||How Einstein took Berlin
by Stan Persky
Science writer and filmmaker Thomas Levenson launches his thoroughly
readable account of physicist Albert Einstein's 18-year sojourn in
the capital of Germany, Einstein in Berlin, with a modern parallel
telling of the familiar Bible story of the journey of the Magi. In
the original, three wise kings from the East follow the stars to
the humble manger, where they offer gifts and adoration to a new-born
son. In the update, the wise men from the (north)eastern part of
Germany are royalty in the world of science, led by Max Planck, the
inventor of quantum theory. As Levenson records, "They came
from Berlin, the kaiser's capital, a boomtown, the centre of the
world, if one's world was theoretical science." The upscale
manger in this version is Zurich, Switzerland, and the object of
their adoration and the recipient of their gifts is 34-year-old
Albert Einstein, a local physics professor whose recent work offered
a new-born physics insights into not the birth of the "son of
man," but the nature of the universe itself. The year of this
modern Tale of the Magi is 1913.
Levenson's initial conceit is charming enough, but the story he
tells has an earthbound practicality along with its boundless flights
of scientific fancy, just as Einstein, though reputed to be a man
with his head in the clouds turns out to be someone with his feet
very much on the ground. Leaving biblical parallels behind, what
Planck was up to was a plan to capture Einstein-who had been born
in Germany in 1879, but had eventually settled in Switzerland-for
the greater glory of German science. Planck came armed with a
government-approved offer that couldn't be refused: Einstein would
be elected to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, receive a professorship
at the University of Berlin, and the directorship of his own physics
institute, all accompanied by a very handsome salary. As Einstein
himself put it, the emissaries of German science looked at him
"as if I were a prize hen or a rare postage stamp."
Indeed, Einstein was a rare bird and the offer of a golden nest in
which to deposit future theoretical eggs was, as expected, not to
be refused. Accompanied by his family, the young savant duly arrived
in Berlin in 1914 and was installed in a house in Dahlem, the city's
most elegant neighbourhood. At this point, Levenson's chores as
biographer and science explicator commence.
Einstein in Berlin, as a book, confronts two challenges. First,
Levenson, the director of a documentary film about Einstein for the
American Public Broadcasting System's Nova series, is here dealing
only with the middle part of his subject's life. The first part,
in which Einstein makes his scientific breakthrough while working
in a humble post at the Swiss Patent Office, is of equal scientific
interest, and Levenson has to do some backfilling. Levenson also
has to at least hint at the last part of Einstein's life, from 1933
to his death in 1955, in which the world-famous scientist plays out
his remaining years in American academia, much-honoured but much
less relevant to the world of science.
The second and greater challenge to the author of Einstein in Berlin
is that he has at least three separate stories to interweave: that
of the scientist and his mind-boggling theories, that of a public
figure involved in the politics of his time (which also means telling
the story of Germany and Berlin from World War I to the rise of
Hitler), and that of the private man with a fairly messy personal
life. It's not an easy task, and the fact that Levenson does as
well as he does is what makes this a book worth reading for anyone
who wants to understand some of the major events that shaped twentieth
century scientific and political life.
The real test of a book of this kind is how well the author is able
to instruct the Science for Dummies class about space, time, light,
gravity, and other arcana of the universe. As the Prize Dunce in
that class, I can report that Levenson does a pretty good job. His
science explanations offer useful, commonsense examples of difficult
matters, and the one substantial "proof" that Einstein
was onto something is clearly and dramatically described. In the
end, I can't pretend to actually understand what was precisely on
the genius's mind, but I'm left with a reasonable sense that time
and space on the universe-sized scale don't work like they do in
our ordinary experience. Most of all, I retain the notion that a
lot of this matters for our understanding not only of how the
universe works but for our comprehension of questions about God,
divine and human purposes, and humankind's place in the cosmos.
If Einstein thought he was coming to Berlin purely to ponder the
stars, he had a rude awakening. He'd hardly settled in when both
the world and his personal life fell apart. World War I and the
disintegration of Einstein's already shaky marriage simultaneously
unfolded even as the furniture was being moved into the scientist's
Einstein was not only a physics genius, but a man of admirable
political intelligence. While working on the general theory of
relativity in 1915, he paused long enough to write a brief credo,
"My Opinion of the War", at the invitation of the Berlin
Goethe League, which was publishing a quickie book to reassure
readers of the rightness of Germany's war aims. Einstein was anything
but reassuring. "All genuine friends of human progress,"
he wrote, should combat "the glorification of war This, in my
opinion, includes everything that goes by the name of patriotism."
Einstein was appalled that his fellow scientists, including the
renowned Planck, had been caught up in the bloodthirsty, blood-curdling
enthusiasm for the conflict. In the very precincts of the university,
chemists had turned their skills to the production of poison gas.
Einstein's contrary views were hardly popular in Germany, c. 1915.
Even after the war, the not-very-religious but Jewish Einstein would
have occasion to respond to German anti-Semitism, the feeble democracy
of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s, and the spectre of the Nazis.
Again, he would prove to be politically astute.
The private Einstein, however, was a less admirable character. He
may have been a typical paterfamilias of his time, but he was also
a "conventional philanderer." His first marriage ended
in protracted and nasty divorce. He found a second wife, Elsa, who
was content to be Frau Einstein, fur-bedecked in the shadow of his
fame, but not very happy about her eminent spouse's wandering eye.
If Einstein's private eye wandered, his scientific gaze was fixed
on the universe and ultimately this is the focus of Levenson's book.
Einstein's grand theory about light, matter and gravity-the first
major challenge to Newton's picture of the universe-offered "one
straightforward prediction. His theory required that the path of a
beam of light passing near a massive object must bend by a specific
amount." The total eclipse of the sun in May 1919 would present
the perfect opportunity to check Einstein's new theory of gravity.
The British astronomers' society conducted the test. A student had
asked Einstein what he would think if the English failed to confirm
the deflection of light. An unshakable Einstein replied that if the
eclipse proved the theory wrong, "then I would feel sorry for
the dear Lord. The theory is correct." Einstein, as the
astronomers confirmed, was right. Levenson remarks, "It was
all true: space and time curve; matter and energy bend around its
contours; light traces out the geometry of spacetime; Einstein's
universe, strange as it may seem, is the one we inhabit."
The rest is history, a 1922 Nobel Prize, and a whole lot of T-shirts
with the image of a frizzy-haired, madly grinning scientist sticking
out his tongue at the cosmos. Real history, however, was sadder and
grimmer. Einstein hoped to explain everything, from the largest
elements of the cosmos to the smallest quantum particles of matter,
in a unified theory. Here, he failed. Levenson details Einstein's
futile efforts to come up with a final theory in the 1920s, a theory
he worked on right up to his last days, scribbling deathbed equations.
Meanwhile, in down-to-earth Berlin, there was Hitler and the nightmare
of a Final Solution. The prescient Einstein had his feet on the
ground. In December 1932 he left Berlin forever. "Take a good
look," he told his wife as they walked away from their house.
"You will never see it again."