NB. I was sent this book as a review copy.

From Princeton University Press

I started this book fearing that it would be just another tale of Einstein’s brilliance, the singular and incredible leaps in imagination that he took as a lowly patent clerk and of the enormous impact of his work. However, the book offered much more, proving far more intriguing. There are countless books out there (many of them very good) that detail his life and his works, but that see him very much as an isolated person, overturning the centuries old ideas of science and philosophy with paradigm shift after paradigm shift. This book paints a different picture in an incredibly compelling manner.

The book is really about the nature of science as Einstein found it, of the ideas and results that were already putting pressures on classical physics, and this is paralleled with the Copernican revolution, where the epicyclic models were grinding to a halt under their own complexity, and it took for someone to reimagine the results in a different light to see a much simpler and more elegant truth.

The book does have biographical aspects, which are necessary to paint the scene of the type of person that Einstein was, but it is less about his personality than about his depth of understanding of many areas of physics that were butting up against each other towards the end of the 19th century. Already we had a Lorentzian picture of relativity which gave ingredients which Einstein could use for the special theory of relativity. Under Lorentz’s picture this was an attempt to create a theory of different inertial frames that worked with the ether and could account for results of electrodynamics, however this treated fields and matter in fundamentally different ways.This approach was not truly unifying, and while it appeared compatible with experimental results, it rendered the classical theory less elegant. Einstein’s brilliance lay in extending these ideas into a cohesive unifying framework and simply following the path of consequences, leading to the formulation of special relativity.

Similarly, with quantum theory, Planck already had his model of blackbody radiation, which had quantised matter, but left the electromagnetic field as purely classical. It was again the taking of these ideas and pushing them to their logical conclusions that lead Einstein to take the seeds of quantum theory that Planck had created and sow them in the right ground.

Similarly, in his 1905 work on Brownian motion, which provided the first definitive evidence of atoms of fixed size and the equivalence of matter and energy, demonstrated that these were not spontaneous ideas emerging from the ether (or its absence) but rather the result of a profound understanding of the existing physics landscape, recognizing its emerging fractures.

The second half of the book goes on to detail his progress from the Special to the General Theory of Relativity, letting us see again how his mind was able to work with ideas which were nascent at the time, particularly in mathematics, with the help of his friend Marcel Grossmann but in conjunction with the likes of David Hilbert, Levi-Civita and Ricci-Curbastro who had laid the groundwork of differential geometry.

The book does not downplay Einstein’s brilliance, but puts it within the context of the time, and sees the revolutions that took place as in a sense releasing the pressure on ideas which were reaching their breaking point. It took someone who both had an incredible imagination but also a deep understanding of all ideas that were already on the table and of how they fit together to create what we now see as such ground-breaking and awe-inspiring revolutions.

Overall, the book is beautifully written and embraces its nature as an academic text. I would recommend this book for anyone who already has a reasonably sense of quantum physics and relativity, though even those who don’t are likely to get a good sense of why it’s so important to revisit the cultural and historical roots of such a profound set of ideas.

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