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Chris Edwards reviews John Gribbin’s definitive work on Einstein and his intellectual process: Einstein’s Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity (2017. New York/London: Pegasus Books).

Illuminated Genius

John Gribbin’s book, Einstein’s Masterwork: 1915 and the General Theory of Relativity, shines new light not only on Relativity Theory but on Einstein’s intellectual processes. Einstein’s work fits well into a narrative of scientific history already established by Gribbin in his earlier works: Schrodinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality and The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. Interestingly, in this later work Gribbin stakes out a position of historical determinism, one which argues that individuals usually do not matter that much:

What is much more important than human genius is the development of technology, and it is no surprise that the start of the scientific revolution “coincides” with the development of the telescope and microscope. I can think of only one partial exception to this situation, and even there I would qualify the exception more than most historians of science do. Isaac Newton was clearly something of a special case… (p. xix).

Keep this observation in mind as we consider that Isaac Newton is the only thinker to whom Einstein can be compared in terms of historical significance, and Gribbin wrote that statement in 2002. His insights in Einstein’s Masterwork should be understood in light of what he wrote then. He is a believer in studying the historical conditions of a person’s time for putting the impact of the work into context. For example: “What made Newton and Einstein so special was that they didn’t have just one brilliant idea (like, say, Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection) but a whole variety of brilliant ideas, within a few months of one another” (p. 4). One should not read this as a physicist defending the preeminence of his subject against biology, but rather as an overall historical determinist making the case that if there ever were two people whose contributions can only be explained through individual genius then it would be Newton and Einstein and for the reasons stated.

As a young man in his very early twenties, Einstein enjoyed socializing over coffee in the Swiss city of Zurich. The notion of atoms as fundamental particles, Gribbin writes, had yet to be established. The desire to prove that atoms were composed of more than pure theory called Einstein out into the realm of philosophical science. “This was what appealed to Einstein; the idea that the power of the human mind and mathematics was alone enough to conjure up deep truths about the world” (p. 25.)

One wonders if perhaps Einstein’s social success in the café’s amounted to a phase. Newton, being the sort of man who stuck sewing needles under his eyeballs and liked (probably) fooling people into believing the fallen fruit feature at the center of his greatest insight, never married and never produced children. No one suffered from his detachments even if money cheats did later suffer from his work as a top bureaucrat at the royal mint. Einstein may have understood everything that Newton had scientifically, but Newton seemed to know something that Einstein did not: you do not get to take anyone with you when you go out there. […]

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