Einstein in Bohemia, by Michael D. Gordin

Richard Joyner enjoys an account of a largely neglected phase in the life of the greatest modern physicist 

February 27, 2020
Radetzkyplatz, Prague, 1912
Source: Getty

In April 1911, Albert Einstein, aged 33, moved from Zurich to take up his first full professorship, at the German University in Prague. Sixteen months later, he went back to Zurich. There had been some changes in his personal life, but by his own standards he had done little in the way of significant research. Yet Princeton University historian Michael D. Gordin has managed to stretch his coverage of this short period in Einstein’s life and its subsequent implications to 287 pages. I was gripped by most of it.

By 1911, Einstein’s reputation was well established. In Prague, he chose to work on the relationship between the special and general theories of relativity, and it seems well accepted that this work was transitional. I have complained before in these pages that biographers of scientists sometimes short-change their subjects by giving only an inadequate description of their science; but that is not the case here. Gordin interweaves two stories, the second that of the city we call Prague; its tale is in Technicolor, while “Einstein 1911” is mostly black and white. Capital of Bohemia, epicentre of the Thirty Years War, home to several Holy Roman Emperors, Prague was a pillar of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and yet to become founding capital of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. Fundamental to its story are the fluctuating relationships and tensions between its substantial Germanophone and Slavic population groups.

The (German-speaking) Einstein family did not much like Prague. It was dirty and provincial, and the physics faculty was not intellectually equipped to interact with Einstein. Life was particularly difficult for his then wife, Milevá, who was of Slavic origin. As such, she was considered inferior by many of the wives at the German-speaking university, being referred to disparagingly as “Einsteinová”. Gordin’s fealty shifts back and forth from (underdog?) Prague to Einstein, which is one reason this is such a delightful and unusual book.

By page 108, Einstein has departed and Gordin’s attention shifts to a number of individuals with close associations to Prague but increasingly less so to Einstein. Philipp Frank was Einstein’s nominated successor at the German University, and he remained in Prague until driven out by Nazi persecution. He was a keen proponent of relativity theory but also a philosopher of science, being a founding member of the positivist Vienna Circle. He published a landmark biography of Einstein in 1947. Ernst Mach is another important Prague physicist and intellectual, although this time from the Czech camp. Franz Kafka has a non-speaking part. In 1916, Prague author Max Brod published a historical novel about the astronomer Tycho Brahe. This book is now known, mainly, because Brod’s portrayal of Brahe’s assistant Johannes Kepler is thought to offer unique insights into the character of Albert Einstein. So accurate was the portrayal considered to be that the chemist Walther Nernst once said to Einstein, “You are this man Kepler.”

The final section of the book considers the complex relationship that Einstein had with his Jewish origins, and his experience of growing antisemitism, which led ultimately to his strong commitment to the Zionist cause. Gordin argues, perhaps not entirely convincingly, that this important personal journey started in Prague.

Richard Joyner is emeritus professor of chemistry at Nottingham Trent University.


Einstein in Bohemia
By Michael D. Gordin
Princeton University Press, 360pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780691177373
Published 3 March 2020

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Special theory of Prague’s gravity

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