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Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings Of Genius Paperback – Oct 27 2009
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Recounts [Einstein’s] chronicle of errors in clear and engaging prose, giving us in the process a short course in the history of modern physics and a witty and provocative account of the subject’s life. — Darrin M. McMahon (Wall Street Journal)
The book’s quixotic approach—retelling Einstein’s story by homing in on his blunders—makes for good intellectual entertainment. . . . [It] kept me eagerly turning the pages. — George Johnson (Los Angeles Times)
A wonderful story that is well worth taking the time to read....We get a short course in this history of modern physics, one that is well-written and entertaining as well. — Alan S. McRae (Mathematical Reviews)
About the Author
Hans C. Ohanian received his B.S. from the University of California, Berkeley, and his Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he worked with John A. Wheeler. He has taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Union College, and the University of Vermont. He is the author of several textbooks spanning all undergraduate levels: Physics, Principles of Physics, Relativity: A Modern Introduction, Modern Physics, Principles of Quantum Mechanics, Classical Electrodynamics, and, with Remo Ruffini, Gravitation and Spacetime. He is also the author of dozens of articles dealing with gravitation, relativity, and quantum theory, including many articles on fundamental physics published in the American Journal of Physics, where he served as associate editor for some years. He lives in Vermont.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
However, I believe that he is a bit unfair to Einstein in calling him out for so many "mistakes":
- I do not agree that Einstein's argument for time synchronization was a "mistake": It was a REQUIREMENT following from the fact that no velocity of the Earth relative to the ether could be found. It is true that, if the Michelson-Morley result had given a positive result, Einstein's synchronization mechanism would have failed as being self-inconsistent, so in that sense it was an over-statement by Einstein to call his mechanism a "free act of will." But the argument itself is valid as an expression of what followed from the null result of M&M.
- The later argument by Swann that explained the Lorentz contraction in terms of dynamical effects was also valuable, but different. The preceding work by Lorentz and Poincare are also more in this school of thought: What do you expect to happen starting from Maxwell's equations and so forth? But these two approaches are both valuable and complementary.
- I do not agree that Einstein's argument for E = mc^2 is a "mistake". It is not valid as a mathematical proof, but it is an excellent heuristic argument. Given that it comes out of the blue, it is very suggestive, and convinces one that "there's gold in them thar hills." For a pioneer that is stumbling across this for the first time, it is like a miracle. The fact that more systematic and complete arguments are needed do not change that. Sometimes, to quote Feynman (on the discovery of the rules for calculating QED), "More truth can be known than can be proven."
The fact that Einstein chose to stick with his early arguments (of limited validity) is not really a mistake in my view: Why shouldn't a pioneer be proud to show his original tools of discovery? The professionals following after (like Planck) can and should do that. What is missing is that modern textbooks usually don't provide a full derivation either; but that is hardly Einstein's fault.
- Ohanian calls Einstein's arguments about meter-stick measurements on a rotating disk mistaken because they challenge the flatness of geometry in the non-rotating lab. However, as I read it, Einstein is just pointing out that the APPARENT geometry as measured by the physical meter sticks on a rotating disk are bound to look non-Euclidean. I do not believe there is anything wrong about what Einstein actually said here.
- Also in several other cases, Ohanian choses to call "mistakes" what we can see now are incomplete/heuristic arguments, or arguments where we would now chose to emphasize other aspects. It seems to me that Ohanian does this to give himself a unifying theme on which to base his book.
- Finally, I recently saw an article that pointed out that MOST scientific papers have mistakes. Nearly all papers (it claimed) turn out eventually to be wrong. In other words, progress in science entails a lot of back-and-forth, and the field as a whole progresses even as individual scientists change their minds one way or another. If this is true, then finding mistakes in Einstein's papers is no big deal; indeed, maybe the real point is that, since the topics addressed by the papers were significant, what can now be seen as errors are now seen to be significant as well.
Some readers (maybe most readers) will find Ohanian's writing style occasionally jarring: he sometimes uses informal language in a way that calls attention to itself and distracts from the story. Other reviews have pointed this out as well.
OK, so what was good about the book?
- The detailed explanation of the arguments was very revealing, even though I don't agree that they were all as "mistaken" as Ohanian condemns. He still provides an explanation of the context: What was the essential question being addressed, how does the argument work, where would we fault it today? This is very interesting, and provides the bread & butter of the book.
- Ohanian details some specific problems, and evaluations by current professional relativists, concerning the equivalence principle. He points out several ways in which it is quantitatively wrong. I guess the point is that it was a heuristic argument that helped Einstein in the right way at the right time, but doesn't have much bearing once you have the actual equations of general relativity. I now understand better some of the zen-like cryptic remarks made by a professor on this topic: Student: "I'm having some trouble actually understanding how the equivalence principle applies in this case ...". Professor: "Your lack of understanding is actually an indication of understanding the equivalence principle."
- Ohanian discusses the many attempts required to actually arrive at the correct equations for GR. Apparently, there is no cogent way to arrive at these equations from the general considerations from which Einstein was starting, although Ohanian describes a path starting from the spin-2 version of quantum field theory that eventually gets you there. So, unlike the case with special relativity, the creation of general relativity really was a leap in the dark.
- Contrary to most reviewers, I was fascinated by the "dirt" Ohanian was dishing on Einstein's financial and romantic affairs. I was totally unaware that he got around so much. In retrospect, this reminds me a bit of Richard Feynman.
- It was also interesting to hear that he was a bit full of himself, nearly fatally, when a young man. This really hurt his career, initially.
- It was very interesting to read that Einstein depended so much on assistants to do his calculations carefully and thoroughly. It seems odd; but it does clarify the point that there is a big difference between mathematics and theoretical physics. Most of the mathematicians I knew simply cannot really "get" physics; so now we know of a theoretical physics of genius who was just not very good at math. Obviously his revolutionary ideas and concepts were not really mathematical in origin or nature, even though some of them required high-powered mathematics to implement. Fascinating!
- Finally, it was very interesting to read Ohanian's deconstruction of the process by which Einstein became the most famous scientist of the 20th century. I had never questioned it; although I have always evaluated Niels Bohr as the most important scientist of the 20th century, for leading and supporting the development of quantum theory through his work with an international "college" of geniuses.
In short: I do recommend this book highly, even though I disagree with the somewhat cantankerous approach taken towards Einstein's "mistakes". It truly does prove James Joyce's point, quoted in the book: "A man of genius makes no mistakes; his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery." I believe this applies more to Einstein than to Joyce!
Neal J. King
The text presents most material in a roughly chronological order, considering theories and papers in the order they were published. It is apparent from the material included that Einstein's interests were wide and that he had a fundamental grasp on the significant questions of physics during his lifetime. However, Einstein is presented as, at best, a bumbling mathematician. Most of the chronicled mistakes are mathematical errors. Much of science typically works in a stepwise fashion, with theories being offered and then either modified or withdrawn. Einstein was no exception to this and many of his published theories were later modified, either by himself or others. These early theoretical excursions, when not substantively correct on the first presentation, are considered serious mistakes. When Einstein did not know of significant contemporaneous developments, his ignorance is also termed a mistake. Some of Einstein's personal foibles and some of his career moves are considered mistakes.
In all, Einstein's collected papers are said to comprise "about 180 original items. Of these, about 50 contain mistakes...It's a bad scorecard" (p. 327). While the close examination of Einstein's productivity makes fascinating reading, the text's unfortunate tone borders on gloating and is not consistently objective; Einstein's mistakes "were perfectly mundane, careless, and sometimes stupid lapses in logic and mathematics" (p. 332). And in fact, the tone of the title itself captures entirely the tone of the text. The text's greatest disappointment, however, lies in the conclusion "[w]hat lessons can we extract from Einstein's mistakes? Not many" (p. 332). Surely this is wrong--studying the failings of genius, after all, helps us understand our own average failings in an entirely different light. And even if the conclusion is after all correct, that nothing can be learned by examining Einstein's mistakes, then why write the book in the first place?
I was inclined to accept this statement until I went to the trouble of looking up the actual paper, W.F.G. Swann, "Relativity, the Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction, and Quantum Theory," Rev. Mod. Phys., 13, 197 (1941). What the Swann actually does is this. He describes the process of accelerating a measuring rod from an initial state of rest in the lab frame. He considers the problem that it may be difficult to distinguish between two possibilities: (1) the rod becomes Lorentz-contracted, and (2) the rod suffers a mechanical contraction because of the stress imposed by accelerating it. He claims (and I think this is correct) that if all you know is the Lorentz transformation, you can't tell whether the result of the experiment actually verifies the Lorentz transformation (#1) or not (#2); you need some specific physical theory that's capable of describing the structure and dynamics of solid rods. He hypothesizes a Lorentz-invariant theory of quantum mechanics capable of addressing this problem, which didn't actually exist at the time. What he does know, based on the state of the art at the time, is that quantum-mechanical systems have ground states. Then he argues that after you're done accelerating the rod, it will settle back down into its ground state (assuming you accelerate it gently enough). Thus by picking a specific physical theory (quantum mechanics) to lay on top of the foundation of the bare Lorentz transformation, you gain the ability to distinguish between interpretations 1 and 2. Basically it's an argument that SR by itself has predictive value (e.g., it predicts a null result for the Michelson-Morley experiment), but it doesn't have full explanatory value unless you augment it with some dynamical theory that describes how particles interact.
Ohanion's description is highly inaccurate. Ohanian makes it sound as though Swann did an actual calculation using a theory of relativistic quantum mechanics. Actually, no such theory existed in 1941 -- or at least, none that was capable of calculating anything of the type that Ohanian claims. Swann explicitly says in his paper that he does *not* possess such a theory. What he does is simply to hypothesize what kind of results would have to come out of such a theory, based on the general facts that were known about quantum mechanics in 1941, such as the existence of ground states. Ohanion, seemingly in an effort to make Einstein look bad, complains that although Dirac developed relativistic quantum mechanics in 1928, "It was not until 1941..." that Swann wrote his paper. The implication is that Einstein had an unhealthy effect on the state of research in the field, steering it away from relevant questions from a period of some 13 years. But if Ohanian has actually read Swann's paper (has he?) he realizes that Swann was not able to do the relevant calculations in 1941; he merely hypothesized what their results would have been, if he had possessed a theory that had been developed to a level where it would be usable for this purpose.
Some simple details are very obvious for the non-scientist. For example, he tells us that the weightlessness experienced by a falling person was not very original, and he cites Jules Verne's novel as a precedent. He cites the episode when the spaceship travellers throw out a dead dog, and its cadaver continued to coast alongside the ship. This is the most stupid thing I have ever read for a precedent to the equivalence principle. He also mentions that centrifuges already existed, so everyone knew that acceleration created a gravitational field. Please.
Another case in point is when he misconstrues a quote by Einstein regarding the slowing of clocks within a gravitational field. Einstein says "We must use clocks of unlike constitution for measuring time at places with different gravitation". Ohanian says that Einstein was right in saying that clocks run more slowly in gravitational fields, but that he was wrong in saying that this is so "because we elect to adjust the clocks in such a way as to make them run slowly" (sic).
If this book had been written by a layman, these could be put down to a poor understanding of physics. But since the author knows his subject so well, one wonders about his good faith and the accuracy of other, more technical claims that are more difficult for me to verify.
It would have been appropriate to have explained, even on a half page, the significance of the work on the photoelectric effect, but I did not see it.
On p xi, a quotation from Einstein appears without comment: "What is essential in the life of a man of any kind lies in what he thinks and how he thinks, not in what he does or suffers." To me, this is a typical justification for Einstein's poor treatment of a number of people. Later Ohanian notes the number of times Einstein often failed to cite prior work to his own in order to fool people into thinking he discovered more than he did (p91).
On p1 there was a cute slip in a list of the things of which Germany was the biggest producer in 1905, which included church organs and canons. I would have thought cannons were meant.
On p9 Ohanian showed typical academic contempt for universal military service in Switzerland. One must note that the tiny country was never attacked by any of its larger neigbors.
More importantly, Ohanian desribed some of the experimental work that led to Einstein's most famous findings on relativity. This was the determination of the speed of light by A. A. Michelson and Morley in 1887 said to have a null result on p18 and a dozen other places. According to John O'Malley Bockris in The New Paradigm, 2005, p108ff, MM actually found a 20 km/sec difference depending on direction. And so did Prof. Dayton Miller, Univ. PA, in measurements he made from 1905-1931. As did Sagnac in 1913, M. Allais, and more recently by Ernest Silvertooth in 1987. These should not have been ignored, but listed, and the differences of null findings in other experiments explained. Moreover, Ohanian repeatedly called the null results, even of MM, "failures". This shows a dogmatic attitude. An honest experiment cannot ever be a "failure".
One other experimental finding that Ohanian did a better job on was the bending of starlight as it passes near the sun. In the four or so expeditions of 1919, two had bad weather, and the one with the astronomer Arthur Eddington made a measurment supporting Einstein's calculation, but also one supporting the smaller deflection predicted by Newton's work. The former was arbitrarily said to be correct. Ohanian gave no reason for this choice, and seemed completely accepting (p244). But on p254: "The 1919 eclipse expedition and Eddington's somewhat slanted data analysis were lucky breaks for Einstein."
On p28, the slowing of clocks moving at relativistic speeds was accepted. Since movement is relative, either of two clocks that moves has relative movement compared with the other, so any slowing of time by one would also be cancelled by slowing of the other, according to Bockris. This was explained away, but I could not follow the reasoning.
On p120 a sugar molecule is said to be 4x as large as a water molecule. Did this mean length? If so, a water molecule is 1.5 Å long, and a sugar molecule is about 18 Å long stretched out. Not 4x.
On p126 Einstein's explanation for the blue color of cloudless sky is beyond my understanding. I thought it was due to absorption of infrared rays by ozone and water vapor that did it.
On p167 there was the inevitable comparison of the energy from explosion of a kiloton of TNT compared with a kilo of uranium. Sloppily, the uranium isotope was not indicated, and the news that only some small fraction of the isotope is converted to energy by fission was missed, as is common. On p175 it is seen again: "But nuclear fusion reactions typically release a million times as much energy as chemical reactions..." presumably per unit mass consumed. It is never mentioned that only a tiny fraction of the "critical mass" of fission bomb material is converted.
Another bias is shown on p252: "But to call a physicist an engineer is not a compliment." Not in my book, since the engineer has the safety and fortune of many people in his hands. A failure generates lawsuits, but the failure of a physicist's theory does not. That should make you think.
On p253: "...each real electron or proton has exactly the same size as every other electron or proton, and its size never changes, no matter what you do to it." This seems at odds with shrinkage at relativistic speeds, which was described earlier.
Einstein's failures, lack of originality, and stubborness about quantum theory in his later years was duly noted. And his shrewdness about money.
Ohanian's writing was excellent by writer's standards, well-edited, and appeared to be well-referenced, but with gaps as noted above. Much personal information I never saw, not only about Einstein, but also on Newton, Galileo and Oppenheimer was fascinating. But many times an explanation would have been more comprehensible with use of diagrams or high-school algebra.
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