Einstein in Berlin

by Thomas Levenson
ISBN: 055310344X

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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 new home.
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."

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