for a quote and a headline: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour," he quipped to explain relativity.
In A Hundred Years of Relativity, Robinson attributes Einstein's fame to his public accessibility and the fact that, in 1919, British scientists confirmed an important prediction of his relativity theory, "For peoples desperate for peace, this co-operation between very recent former enemies seemed almost providential," he writes.
And relativity itself contributed to his celebrity. He had opened a hitherto unsuspected window on reality, a new way to look at the world that suggested another approach to mankind's search for purpose and meaning. Einstein was reassuringly human. White and Gribbin claim: "To many, Einstein was the archetypal absent-minded professor, a white-haired, eccentric scientist whom the uninitiated saw as the role model for professors everywhere."
Today's physicists seem a theory too far from ordinary experience to be heroes in the same mould. In the reissued 1979 title Einstein's Universe, Nigel Calder admits he had expected another genius to have succeeded Einstein by now, just as Einstein supplanted Newton: "It has not happened, has it? You would certainly have noticed if the spotlight had fallen on anyone judged worthy to wear Einstein's mantle."
That it has not done so, and that the great man's ideas continue to underpin much of physics today, is a measure of the astounding conceptual leaps he made 100 years ago.
And you don't have to be an Einstein to understand that. (The reviewer is the FT's senior technology correspondent)
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