Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography

Einstein's Greatest Mistake: A Biography

by David Bodanis


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“What Bodanis does brilliantly is to give us a feel for Einstein as a person. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that does this as well . . . Whenever there’s a chance for storytelling, Bodanis triumphs.” —Popular Science
“Fascinating.” —Forbes

Widely considered the greatest genius of all time, Albert Einstein revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos with his general theory of relativity and helped lead us into the atomic age. Yet in the final decades of his life, he was ignored by most working scientists, and his ideas were opposed by even his closest friends. How did this happen? 
Best-selling biographer David Bodanis traces the arc of Einstein’s life—from the skeptical, erratic student to the world’s most brilliant physicist to the fallen-from-grace celebrity. An intimate biography in which “theories of the universe morph into theories of life” (Times, London), Einstein’s Greatest Mistake reveals what we owe Einstein today—and how much more he might have achieved if not for his all-too-human flaws. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544808560
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 10/18/2016
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

DAVID BODANIS taught for many years at Oxford University and has written numerous books, including E=mc2, an international bestseller that was translated into two dozen languages and long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize.

Read an Excerpt


Victorian Childhood

Two great concepts dominated European science in 1879, the year of Einstein's birth, and they would provide the context for much of his greatest work. The first was the recognition that the forces that made the world's great industrial civilization function — the firing of coal in huge steam trains; the explosion of gunpowder in the warship turrets that kept subjugated peoples under control; even the faint pulses of electricity in the undersea cables that carried telegraphic messages around the world — were all but different manifestations of one fundamental entity, called energy. This was one of the central scientific ideas of the Victorian era.

Late Victorian scientists knew that energy behaves according to certain immutable principles. Miners could hack coal out of the ground, and technicians could feed gases from baking that coal into pressurized tubes that powered the streetlamps of London. But if something went wrong and the gas exploded, the energy of the resulting explosion — the energy of the flying shards of glass, plus the acoustic energy in the booming air and even any potential energy in errant fragments of metal from a streetlamp flung onto the rooftops nearby — would be exactly the same as the energy inherent in the gas itself. And if one fragment of streetlamp metal then fell to the pavement, the sound and energy of it hitting the ground, plus the energy of the gusts of wind as the fragment plummeted, would be exactly equal to the energy that had lifted it up in the first place.

The realization that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed, seemed simple, but it contained extraordinary implications. When, for instance, one of Queen Victoria's servants opened the door of her carriage as it arrived at Buckingham Palace in central London, the energy that had been in his shoulder began to leave it ... while exactly the same amount of energy appeared in the swinging motion of the ornate carriage door and the ever so slightly raised temperature of the friction-grinding hinge on which it turned. When the monarch stepped down to the ground, the kinetic energy that had existed in her descending form was transferred to the earth beneath her feet, leaving her stationary, but making our planet tremble in its orbit around the sun.

All types of energy are connected; all types of energy are neatly balanced. This simple truth became known as the law of the conservation of energy and was widely accepted by the mid-nineteenth century. Victorian confidence in religion had been bruised when Charles Darwin showed that a traditional God wasn't needed to create the living species on our planet. But this vision of an unchanging total energy was a consoling alternative. The way energy was so magically balanced seemed to be proof that some divine hand had touched our world and was still active among us.

By the time energy conservation was understood, Europe's scientists were well acquainted with the second great idea that dominated nineteenth-century physics: matter never entirely disappears either. In the Great Fire of London back in 1666, for example, Europe's largest city had been attacked by flames exploding from the tar and wood of the bakery where it began; roaring from one wooden housetop to another; pouring out vast volumes of acrid smoke; turning homes, offices, stables, and even plague-carrying rats into hot ash.

No one in the 1600s could have seen that as anything more than rampant chaos, but by 1800, a century before Einstein, scientists realized that if someone had been able to weigh absolutely everything in London before the flames began — all the wooden floorboards in all the houses; all the bricks and furnishings; all the beer kegs and even the scurrying rats — and then, with an even greater effort, had been able to measure all the smoke and ash and crumbling brick produced by the fire, it would come out that the weight of the two was, precisely, the same.

This principle became known as the conservation of matter and had been getting ever clearer from the late eighteenth century. Different terms have been used for this idea at different times, but the gist has always been the same: Burn wood in a fireplace, and you'll end up with ashes and smoke. But if you were somehow able to put a huge impermeable bag over the chimney and any drafty windows, and then you could measure all the smoke you captured plus all the ash — and take into account the oxygen pulled in from the air during the burning — you would find that the total weight was again exactly, precisely, the same as the weight of the firewood. Matter can change shape, turning from wood into ash, but in our universe it will never, ever disappear.

Those two ideas — the conservation of matter and the conservation of energy — would be central to the education and spectacular achievements of the young Einstein.

WHEN EINSTEIN HAD BEEN BORN, in 1879, in the German city of Ulm, some seventy-five miles from Munich, his family was just a few generations removed from the life of the medieval Jewish ghetto. To many Christian Germans of the nineteenth century, the Jews in their midst were strange, possibly subhuman, interlopers. To the Jews, however, virtually all of whom were Orthodox, it was the world outside their community that was threatening and disturbing, and never more so than when Christianity itself began to weaken, for that lowered the boundaries between the two religions. This let ideas of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment — ideas about free inquiry, and science, and the belief that wisdom could come from studying the external universe — begin to enter, at first furtively, then ever more quickly, into the Jewish community.

By the generation of Einstein's parents, those ideas seem to have served Germany's Jews well. His father, Hermann, and uncle Jakob were largely self-taught electrical engineers, working on the latest technology of the time, creating motors and lighting systems. When Albert was an infant, in 1880, Hermann and Jakob moved together to Munich to set up a business in the uncle's name — Jakob Einstein & Co. — hoping to supply the city's growing electrical needs. Einstein's uncle was the more practical partner. Hermann, the father, was a dreamier sort, who had been fond of mathematics himself, but had had to leave school as a teenager to help in making a living.

Theirs was a warm family, and as Albert grew up his parents looked out for him. At around age four, Einstein was allowed to walk the streets of Munich on his own — or so his parents let him think. At least once, one of them — probably his mother, Pauline — followed him, well out of sight, but keeping an eye on how young Albert crossed the horse-busy roads to be sure that he was safe.

When Albert became old enough to understand, his father, uncle, and their regular houseguests explained to him how motors worked, how lightbulbs worked — and how the universe was divided into an energy part and a matter part. Albert soaked up these ideas, just as he assimilated his family's view that their Judaism was a heritage to be proud of, even if they felt that much of the Bible and the customs of the synagogue were little more than superstition. Leave that behind, they believed, and the modern world would accept them as good citizens.

By the time he was a teenager, though, Einstein recognized that Munich was an unwelcoming place, however much his family had tried to blend in. Back when he was six, his father's firm had secured a contract for the first electric lighting of the city's Oktober-fest. But as the years went on, contracts for the city's new lighting systems and generators went increasingly to non-Jewish firms, even if their products were inferior to those of the Einstein brothers. There were rumors that business prospects were better in prosperous Pavia, in northern Italy near Milan. In 1894 his parents and sister, Maja, moved there, along with his uncle, to try reestablishing the business. Albert, age fifteen, stayed behind, boarding with another family to finish high school.

It was not a happy time. The gentleness of the Einstein family was in sharp contrast to the harshness of the schools Albert attended. "The teachers ... seemed to me like drill sergeants," Einstein reminisced decades later. They insisted on rote learning, aiming to produce terrified, obedient students. Famously, when Einstein was about fifteen and increasingly fed up with classes, his Greek teacher, Dr. Degenhart, had yelled, "Einstein, you'll never amount to anything!" — a comment that later prompted his ever loyal sister, who recorded the anecdote, to quip, "And indeed, Albert Einstein never did attain a professorship of Greek grammar."

Einstein dropped out of school when he was sixteen. If he had been forced out, he might have considered it a failure, but since it was his own choice, he actually felt proud, seeing it as an act of rebellion. He traveled on his own to join his family in Italy, worked for a while at his father and uncle's factory, and then reassured his worried parents that he had discovered a German-language university that didn't require a high school diploma and had no minimum age requirement. This was the Swiss Polytechnic in Zurich, and he applied right away. Although his math and physics grades were excellent — those family conversations hadn't been wasted — he should have paid more attention to Degenhart, for Einstein later remembered that he'd made no attempt to prepare, and his scores in French and chemistry let him down. The Swiss Polytechnic turned him away.

His parents weren't too surprised. "I got used a long time ago," his father wrote, "to receiving not-so-good grades along with very good ones." Einstein accepted that it had been a mistake to applyso early. He found a family to lodge with in the valleys of northern Switzerland near Zurich over the next year, as he took remedial classes to prepare for a second try.

Einstein's hosts in Switzerland, the Winteler family, assumed as a matter of course that he would sit around the table with them to share in reading aloud or discussion. They shared musical evenings — Einstein was a gifted violinist, whom school assessors had ranked highly back in Germany — and even better there was a daughter, Marie, who was just a bit older than him. Einstein seems to have thought it a token of affection to suggest that Marie do his laundry for him, as his mother had always done. He soon learned more sophisticated methods of courtship, however, and so began his first romance. This relationship triggered his mother's first bout of nosiness. When he was home with his family over the holidays and wrote to Marie, "Beloved sweetheart ... you mean more to my soul than the whole world did before," his mother inked on the envelope the unpersuasive assertion that she hadn't read what was inside.

EINSTEIN MANAGED TO GET into the Polytechnic on his next try at age seventeen in 1896, on a course designed for the training of future high school teachers. He had just enough education to follow the lessons, yet enough of a cautious attitude from his already well-traveled life to judge them critically. It was the perfect background to cause him to take an independent view of what his teachers offered.

Although the Zurich Polytechnic was generally first-rate, a few professors were out-of-date, and Einstein managed to irritate them. Professor Heinrich Weber, for instance, who taught physics, had been helpful to Einstein at the beginning, but he turned out to have no interest in contemporary theory and refused to incorporate the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell's groundbreaking work on the links between electrical and magnetic fields into his physics lectures. This irked Einstein, who recognized how important Maxwell's work could be. Weber, like many physicists of the 1890s, didn't feel there was anything fundamentally new to learn and believed that his job was simply to fill in remaining details. All the main work of figuring out the laws of the universe was complete, the thinking went, and although future generations of physicists might need to improve their measuring equipment so as to more accurately describe the known principles, there were no major insights left to be made.

Weber was also immensely pedantic, once making Einstein write out an entire research report for a second time, on the grounds that the first submission was not written on paper of exactly the proper size. Einstein mocked the professor by pointedly calling him Herr Weber instead of Professor Weber and harbored a grudge against him about his teaching style for years to come. "It is nothing short of a miracle that [our] modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry," Einstein wrote about his university education a half century later.

Since there was little point in going to Weber's lectures, Einstein spent a lot of time getting to know the cafés and pubs of Zurich: sipping iced coffee, smoking his pipe, reading, and gossiping as the hours went by. He also found time to study, on his own, works of von Helmholtz, Boltzmann, and other masters of current physics. But his reading was unsystematic, and when the annual examinations came around, he realized he would need help catching up with Herr Weber's lesson plan.

What Einstein really needed was a fellow student to whom he could turn. His best friend was Michele Angelo Besso, a Jewish Italian who was a recent graduate of the Polytechnic, a few years older than Einstein. Besso was friendly and cultivated — he and Einstein had met at a musical evening where they were both playing the violin — but he had been almost as dreamy in class as Einstein had been. This meant Einstein needed to find someone else to borrow lecture notes from if he was to have any chance of passing, not least because one of his academic reports at the Polytechnic contained the ominous inked remark "director's reprimand for nondiligence in physics practicum."

Luckily, another of Einstein's acquaintances, Marcel Grossmann, was just the sort of individual every undisciplined undergraduate dreams of having as a friend. Like Einstein and Besso, Grossmann was Jewish and also only recently arrived in the country. Switzerland had a semiofficial policy of anti-Semitism at its universities that channeled Jews and other outsiders into what were then considered lower-status departments such as theoretical physics rather than fields such as engineering or applied physics, in which salaries were likely to be higher. (This wasn't too bad for Einstein, for it was only through theoretical physics that he was able to get a grip on concepts such as energy and matter that so intrigued him.) Knowing they were being treated in the same biased way probably helped Einstein and Grossmann bond.

When final exams came around, Grossmann's lecture notes — with all the important diagrams neatly drawn — did wonders for Einstein ("I would rather not speculate how I might have fared without them," Einstein wrote Grossmann's wife much later), enabling him to pass geometry, for example, with a respectable 4.25 out of 6. His score wasn't as good as Grossmann's, of course, which as everyone expected was a perfect 6.0. But none of his friends were surprised, for Einstein had yet another distraction.

Besides Besso and Grossmann, Einstein was spending time with another student, someone who was even more of an outsider than him: an Orthodox Christian Serbian, and the only woman in the course. With Mileva Maric's mix of high intelligence and darkly sensual looks, more than one student at the Polytechnic was interested in her. She was a few years older than the other students, was a skilled musician and painter, excellent at languages, and had studied medicine before switching to physics. Einstein had long since broken up with Marie Winteler from his lodging days and was ready to move on.

Einstein was surprisingly handsome as a young man, with black curly hair and a confident, easy smile. His close relationship with his sister, Maja, had given him an ease with women and worked to his advantage when he began courting Maric. Over their undergraduate years, their romance advanced deeply. "Without you," he wrote to her in 1900, "I lack self confidence, pleasure in work, pleasure in living." But if they lived together, he promised her, "we shall be the happiest people on earth together, that's for sure." Throwing caution to the wind, at one point he had even sent her a letter with a drawing of his foot so that she could knit him some socks.


Excerpted from "Einstein's Greatest Mistake"
by .
Copyright © 2016 David Bodanis.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Victorian Childhood,
Coming of Age,
Annus Mirabilis,
Only the Beginning,
The Romance of Many Dimensions,
Glimpsing a Solution,
Time to Think,
Sharpening the Tools,
The Greatest Idea,
True or False?,
The Future, and the Past,
Cracks in the Foundation,
Rising Tensions,
Candles in the Sky,
The Queen of Hearts Is Black,
Finally at Ease,
Crushing the Upstart,
Uncertainty of the Modern Age,
Arguing with the Dane,
Music and Inevitability,
Isolation in Princeton,
The End,
A Layman's Guide to Relativity,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore. Overall, I thought the book, Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: A Biography was very informative and useful when doing my research project. I learned so much of Einstein’s pastime and achievements he made. In the book I have seen so many things he has experienced and endured throughout his life. It gives a detailed story of Einstein’s lifetime giving us an in depth perspective of him evolving into the famous scientist he came to be known as. The book covers the astonishing events of Einstein’s history when he lived in survived and lived through World War I and World War II. In my opinion, this book civilizes him and makes him a person that we can relate to. We can relate to his creativity and imagination. Everyone made mistakes just like him and we learn from them. In this informational novel, the author carefully tells Einstein’s life in detail.