Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: The Life of a Flawed Genius

A great thinker, Albert Einstein closed his mind to other schools of thought. Bill Condie reviews a book that paints a picture of the final years of one of the world's iconic scientists.

Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: The Life of a Flawed Genius
By David Bodanis
Little, Brown (2016)
RRP $35.00

We all make mistakes, for sure, but fallibility is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the most recognisable genius the world has ever produced. David Bodanis, that talented explainer of complex physics to lay readers, whose E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation is among the clearest explanations of the famous formula, has come up with a perfect sequel.

Described by the author as “the story of a fallible genius, but also the story of his mistakes”, the book tries to explain the anticlimactic later years of the great man’s life. Tourists may have still gawped as Einstein trudged home in Princeton, but during those final decades he was largely ignored by working scientists.

The explanation lies, Bodanis argues, in the same characteristics of imagination and self-confidence that led the young Einstein to change the way we thought about physics forever. As he says, “genius and hubris, triumph and failure, can be inextricable”. To understand where Einstein went wrong, it is necessary to examine his earliest years to understand how his mind engaged with the mysteries of the universe.

It began with Einstein’s discovery that mass and energy are different forms of the same stuff, expressed in the neat little formula E=mc2 – unheard of at the time, but so dramatically demonstrated as true in the skies over Hiroshima, where a tiny sliver of matter became a knockout blow of energy.

Later came the theory of general relativity that proved energy and mass distort spacetime. The discovery unified gravity into a single view of the universe, no longer a separate force but the result of existing laws. Laws, Einstein thought, that were very clear and very exact. No wonder he considered the theory “the greatest satisfaction of my life”.

Ironically though, it was this faith in the perfection of his theory – one could say a blind faith – that closed his mind to other emerging schools of thought, particularly those developing in theories of quantum mechanics. That the quantum world of subatomic particles was a place of inherent uncertainty and contradiction was anathema to Einstein’s belief in the underlying laws that guided his own theory. God, he said, “is not playing at dice”. And that, to Bodanis, was his greatest mistake. It was also a blindness that kept Einstein in the wilderness for the last 25 years of his life.

With the centenary of Einstein’s general theory of relativity last year, there is no shortage of books about Einstein. But this one is still a welcome addition to the vast library. It comes, as mentioned, with Bodanis’ talent for explaining the maths and science of Einstein’s work. But the best part is the real feel it gives of Einstein the man, and his thinking.

The poor, somewhat arrogant, student of his youth – whose teachers thought would amount to little thanks to his reluctance to take instruction – against the odds gives birth to the in-his-prime scientist combining wonderful imagination and rigour to shake our understanding of the world to its foundations. But that, in turn, leads to a dogmatism that locks him out of a world of new thought that, had he approached the problem differently, he might have contributed so much to.

It’s a wonderful exposition of the life of Einstein – the man with the superhuman mind who was, in the end, all too human.

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Bill Condie is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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