Em cee squared

May 17, 2010

A blackboard with formulas written by Albert Einstein, preserved in the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford.

Several decades ago, I began to make a point of reading several books each year on subjects about which I knew little or nothing — including subjects that I found repulsive. Among those subjects have been mathematics and physics, both of which bedeviled me when I had to study them in high school and college. As I have mentioned here before, at least with respect to mathematics, I have derived a great deal of satisfaction from pondering these subjects when examinations and grades are not at issue, and I have found that those who claim that there  is beauty and wonder in these fields are telling the truth

That background explains why I grabbed the opportunity to review a popular biography entitled “Einstein: The Life of a Genius” by Walter Isaacson. This is a coffee table book that contains a limited amount of text in proportion to the number pages and illustrates its points with many photographs and also with facsimiles of several letters and documents. Among these are Einstein’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt in which the scientist advised the president to call together a group of experts to study the possibility of developing an atom bomb — something Nazi Germany was known to be doing at the time. As it happened, Einstein — a pacifist whose work in physics  helped pave the way to such weapons — was considered too great a security risk to work on the project himself, what with him being a native of Germany, a socialist, and a Jew.

Isaacson records that one of Einstein’s early physics instructors described him as “an extremely clever boy,” but added, “You have one great fault: You’ll never let yourself be told anything.”  It wasn’t meant as compliment, but still, this tendency as much as anything else led to Einstein’s achievements in theoretical physics. Einstein — like Isaac Newton before him — would not accept anything as settled just because it was handed on to him by authoritative sources. He wondered and questioned and “experimented” with physical phenomena such as light and motion by forming images in his mind, and he changed the world.

Einstein is a curiosity in a way, because he was one of the most widely known celebrities of his time and his name is part of our language more than 50 years after his death, and yet most of us have little or no idea what he was up to. That doesn’t matter. He deserves his place in our culture if for no other reason than his persistence in questioning even his own conclusions.

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2 Responses to “Em cee squared”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Maybe six months ago, I was doing some business in a local bank when I looked out the window and saw an old, utterly beaten-up pink car with something written on the back window in white – like those “Go Tigers!” messages kids always put on cars.

    This message was long, though, and it made me curious. When I went out I walked over to the car and saw it said, “Gravity, she not the reason for falling in love”.

    Here in Texas, the combination of the car and the sentence structure suggested a Spanish-speaker, and not a wealthy one. The whole thing was delightful and I smiled over it the rest of the day.

    Only later did I discover that Einstein’s the source for the original quotation. That made me smile even more.

  2. bronxboy55 Says:

    I have a book entitled “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” by the same Walter Isaacson. I’ve read this book, as well as many others about Einstein and his theories.

    I also have one written by Einstein, called “Relativity.” The subtitle is, “A clear explanation that anyone can understand.” I think most people, if they worked hard enough at it, could understand the basic premises of the theories of relativity, but this isn’t the book I’d turn to. What Einstein considered to be clear was certainly beyond my ability to follow. I think it’s difficult for an Einstein to reach back down through enough levels to really teach the uninitiated. I have found this to be true with other scientists and mathematicians: the stuff becomes so second-nature to them that they can’t remember what it was like to not understand it. But maybe that’s what makes it fun, like a meal you know you’ll never finish.

    Speaking of meals, your blog is a buffet for the mind. Thanks, Mr. P, for another great post.

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