Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius
Hans C. Ohanian
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“A thought-provoking critique of Einstein’s tantalizing combination of brilliance and blunder.”―Andrew Robinson, New Scientist
Although Einstein was the greatest genius of the twentieth century, many of his groundbreaking discoveries were blighted by mistakes, ranging from serious errors in mathematics to bad misconceptions in physics and failures to grasp the subtleties of his own creations. This forensic biography dissects Einstein’s scientific mistakes and places them in the context of his turbulent life and times. In lively, accessible prose, Hans C. Ohanian paints a fresh, insightful portrait of the real Einstein at work, in contrast to the uncritical celebrity worship found in many biographies.
Of the approximately 180 original scientific papers that Einstein published in his lifetime, about 40 are infested with mistakes. For instance, Einstein’s first mathematical proof of the famous formula E = mc2 was incomplete and only approximately valid; he struggled with this problem for many years, but he never found a complete proof (better mathematicians did). Einstein was often lured by irrational and mystical inspirations, but his extraordinary intuition about physics permitted him to discover profound truths despite―and sometimes because of―the mistakes he made along the way. He was a sleepwalker: his intuition told him where he needed to go, and he somehow managed to get there without quite knowing how.
As this book persuasively argues, the defining hallmark of Einstein’s genius was not any special mathematical ability but an uncanny talent to use his mistakes as stepping stones to formulate his revolutionary theories. 25 illustrations
Einstein, the institute imported Herman Weyl from Germany and Kurt Gödel from Austria. All those European newcomers spoke German, and students wandering into Fine Hall must have thought they had come upon the German department of the university. Einstein acquired a comfortable house on Mercer Street, at the south end of town, within walking distance of both the university and the institute. There he lived with his wife, his secretary, and his stepdaughter Margot, who had left Germany shortly
and that of the photon is 1. Theorists concluded that drastically different quantum-mechanical equations were needed to describe particles of different spins and of different masses. When they formulated the equations for particles of spin 2 and mass zero, they found, to their surprise, that these equations coincided approximately with Einstein’s equations for the gravitational field. And when they modified these equations so as to ensure that all forms of energy gravitate, they found that the
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dynamics of anything—a particle, or a cluster of particles, or an electric field, or a gravitational field—are pretty much the same in their broad features. In essence, they are all variants of Newton’s law of motion, ma = F. On the right side of this equation, we have the force, or the cause, of the motion, and on the left side we have the resulting acceleration. Einstein expected that the field equation that governs the dynamics of the gravitational field would be of the same form. On the right
of the metric tensor on the left side of his equation. This was a good start, but because the metric tensor has ten components and spacetime has four distinct directions, there are very many ways to construct rates of change of rates of change of the metric tensor. Einstein correctly surmised that the rate of change of the rate of change he was looking for should be some kind of a tensor. This simplified the problem considerably, because the mathematicians who had investigated curved geometries