This article appears in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. Click here to subscribe.p> With an hour’s wait at Penn Station, I picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s new Einstein biography Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 675 pages, $32), turned to the index, and started to read a particular passage. I was impressed. I had feared that this would be one more exercise in hagiography, describing Einstein’s askew love life, his left-wing politics, his first wife who didn’t get credit for her contributions to relativity, and his thoughts about God, all decked out with garlands to the great man’s genius and his epic contributions to science. But no. It was more than that. Here is what I read, on page 318: br> /p>
… after he finished his theory of general relativity, [Einstein] concluded that the gravitational potentials in that theory characterized the physical qualities of empty space and served as a medium that could transmit disturbances. He began referring to this as a new way to conceive of an ether. “I agree with you that the general relativity theory admits of an ether hypothesis,” he wrote Lorentz in 1916.Surprise, surprise. Two full pages about Einstein’s reintroduction of an ether followed. Many people know that in his special theory of relativity, Einstein abolished the luminiferous medium, or ether. Very few know that eleven years later he reintroduced a rather different ether. It is never mentioned in the Easy Einstein books and hardly ever in Einstein biographies. I decided to buy the (signed) book on the spot — New York City taxes and all. And I would have four hours to read it on the slow train to Washington (distracted, of course, by the incessant cell-phone jabbering).
I recommend the book. Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, came to his task with a strong interest in science, inspired by his father; he further enlisted the aid of physicists and Einstein scholars. He even ran his manuscript by a few journalists to be sure it was intelligible to them. Overall, he has done a great job of translating relativity and quantum physics into plain language. Special relativity, I fear, will remain a bit mystifying to those who study his chapter on that conundrum; he never quite elucidates the sleight-of-hand involved (Banesh Hoffmann, an earlier biographer, did). But he makes up for it by taking a valiant stab at explaining general relativity in layman’s terms, which is rarely attempted.
The book is subtitled “his life and universe.” I won’t go into his life, beyond saying that Isaacson has made full use of the Einstein papers newly released in 2006. It is the most definitive and readable Einstein biography to date.
A BASIC POINT ABOUT EINSTEIN’S life (1879-1955) is that he became more conservative when he reached middle age; not so much politically — he remained a man of the left to the end — but in his scientific outlook. This was reflected above all in his prolonged and unresolved dispute with Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg about quantum mechanics. If you are unfamiliar with that controversy, there could be no better introduction than Isaacson’s. He covers it in about 40 lucid pages, encompassing the contributions of Erwin Schroedinger and others. Most of us know little more than that Heisenberg enunciated an uncertainty principle, wherein observation affects the thing observed; to which Einstein retorted that God does not play dice. Here you will learn, painlessly, a good deal more than that.
Heisenberg insisted that an electron does not have a definite position or path until we observe it. This was a feature of the universe, he claimed, not just some deficiency in our ability to measure. In denying that there is an objective reality out there, it undermined classical physics. When Einstein objected, Heisenberg confidently replied: “I believe that indeterminism, that is, the non-validity of rigorous causality, is necessary.”
On the 200th anniversary of Newton’s death, in 1927, Einstein defended classical mechanics. Two decades earlier he had “toppled many of the pillars of Newton’s universe, including absolute space and time,” Isaacson writes. Now he was a defender of Newton, of rigorous causality and (by implication) the established order.
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