To summarize, it is one heck of a story, of how a simple patent clerk revolutionizes the way we think about world.
Why Einstein is a big deal: Einstein is a household name. During his era, he was treated as a Rockstar! He was undoubtedly most popular living physicist during his time. He was even offered the presidency of Israel, which he denied. After reading this book, you will really know what makes him so important. What was so revolutionary about his contributions - He really has revolutionized our understanding of the world with this theories - He proved that atoms exist, explained Brownian motion, was the first to propose light is made of packets and explain photoelectric phenomenon, prove that space and time are not absolute, proposed a new theory of gravity which led to many significant discoveries in Cosmology, proved energy and mass are equivalent.
How could he come up with Revolutionary ideas: Special and General theories of relativity are one of the most revolutionary ideas. But how did Einstein come up with such ideas. It turns out that the seeds of disregarding absolute space and time were sown from the readings of Poincare. But Einstein had taken the revolutionary step of also disregarding ether, and showed the relative nature of both space and time. And there is a interesting journey of General Relativity from equivalence principle to the field equations. Walter Isaacson does a fabulous job to help us understand what qualities of Einstein helped him to take such bold and revolutionary steps and disregard the old theories. For example, there was interesting section in the book which explained - If Poincare already had a feeling that Newton’s absolute time is meaningless, why couldn’t he come with Special Relativity, what was different about Einstein? It is because, he had this attitude to disregard the authority if he had the right reasons. There is a dialogue by Einstein which repeats several times in the book - “Blind respect in authority is the greatest enemy of Truth”.
Attitude of Einstein towards Science and Life: Einstein after out of his college, couldn’t find any position as a professor or assistant to a professor, despite writing many letters and applications. So he had to settle as a Patent Office Clerk, a job he had got due to his friend’s recommendation. In 1905, along with working in the Patent office, he had produced 5 papers that revolutionized Physics(General Relativity(1915) was not there among them!). The year 1905 is regarded as Annus Mirabilis, meaning a miracle year! This fact really intrigues me. Most of us would love to relax in the free time and would not worry much about things outside of job, but Einstein was a passionate guy, he used to finish his job early and would devote rest of the time to his own scientific ideas, and produced revolutionary papers! Also it is a well know fact that Einstein hated Quantum Mechanics. But why on earth would such a revolutionary physicist oppose a revolutionary theory like Quantum Mechanics. In fact, there was a stage in Einstein’s life, when every living physicist except Einstein had accepted Quantum Mechanics. The reason behind this was Einstein’s attitude toward science. There is something called “Uncertainty Principle” in Quantum Mechanics which states that it is impossible to know the both values of pairs of observables with certainty simultaneously. For example, if you could know position of a particle with great certainty, then it is not possible to know the momentum of that particle with certainty. Also, Quantum Mechanics states, that particles behave differently until observed. Quantum Mechanics was full of such weird things, but it was and is a successful theory is explaining microscopic phenomenon. But for Einstein, reality existed independent of the observer. He used to famously say - “Do you believe the moon exists, only when you see it”. He also didn’t like the uncertainty principle, he proposed several thought experiments, to show that in principle it is possible to know both the observables certainly. But they were proved wrong by his fellow Physicists like Bohr. In 1935, he had proposed EPR paradox, to prove Quantum Mechanics as an incomplete description of reality. It was really a shock to all the Quantum Physicists of that era. And it was unanswered until 1964, by John Bell, which resulted in a more shocking truth - Non locality of the universe. Also Quantum Mechanics was full of probabilities and chance, which Einstein hated. To quote Einstein - “God does not play dice”. To which Bohr cleverly replied - “Einstein don’t tell God what to do”.Einstein could have followed the trend during his age, and worked on Quantum, and churn out more and more revolutionary papers. But he strongly adhered to his principles. He was working alone on Unification theory - his grand idea of unifying Gravity and Electromagnetism, until the end of his life. Even on his death bed, he scribbled equations related to it! Einstein’s true gift was not his intellect, but it was curiosity, stubbornness and true passion for science. During his life time, he also strived to make the world a better place, he strongly promoted pacifism - opposition to war between WWI and WWII, helped the Jewish community. He lived a humble life - dressed in simplest way, He preferred walks and never learned to drive! Through out his biography, we get to know anecdotes, which depict Einstein’s simplicity, and it is really amusing that a genius like Einstein lived such a simple life more than an ordinary individual.
Here is one of my favorite anecdotes. Einstein was once invited to a dinner party, and at the party he was sitting in a corner engrossed in scribbling equations on his writing pad. Someone had made an announcement in the party regarding Einstein and all the guests were applauding for him. Einstein was so immersed in his work that he didn’t notice it. When he was pointed out that people were applauding, he stood up and started applauding assuming the applause was for someone else.
“No other man contributed so much to the vast expansion of 20th century knowledge,”. “Yet no other man was more modest in the possession of the power that is knowledge, more sure that power without wisdom is deadly.” - President Eisenhower
Einstein’s God: There is a chapter in the book named “Einstein’s God”. I think there was a need for separate chapter to explain this idea. Einstein was not an atheist, which might be shocking to you as most of the scientists are atheists. But the kind of God Einstein believed in was a complete different one, he believed in something called Spinoza’s God. The general notion of God is, a supernatural being who created the universe, watches you, rewards the good and those who pray, punishes the evil. Spinoza’s God is a complete different idea of God developed by Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch Philosopher. For Spinoza, God is the universe and nature itself, the idea of God is not individuated and God is impersonal. The general notion of praying to God, is to praise God and ask God to change things as per one’s comfort. But for Spinoza, to pray God means to try understand the laws of universe through Natural Sciences, Philosophy and Psychology, by reasoning and logic. Spinoza’s God is free from superstitions and gives a complete new perspective of God as the universe and its laws and helps humanity to rise above individual’s selfish concerns. This video by The School of Life YouTube Channel does a great job in explaining Spinoza’s ideas. I highly recommend you to watch it.
“I believe in Spinoza’s god, who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a god who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”
To know truths about Einstein’s life: In this internet age, we see many fake stories of Einstein from incredible sources like “Einstein failed in his Math tests”, “Einstein was bad at physics during his college”, Einstein giving some statement of Law of Attraction. Many people who want to spread their useless ideas, write something and say Einstein said it. This is really misleading, and at times really gets on my nerves.
Einstein had mastered Integral and Differential Calculus before age of 15
In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley’s column with the headline “Greatest Living Mathematician Failed in Mathematics.” Einstein laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”
Einstein did really fail, but it was in experimental physics class. But it was because Einstein was not interested and didn’t attend those classes regularly, in the class of experimental physics.
Einstein’s impertinence also got him into trouble with the Polytechnic’s other physics professor, Jean Pernet, who was in charge of experimental and lab exercises. In his course Physical Experiments for Beginners, Pernet gave Einstein a 1, the lowest possible grade, thus earning himself the historic distinction of having flunked Einstein in a physics course. Partly it was because Einstein seldom showed up for the course. At Pernet’s written request, in March 1899 Einstein was given an official “director’s reprimand due to lack of diligence in physics practicum
But when he attended he did things in his own way
On those occasions when Einstein did deign to show up in Pernet’s lab, his independent streak sometimes got him in trouble, such as the day he was given an instruction sheet for a particular experiment. “With his usual independence,” his friend and early biographer Carl Seelig reports, “Einstein naturally flung the paper in the waste paper basket.” He proceeded to pursue the experiment in his own way. “What do you make of Einstein?” Pernet asked an assistant. “He always does something different from what I have ordered.” “He does indeed, Herr Professor,” the assistant replied, “but his solutions are right and the methods he uses are of great interest.”
And there are countless other quotes on the internet, where Einstein is quoted for things he never said. Next time, when you read or hear of something, and if it claims that Einstein told it or it happened in Einstein’s life. Be vigilant, check if its a credible source or not!
Interesting events - Ironies
If you have read the book, or are aware of Einstein’s biography, like me you might have noticed some of the ironic events. Here I wish to write some of them, that I remember, because I found them interesting.
Though Poincare was the first to disregard the idea of absolute time. Einstein was the one who had come up with the Special theory of relativity by considering the concept of ether superfluous. Ironically, even after Einstein had developed Special Relativity, Poincare didn’t fully accept the ideas.
Until his death in 1912, Poincaré never fully gave up the concept of the ether or the notion of absolute rest. Instead, he spoke of the adoption of “the principle of relativity according to Lorentz.” He never fully understood or accepted the basis of Einstein’s theory. “
Planck had developed the theory that Energy comes in quantized forms(in discrete levels), to explain some experimental data. But it was Einstein who gave the physical meaning to that concept telling that Light can be considered as stream of packets of Energy(now called photons). And he further used this idea to explain Photoelectric effect, for which he went on to win the Nobel Prize. But surprisingly, Planck did not like the idea the light consists of packets, though the theory that was developed by Einstein was a child of his own ideas!
“Among the great problems abundant in modern physics, there is hardly one to which Einstein has not made a remarkable contribution……….That he might sometimes have overshot the target in his speculations, as for example in his light quantum hypothesis, should not be counted against him too much.
-an excerpt from a letter,written by Planck
Einstein had really made significant contributions to Modern Physics, and his theories have changed the perspective physicists looked at the world. In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington conducted an experiment to confirm the predictions of Einstein’s General Relativity. It is after this incident, that Einstein had become a celebrity. He was as popular as Charlie Chaplin! And it was indeed a revolutionary theory, as it gave a new picture of gravity, different from the one Newton proposed. His theories were so revolutionary that he was sure that he would someday win Nobel Prize. And there was already a contract made that on winning the Nobel Prize, he would give the money to his divorced wife Mileva. It seemed obvious to everyone, Einstein would win the Nobel Prize but the question was when and for what! Undoubtedly, Relativity is the most significant contribution of Einstein, but during those days even after being experimentally proved right, relativity was still under debate. So in the end, the Nobel Prize was given to Einstein for Photoelectric effect.
Hermann Minkowski was a mathematics professor at ETH, who called Einstein a lazy dog during his college days, because he avoided his challenging courses. But after Einstein had developed Special Relativity, Minkowski was astonished and he told Max Born “It came as a tremendous surprise, for in his student days Einstein had been a lazy dog, He never bothered about mathematics at all”. He later developed a mathematical theory of space-time to explain Special Relativity geometrically. Einstein first thought it was some kind of Mathematical sophistry, and used to joke that “Since the mathematicians have grabbed hold of the theory of relativity, I myself no longer understand it”. But later, Einstein had to the same idea of space-time, which he previously mocked to develop General Relativity.
…….That realization would sink in a decade later, when he was wrestling with the geometry of his theory of gravity and found himself forced to rely on the help of a math professor who had once called him a lazy dog. “I have become imbued with great respect for mathematics,” he wrote to a colleague in 1912……
Unfortunately, Minkowski was not there to witness General Relativity’s development. He died in 1907, and legend has it declared that ““What a pity that I have to die in the age of relativity’s development”.
- Funny Image to depict mis-quoting of Einstein, obtained from 36 Famous Albert Einstein Quotes That Will Blow Your Mind (louisem.com).