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EINSTEIN: A Life
By Denis Brian
Wiley. 509 pp. $30


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Einstein: A Life

By Charles Sheffield
Sunday, July 21, 1996
The Washington Post

ALBERT EINSTEIN has been recognized since early this century as the most famous physical scientist since Isaac Newton. He and his work have been written about extensively for more than 70 years, including dozens of biographies. If we confine ourselves to recent works written in English, any new book about Einstein must stand comparison with some standard references: Einstein: The Life and Times, the first-rate and monumental biography by Ronald Clark; Einstein,a compact but excellent summary by Jeremy Bernstein; and Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein,by Abraham Pais. Pais, as a colleague of Einstein and a first-rate physicist, concentrated on Einsteinís scientific achievements, and wrote a work that is probably inimitable.

What does this new biography offer? First, Denis Brian had access to an abundance of material drawn from the Einstein Archives. He has used this, together with a wide variety of other sources and personal interviews, to provide an overview of Einsteinís life that seeks, in Brianís own words, "not to diminish but to enlarge the man."

Brian succeeds. Einstein, as he appears in these pages, is anything but the remote and disembodied scientist. He gave his time generously to many noble causes, including arms limitations and the promotion of world peace. His personality, and his large-minded attitude to friends and colleagues, are illustrated by scores of anecdotes, and some of his professional interactions, as described in passages about Godel, Pauli and Schrodinger, are hilarious. Occasionally, the stories have a fine contemporary ring: "Flexner had been spurred to action [to found the Institute for Advanced Study] on hearing that a University of Chicago student had submitted a Ph.D. thesis titled ĎThe Comparison of Time and Movement of Four Methods of Washing Dishes.í

At the same time, the Einstein pictured by Brian had his definite failings. The most noticeable is probably his treatment of his children and his first wife, Mileva, and his comment on marriage, "Donít have any children; it makes divorce so much more complicated," has a cynical twist at odds with our usual impressions of the man.

Brian is at his best in presenting the human side of Einstein. The bookís weaknesses come from the authorís lack of understanding of science in general, and Einsteinís work in particular. Thus we read: "All interactions at a distance take time; that, in a sentence, is Einsteinís special theory of relativity." Few people familiar with special relativity would choose that sentence to provide a summary. According to Brian, Minkowski in 1907 "supported Einstein with a dazzling new presentation of general relativityís significance." But general relativity was still years in the future in 1907, and Minkowski would be dead before it was formulated. What Minkowski offered was a new insight into specialrelativity. Conversely, the book suggests that special relativity was confirmed in 1919, whereas the famous test of that year was of general relativity.

A number of statements about science in general also jar the reader. Roentgen is cited as the winner of the 1910 Nobel Prize for physics, but Roentgen was actually given that award in 1901, the first Nobelist in physics. Brian states, "In October 1910, Einstein completed another important paper, answering the question , Ďwhy is the sky blue." Lord Rayleigh had addressed and answered that long before, in 1871. William Bragg, who with his son, Lawrence, is regarded as a founder of X-ray crystallography, is mystifyingly referred to by his middle name, Henry, which no one familiar with physics would ever do. "Non-Euclidean space," is defined by Brian as space of four or more dimensions. However, the Euclidean or non-Euclidean nature of space is not defined by its number of dimensions. In discussing Einsteinís interactions with Velikovsky, the author confuses Jupiter with Venus, and makes statements about their atmospheres that are untrue of either planet.

These are all small points, but they have the effect of throwing doubt on the validity of other materials in the book. It is a pity that Brianís manuscript was not checked by someone who knew more science. The book improves in describing the later years, when Einsteinís scientific productivity is less and his work in social and political spheres is of greater importance. However, a biography of Einstein without appropriate emphasis on his scientific achievements is like a Mozart biography without the music, or Moby-Dickwithout the whale. Ultimately, although this book will not in any sense replace the biographies cited earlier, Brian delivers what he promised in the preface: an enlargement of our view of Einstein, the man. Paradoxically, this more personal view of Einstein increases the mystery of his scientific work. We think of Isaac Newton, the only figure in history with whom Albert Einstein bears comparison, and we see someone austere, secretive, and asexual, a man whose great scientific accomplishments somehow seem a compensation for his lack of humanity. Denis Brianís convincing picture, of a man more like the rest of us, only makes our wonder grow at Einsteinís sublime achievements.

Charles Sheffield did his dissertation on general relativity and gravitation, and wrote the introduction to the 1994 edition of Albert Einsteinís "The Meaning of Relativity."

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