Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius

Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius

Hans C. Ohanian

Language: English

Pages: 416

ISBN: 0393337685

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

“A thought-provoking critique of Einstein’s tantalizing combination of brilliance and blunder.”―Andrew Robinson, New Scientist

Although Einstein was the greatest genius of the twentieth century, many of his groundbreaking discoveries were blighted by mistakes, ranging from serious errors in mathematics to bad misconceptions in physics and failures to grasp the subtleties of his own creations. This forensic biography dissects Einstein’s scientific mistakes and places them in the context of his turbulent life and times. In lively, accessible prose, Hans C. Ohanian paints a fresh, insightful portrait of the real Einstein at work, in contrast to the uncritical celebrity worship found in many biographies.

Of the approximately 180 original scientific papers that Einstein published in his lifetime, about 40 are infested with mistakes. For instance, Einstein’s first mathematical proof of the famous formula E = mc2 was incomplete and only approximately valid; he struggled with this problem for many years, but he never found a complete proof (better mathematicians did). Einstein was often lured by irrational and mystical inspirations, but his extraordinary intuition about physics permitted him to discover profound truths despite―and sometimes because of―the mistakes he made along the way. He was a sleepwalker: his intuition told him where he needed to go, and he somehow managed to get there without quite knowing how.

As this book persuasively argues, the defining hallmark of Einstein’s genius was not any special mathematical ability but an uncanny talent to use his mistakes as stepping stones to formulate his revolutionary theories. 25 illustrations

















grand scale looks like a very daring thing to do, Einstein was following in the footsteps of Newton, who had attempted something similar with his law of gravitation. Newton, like Einstein in 1917, thought that the distribution of stars was static, or nearly static; that is, the stars remained in fixed positions (which is why they are called fixed stars), in contrast to the planets (called the wanderers). Newton asserted that if an infinite number of stars is uniformly distributed over infinite

presence of some rabble-rousers in the audience who had made crass anti-Semitic remarks within his earshot. Einstein was so incensed that in his reply he not only skewered Gehrcke but also Philipp Lenard, another critic of relativity, who had, however, not been present at the meeting. In earlier years, Einstein had admired Lenard’s experimental work on the photoelectric effect, and they had conducted a friendly correspondence. But later Lenard had sharply criticized Einstein’s Principle of

the trip. A limerick that physics professors are wont to recite draws attention to this: There was a young lady named Bright Who traveled much faster than light. She set out one day in a relative way And returned the previous night. However, it is not possible to accelerate a body to a speed as large or larger than the speed of light—to achieve the speed of light would require an infinite amount of energy, which is not attainable. With their gigantic accelerators physicists can make

of oscillators one step further, by proposing that the energy of light is also quantized. Einstein was led to this proposal by an analysis of the blackbody radiation law. Einstein found that the radiation in the cavity had some of the thermodynamic properties of a gas—the radiation behaves as though it were made out of pointlike particles, each of them with an energy equal to one of Planck’s quanta. He called these particles light quanta, or “Lichtquanten.” Today we call these particles photons,

and the development of the atomic bomb. The physicists who worked on this project—Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller—were nuclear physicists, and the tools of their trade were primarily the laws of quantum physics. To achieve control over nuclear fission, they needed an understanding of the nuclear forces and the quantum mechanics of the nucleus. E = mc to them—although they occasionally used E = mc2 was of little concern 2, they could have done just as well without it. And last but

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