The mistitling of this book reveals the problem of scientific biography. Albert Einstein was in love with one thing – physics. Everything else was secondary, which is why his relations with women and his children were so painfully skewed. If a man’s thoughts are absorbed in calculating the gravity of all the mass and energy in the universe with its radius of 10 million light years, matters of the heart take a poor second place.
Einstein (born in Ulm in 1875) was not immune to women’s charms, nor they to his dark good looks. He married in 1903 but not before producing an illegitimate daughter and causing his partner, Mileva Maric, a Hungarian fellow student at the Zurich Federal Polytechnic, sad months of lonely waiting.
Unlike many scientists, whose letters have all the emotional force of lab notes, Einstein was not a bad letter-writer, but he could not conceal his real preoccupations. He greeted the news of Mileva’s possible pregnancy with: ‘don’t worry – you are my good dear sweetheart, whatever may happen … I am not very satisfied with my theory of thermoelectricity.’ Poor Mileva, physicist and mathematician, a sombre woman four years his senior, with a congenital hip deformity, got her baby but not her doctorate, and her visions of the two of them as the new Curies vanished. So did the baby, a daughter, fostered out and lost to history.
Very soon, Mileva, who subsequently bore Einstein two sons, was completely out of her husband’s scientific life. Whole chapters pass with her doing little but looking over the genius’s shoulder at his papers or bringing in some sandwiches. All in all, it seems pretty clear that Einstein was a terrible husband, a guilt-stricken, absent father, a handsome, sociable man, a superb violinist and a good hiker – in other words, the typical Central European male of the early twentieth century. Likewise, his wife became a caricature of the nag, alternating depression with wild bursts of jealousy, and fighting with her mother-in- law, who was Jewish as she was not.
Reading this book is slowed by two flaws an editor should have remedied. One is the total absence of photographs. In a scientific biography above all, pictures are necessary to humanise the text. Yet even the one photograph on the jacket is uncaptioned. The other is the infuriating editorial practice of putting a chapter title but no number as a running head throughout each chapter, yet identifying the chapter in the endnotes by number only. To find note 46 of ‘The Last Waltz’, the reader turns to the endnotes only to find no ‘Last Waltz’ nor any indication of the page numbers each chapter covers. It is necessary then to turn back to the beginning of the book and search through the Contents page, by which time the kettle has boiled and thoughts of the boundary conditions of the universe have evaporated.
These blemishes are all the more regrettable because Overbye’s book is a superb account of the development of Einstein’s thought and the turning points in twentieth century physics. The author, deputy science editor of the New York Times, provides excellent and digestible explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as of the fierce fighting among scientist rewriting the rules of Newtonian physics.
It was in 1905 that Einstein discovered that only relative movements of things had any significance. The same year, he discovered that light consists of little bundles of energy – ‘quanta’. In 1907, he had what he called ‘the happiest thought’ of his life – that gravity affects not only light but time. In 1915-17, he worked out why, if gravity is so all-pervasive, the universe does not collapse in on itself. By adding the ‘universal constant’ to represent the energy content of empty space, he came up with a ‘general theory of relativity’, encompassing his grand idea that there is no space and no time, just gravity and an edgeless universe curving back on itself.
These giant steps took place, as this book’s elegant encapsulation shows, in two crucial decades of Einstein’s young manhood. Starting at the age of twenty-two, he moved from Zurich to Prague and then to Berlin, where his ideas flourished despite the turmoil of the Great War, in which he was more or less left alone as a troublesome pacifist. He finally wrung a divorce from the unwilling, crippled Mileva by promising her and the boys the full amount of the Nobel Prize whenever he won it. (He had already been nominated seven times.)
In Berlin in 1919, he married his longtime mistress and cousin Elsa, pausing only to consider whether he might marry her nineteen-year-old daughter instead. From Zurich his ex-wife made endless difficulties about visiting rights, which Einstein, short of money in Berlin, did not try too hard to pursue. Anyway, the boys had turned against him. Later, when his second son developed myriad nervous and physical infirmities, Einstein blamed himself for mating with a damaged specimen.
Overbye ends his biography with the debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr about causality and quantum the order of the universe versus its randomness. He indulges also in a Freudian flourish, linking this new uncertainty with the death of Einstein’s mother in 1920 – ‘his first love, his first gravity’ – and also with the award, at long last, of the Nobel Prize.A brisk, fact-filled epilogue brings the story up to date. Mileva died in 1948, leaving (thanks to the Nobel money) three Zurich apartment house, and 8,000 Swiss francs in her mattress. In 1933, with his second wife, Einstein left Hitler’s Berlin for Princeton, New Jersey, where he wandered, wild-haired and sockless, a local curiosity, and had numerous affairs, before and after Elsa’s death in 1936. He died in 1955. His brain, removed and preserved, has recently been pronounced 15 per cent bigger than normal.
Does size matter? A better explanation of what make a scientist came from Einstein himself in 1918. At a meeting in celebration of Max Planck’s Nobel Prize, he declared that, for a scientist, the chance to escape into a world of universal laws is a way ‘ to find … the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience’.