Cool head for Einstein

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 1998, 12:00am

Albert Einstein by Albrecht Foelsing, Viking, $350 A few people's images almost define the 20th century: Marilyn Monroe, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Picasso, Elvis Presley, Albert Einstein.

Einstein's life created the image - whether true or not - of the harmless but eccentric genius professor, both brilliant in his chosen subject but hopeless at everyday life. It also created one of the simplest but most extraordinarily profound formulae in science. Most of us do not really understand the theory of relativity or the implications of quantum mechanics, but E=mc2 seems almost trivial. This formula has itself achieved the status of icon, representing the very act of intellectual thought or science: the idea of scientific discovery can now be encapsulated in a single logo and be as recognisable as Coca-Cola or Mercedes-Benz.

All this came from the ideas of a Grade III expert of the Swiss Patent Office, working almost in isolation and long before the Internet or even good telephone links.

Most of us are aware that Einstein's theories and formulae are not simple. We know he changed the world of physics and we know he refused to go along with possibly the greatest revolution in intellectual thought - quantum mechanics - but we may not understand why.

The iconography of Einstein gets in the way.

Albrecht Foelsing's biography, although only recently published in English, was published in German in 1994. This difference might not seem important, since Einstein has been dead for more than 40 years, but it means that Foelsing did not have access to many of his papers.

Helen Dukas acted as Einstein's personal assistant and became a kind of guardian of the Einstein myth. She controlled virtually all Einstein's papers. Whatever their motives, their control meant the first volume of Einstein's papers was not published until 1987.

Consequently Foelsing has little to say about some of the wild ideas that have come out in the past few years, particularly in Einstein, a Life by Denis Brian which handles gossip quite well and makes great use of the papers. Another publication recently claimed that Einstein's first wife was really responsible for the theory of relativity. And others have written about the strange doctor, Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein and supposedly took off with the brain which is now, apparently, kept in a jar in Kansas.

The loves, the tragedy, the offer to become president of Israel, the letter that led to the making of the world's first atomic bomb, are all a part of Einstein's life, of course. One is likely to lose track, however, of the two most important aspects of his intellectual life: relativity and quantum mechanics, which drew together space, time and matter, and on which Foelsing concentrates.

It is both important and fascinating to realise that Einstein worked in near-isolation from the academic world when he thought up his theory of relativity. He was a clerk in a Patent Office, not at a university. We may never know if this isolation is what helped him create a theory that was so revolutionary.

Einstein himself, as Foelsing points out, never quite was able to remember in later years how it had happened. The impact of his theory did, however, seem to amuse him, as Foelsing writes: ' 'This world is a curious madness' was Einstein's reaction, in September 1920, to a situation at whose centre, to his own surprise, he suddenly found himself. 'At present every coachman and every waiter argues about whether or not the relativity theory is correct. A person's conviction on this point depends on the political party he belongs to.' ' Quantum mechanics, however, was another matter. Despite the fact that the theory of relativity did much to act as a catalyst for quantum mechanics, Einstein remained unconvinced of its truth right up to his death. He was often quoted as saying that God did not play dice with the universe, which was how he saw quantum mechanics. The work of people like Niels Bohr, however, was showing that perhaps God did.

Einstein was both emotionally and intellectually uncomfortable with this.

Work in quantum mechanics has radically changed the way physicists look at the world. The Newtonian world of predictable 'classical' mechanics has given way to the extraordinary theories of particle physics.

Things happen at the particle level that defy logic. Feynman diagrams show movement backwards in time; photons pass through a hole in a screen and 'know' whether there is one hole or two. Some people are now even postulating multiple worlds: science fiction cannot keep up with the latest in quantum mechanics.

Einstein was never able to accept any of this. He felt a unified theory would pull it all together and eliminate the 'craziness'.

That looks less and less likely today. Einstein was a great figure in the history of science and indeed in the history of the 20th century. Foelsing does not seem to shy from controversy, but his approach is academic, factual and straightforward.

If readers are looking for a more exciting treatment, then Brian's book would be more interesting. Foelsing, however, does spend much more time on Einstein's youth and development and this makes it a book that anyone wishing to research Einstein may wish to read.