Books: Playing dice with God

ALBERT EINSTEIN: A Life by Albrecht Folsing trs Ewald Osers, Viking pounds 25

The coppernicus of the 20th century" was how Max Planck described Einstein, whose special and general theories of relativity transformed physics. But, apart from a love of gossip, do we need to know about the man as well as his theories? The common sour-grapeism that if a particular great thinker had not come up with his or her ideas, someone else would have had them, seems to make minds mere containers for great ideas to tumble into when ripe for the plucking. Thought, however (whether ratiocination or abstract datum), is not as impersonal as this suggests, especially with Einstein, whose ideas were so original and unprecedented that arguably they could have remained unthought and physics gone down an entirely different route.

To try to understand the aetiology of these ideas, both as objective abstract truths linked to preceding ones and as subjective thought processes, may indeed require the charting of Einstein's historical context, childhood, education, relationships and emotions. Beyond his great intellectual contribution, too, he is a tragic epitome of 20th-century folly: being Jewish, even his stature as Nobel laureate and the German world's greatest scientist would not have saved him from the Nazis, who were already threatening to assassinate him in the early 1930s. And there is the sad irony that, pacifist and anti-militarist though he was, Einstein was grandfather of the atom bomb, since the atom could not have been split without the formula E = mc2.

But do we need yet another biography? The basic facts have often been traversed. Einstein's childhood was spent in Southern Germany, Italy and Zurich; he studied at the Zurich Polytechnic from where he graduated without a doctorate. He had great difficulty in finding a job, finally landing a post at the Patent Office in Bern. While working there he continued to study theoretical physics and in 1905, his annus mirabilis, at the age of 26, he wrote four seminal papers respectively on light quanta, molecular dimensions, Brownian molecular motion, and what would eventually be known as the special theory of relativity.

The first paper earned him the Nobel Prize 16 years later; with the second he finally achieved a doctorate from Zurich University; the third established him as the founder of modern statistical mechanics; the fourth forced a total rethinking of the entire conceptual tradition of modern physics. There was a prompt response from the scientific establishment - a Wurzburg lecturer travelling to Bern to see Einstein pronounced it one of history's "bad jokes" that the "esteemed Herr Doktor" was in fact no such thing, and was to be found not in the university but working eight hours a day in an office - and, after absurd quibbles over his doctorate, Einstein finally entered academic life. He held posts at Bern, Zurich, Prague and Berlin before leaving Europe for Princeton in 1932.

His first systematic representation of the general theory of relativity was completed in 1916, and thereafter he worked on quantum theory and gravitational waves, but by the time he received the Nobel Prize in 1921 his best work had been done and he complained of being "unfertile". He was inclined to the left, agitated against Germany's engagement in the 1914-18 War, was committed, though with reservations, to the establishment of Israel, and, until the Second World War, was adamantly pacifist except in "the inevitable war with one's wife" (he was married, unsatisfactorily, twice, and better at friendship than love).

Albrecht Folsing's biography does not add a great deal to these facts or to our sense of Einstein's character, and is sometimes overly meticulous in charting Einstein's academic peregrinations. But he usefully steers a middle course between the hagiography of early biographies like Banesh Hoffmann's and the "no man is a hero to his own valet" style of the recent Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, which sought to discredit "St Einstein" with revelations of his deserted illegitimate daughter and his womanising. Folsing touches on some of these revelations en passant, but his main concern is to outline Einstein's physics. And although he is not as clear and interesting on this as Michael White and John Gribbin in their Einstein: A Life in Science, he fascinatingly illuminates a neglected aspect of Einstein's scientific discoveries, their philosophical underpinning.

The story of how, at the age of five, Einstein was given a magnetic compass which proved one of the two "wonders" that sparked his intellectual awakening is often mentioned merely sentimentally by biographers. Folsing shows how Einstein's notion of "wondering"was not just a diffuse awe but what occurs when our fixated concepts are disturbed. The action at a distance by which the North Pole affected the compass needle upset the presuppositions already established in Einstein's five-year-old mind - that causes and effects have to be physically contiguous. He spoke of how this made a "deep and lasting impression", suggesting to him that "there had to be something behind the objects, something that was hidden". Resisting the "continual flight from wonder" produced by habit and education, Einstein was determined to dig down under familiar concepts, "sniffing out what might lead to the root of things".

Because he recognised that "the axiom of the absolute character of time and simultaneity were anchored, albeit unrecognised, in the subconscious", he asked Augustine's crucial question "What is time?" producing speculation that ultimately resulted in the special theory of relativity. Not till a quarter of a century later was the theory corroborated by experimental data. Similarly, his seminal paper on light quanta adopted a "heuristic viewpoint" like that of Kant (over whose subjective/objective metaphysics he had enthused at the age of 13), starting with an assertion from which facts could later be deduced.

Einstein was, however, adamant that any theory had to be based on generalisable facts, just as (despite the popular idea that relativity is somehow linked to relativism and subjectivism) he always wanted to find the absolute, invariant and universal. He was appalled that Heisenberg's quantum mechanics dealt with "what one knows about nature, instead of what nature really does". In comments like his famous "God does not play dice", "God" seems to operate for him (as for Kant) as the necessary, if unreal, standard of objectivity against which to measure truth. Einstein said that his brief adolescent foray into religion had been a desire, later satisfied by scientific endeavours, to break "the fetters of the merely personal". Although Folsing is painstaking, often fascinating, and has the appropriate blend of respect and honesty, the reader of this biography will remain baffled by both Einstein's personal and impersonal odysseys.

! Jane O'Grady was co-editor, with A J Ayer, of Blackwell's Dictionary of Philosophical Quotations

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam