Lacking a quantum leap

Albert Einstein

December 19, 1997

The biographical literature on Albert Einstein is particularly rich, as might be expected for the "greatest genius in science since Newton", as he is often addressed. In 1979, the centenary of Einstein's birth, David Cassidy counted 13 biographies or large biographical essays, and the number has gone on rising.

One would surely expect that the biographical fashion of recent decades to demolish human monuments, would have changed our picture of Einstein. Two books, both published in 1993, are important here. One is Roger Highfield and Paul Carter's The Private Lives of Albert Einstein - a somewhat polemical and fantastical reconstruction from admittedly often contradictory sources by two British journalists - the other is Albrecht Folsing's Albert Einstein: Eine Biographie, the book under review, now available in English translation.

Folsing is a science writer and TV journalist. He is more conventional than Highfield and Carter. He mixes, in a balanced way, life and work - a prerequisite for a real scientist's biography. Following an introductory chapter on Einstein's youth, three chapters are devoted to the rising pioneer of molecular, relativistic and quantum theory, and a further three to Einstein's later celebrity, when he was more influential in the world but less successful as a scientist, because he opposed the modern quantum theory and tried to develop his own alternative, nonquantum-theoretical "unified field theory".

In general Folsing uses available sources (either published or contained in now-accessible archives) and treats them cautiously, for instance he avoids exploiting unwarranted rumours, such as Einstein having had yet another illegitimate daughter with a nightclub dancer in the United States. He follows systematically the various steps of an eventful life, which started out in imperial Germany, continued in democratic Switzerland and imperial Austria and then returned to the patriotic Germany of the first world war and the Weimar Republic, before finally ending in the US (though the reader might wish for more on the American years). The author registers reliably both the steady and the changing elements in Einstein's political and sociological convictions. (Indeed, Einstein was less a man of "either-or", and more often of "yes-but", as testified by his stands on pacifism and the Jewish state.) Some condescending judgements that were noticed and criticised in the German edition have been tempered in the competent English translation by Ewald Osers. A few inconsistencies remain, eg young Einstein's motives in applying for Swiss citizenship. But they should not be overemphasised. Overall, the author provides an up-to-date, consistent account of the public and private life of Einstein.

On the scientific work, Folsing goes beyond most existing biographies. In particular, he deals with many details concerning the origin of the theories of both special and general relativity. He omits hardly any topic to which Einstein addressed his enormous energies in physics and even in technology (for example, his joint patent with Leo Szilard on a novel refrigerator). His general approach and desire for completeness will certainly be welcomed by the scientifically minded reader.

This reviewer feels obliged to question a number of scientific details, however. I refer less to a few sloppy remarks (eg on electromagnetism as understood in 1900), or to wrong quotations of the confusingly large number of publications by Einstein in 1905 and other misprints, but rather to the generally weak embedding of Einstein's work into that of his contemporaries. Thus, in the fairly extensive discussion of the reality of atoms in chapter 11, there is no mention of Marian von Smoluchowski's simultaneous investigations of fluctuations and Brownian motion; and the author's account of Planck's derivation of the black-body radiation law in 1900 reveals serious misunderstandings and historical errors. Whenever he steps beyond the scientific work of his subject, incorrect statements (eg about Pauli or Heisenberg), or unjust statements (eg on Minkowski and Stark), sneak in. Folsing pays no attention to the general development of the quantum and relativity theories and rarely refers to the ideas of Einstein's fellow-players in the field.

In spite of this fairly serious criticism, I do not want to be too harsh on the author, except to say that the book certainly does not tell a balanced story of the exciting scientific developments of the period. On the whole, this biography - which is well produced and illustrated by photos - can be recommended to English-speaking readers, even if it does not present much of a "new Einstein".

Helmut Rechenberg is a theoretical physicist and historian of physics, Max Planck Institute for Physics, Munich, Germany.

Albert Einstein: A Biography

Author - Albrecht Folsing
ISBN - 0 670 85545 6
Publisher - Viking
Price - £25.00
Pages - 882

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