Even the great genius of Albert Einstein stumbled when it came to
Review by George Johnson
The Human Failings of Genius
Hans C. Ohanian
W.W. Norton: 394 pp., $24.95
WHEN Donald Crowhurst's abandoned sailboat was found adrift in the Atlantic
in 1969, his captain's log recorded the ravings of a man whose mind had
snapped. On page after page, he spouted fulminations and pseudoscience,
finally ripping his chronometer from its mountings and throwing it and then
himself into the drink.
During the voyage, an around-the-globe sailboat race, Crowhurst had been
reading Einstein's book "Relativity: The Special and the General Theory." A
chapter called "On the Idea of Time in Physics" seems to have pushed him
over the edge.
Einstein was pondering what it means to say that two lightning bolts strike
the ground simultaneously. For this to be true, he suggested, someone
positioned halfway between the events would have to observe the flashes
occurring at the same instant. That assumes that the two signals are
traveling at the same speed -- a condition, Einstein wrote, rather oddly,
that "is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the
physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own free
will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity."
"You can't do THAT!" Crowhurst, an electrical engineer, protested to his
journal. "I thought, 'the swindler.' " From there he descended into madness.
Hans C. Ohanian, who tells this strange tale at the beginning of "Einstein's
Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius," sympathizes with poor Crowhurst.
"The speed of light is either constant or not, and only measurement can
decide what it is," Ohanian writes. For Einstein to make a postulation
rather than propose it as a hypothesis to be tested may seem like a fine
distinction. (Earlier in his book, Einstein does cite an empirical basis for
his assumption: the Dutch astronomer Willem de Sitter's paper, "An
Astronomical Proof for the Constancy of the Speed of Light," which was based
on observations of binary stars.) But to Ohanian, the act was as outrageous
as when Indiana lawmakers tried to legislate the value for pi. And so he
adds it to his roster of Einstein's mistakes.
Ohanian, the author of physics textbooks and a former associate editor of
the American Journal of Physics, sometimes seems to be overreaching in his
attempt to humble the great man, but the book's quixotic approach --
retelling Einstein's story by homing in on his blunders -- makes for good
intellectual entertainment. Having read two books about Einstein just in the
last year, I wasn't sure I could take another. But with his idiosyncratic
style and cranky asides (at one point he calls the young Einstein "an
incorrigible and tactless loudmouth"), Ohanian kept me eagerly turning the
We have all heard that math wasn't Einstein's strong point, and Ohanian
ruthlessly lays out the details. A 12-page marathon calculation in
Einstein's doctoral dissertation, "A New Determination of the Molecular
Size," was "a comedy of errors" based on "zany" physical assumptions, such
as treating sugar molecules dissolved in water as though they were tiny
spheres sitting at rest instead of spinning like tops.
"It is a total mystery why his thesis advisors overlooked this glaring
mistake," Ohanian writes. "They were quite ordinary, dull professors at what
was then a dull, second-rate university, but even the dullest of dull
physics professors should not have been this blind. Einstein's dissertation
should have been rejected."
Fumbling ever forward, Einstein went on to commit more errors in the suite
of famous papers he wrote in 1905, what came to be called his miracle year.
The miracle, as Ohanian tells it, is that Einstein could have been wrong on
so many details while coming through, in the end, with some of the greatest
insights of the century.
In his paper on the photoelectric effect, for example, he claimed to prove
that a phenomenon called blackbody radiation behaves like a gas made of
light particles, or photons. Not so fast, Ohanian objects: Though the theory
worked for high-frequency photons, Einstein glossed over the fact that it
didn't work for low-frequency ones, "like a tailor who tells the customer
how beautifully the jacket fits at the shoulders, and pretends not to notice
that the sleeves are much too long, ending somewhere near the knees."
Most of the errors Ohanian describes will be just as esoteric for many
readers, but his exasperated outbursts make the book fun. E=mc2? Don't get
him started. No matter what you have been told, it was not such an important
equation, a trifle, really. And not even original. Nevertheless, in deriving
the formula, Einstein left a hole in his argument "almost big enough for a
truck to drive through." He proved the case for slow-moving bodies and then
extrapolated, without justification, to fast-moving ones.
"The mistake is the sort of thing every amateur mathematician knows to watch
out for," Ohanian scolds. Over the years, Einstein came up with more proofs;
they all contained errors.
Einstein buffs have read numerous times about what he called his "biggest
mistake" (introducing a fudge factor in general relativity to avoid the
seeming absurdity of an expanding universe). Ohanian gives us Einstein's
"zaniest mistake." In trying to nail down the equivalence between energy and
mass, he engaged in a mathematical fraud as egregious as that "perpetrated
by some sleazy Italian purveyors of olive oil, who pour a bottleful of
genuine olive oil into a barrelful of vegetable oil of unknown provenance
and then sell this mix as pure olive oil, extra vergine."
Sometimes, Einstein's friend Marcel Grossmann tried to help him with his
figures but not always to good effect. When Einstein was trying to get his
mind around curved space-time, one of Grossmann's bungled equations led him
astray. Einstein didn't notice. "In a performance worthy of Elmer Fudd
marching off to hunt 'wabbits' and failing to notice that Bugs Bunny is
sitting on top of his hunting cap, Einstein failed to recognize the
mistake." In going through Einstein's life, some of what Ohanian marks down
as errors seem more like philosophical disputes. Einstein's quest to find a
unified theory and to expunge quantum craziness from physics ultimately
failed. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a noble attempt.
Ohanian assures us that his crankiness comes not out of schadenfreude,
"[b]ut, rather, because these mistakes made Einstein appear so much more
human. They brought him down from the Olympian heights of his great
discoveries to my own level, where I could imagine talking to him as a
colleague, and maybe bluntly say, in the give-and-take of a friendly
discussion among colleagues, 'Albert, now that is really stupid!' "
We can imagine Einstein responding favorably. "We all must from time to time
make a sacrifice at the altar of stupidity," he once wrote to his colleague
Max Born, "for the entertainment of the deity and mankind." Most important,
Ohanian notes, Einstein's instincts were dead on. Light is made of photons.
Mass is equivalent to energy. Space-time is curved. Nothing can exceed the
speed of light. Einstein, Ohanian writes, had "a mystical intuitive approach
to physics" that led him to the right answers -- if not always by the right
George Johnson's most recent book is "The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments."
October 12, 2008
Copyright 2008 Los Angeles Times
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