Books: Playing dice with God

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