Einstein: The Life and Times
by Ronald W. Clark


Book Review by Joe Orman

[Originally published in the newsletter of the East Valley Astronomy Club, September 2000]

Albert Einstein was a physicist, not an astronomer. His investigations took place on a blackboard and in his own mind. But he has done more to influence our vision of the universe and our place in it than perhaps any other person.

Einstein has become such an icon in our society, whose name is synonymous with genius, that it is sometimes hard to remember that behind the image was a real man. Clark's meticulously-researched biography describes both. Einstein tried to distance himself from his native Germany, and was working as a technical expert in a Swiss patent office when he formulated the theory of relativity. People have often considered it remarkable that someone so absent-minded, working as a civil servant outside of academia, could have such great thoughts. But these are the very things that freed his mind to work on physics.

Relativity re-wrote the rule book. Mass and energy are equivalent. Space and time are dimensions of a single thing called space-time. Gravity and acceleration are indistinguishable. Gravity bends light. Light is both a wave and a particle. The speed of light is constant, regardless of the speed of the source or observer, and is also the ultimate speed limit -- but as you approach it, length, mass and time itself change! From the smallest atomic scale to the limits of the cosmos, everything had changed.

These ideas were so radical, so contrary to the evidence of the senses, that many found them hard to accept. Important early validation was by astronomical observation. The theory explained a previously-observed 0.1 arc-second per orbit advance in the perihelion of Mercury. It also predicted a deflection of starlight by the sun's gravity by about one arc-second, which was confirmed during the total solar eclipse of 1919. Einstein quickly became the most famous scientist in the world, but his influence rippled throughout society, into such disciplines as ethics and philosophy. Einstein did make mistakes, such as his rejection of quantum mechanics and his use of a cosmological constant to keep the universe of his equations a non-expanding one -- which Hubble's later observations would disprove.

Of course, just as Einstein's relativity refined and replaced Newton's laws of gravitation, relativity itself is not the ultimate answer. But Einstein has earned a permanent place in history; he was recently named TIME Magazine's Person of the Century. Just as astronomers look out into the universe with their telescopes, Einstein looked out into the universe with his intellect and his imagination. No matter how deep into space we look, we see that he was there before us.

Revised: June 6, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Joe Orman
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