Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Think of Albert Einstein and the images form and keep coming. Special Theory of Relativity, General Theory of Relativity, lines in space that are curved not straight, reassessment of time, photons, sub-atomic theory…in other words, science. Prompted to think about Einstein the man as distinct from the scientist, and images that are likely are of a German who worked in a Patents Office in Switzerland, wasn’t it? Oh, and he went to the States and taught at Princeton, and he wore crumpled, unmatched clothes, played the violin, and badly needed a haircut. Missing from all this description is Einstein’s special relationship with England, about which few people know. Andrew Robinson has written a book that addresses that period in Einstein’s history.
This is an amazing book, filled with information that only someone doing research at ground level could have discovered. We don’t usually think of Einstein wandering the windswept coastline of Norfolk as he was in 1933. It never crosses our minds that the local people were guarding him against assassination attempts by Nazi agents. Publicly criticising Hitler’s policies, resigning from the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, applying for release from his German citizenship did not endear him to National Socialism. Attacks in the German press and a photograph authorised by Goebbels with the caption ‘Bis jetzt ungehaengt’ help to explain the move from his temporary home in Belgium to Norfolk.
In England he was not to be silenced. Working many of his days in the countryside on mathematics issues, he found time to deliver lectures in London in support of German academic refugees, to excoriate the policies of the German government and to express his love for England and the English people. Robinson addresses the questions why it was that Einstein discovered sanctuary in England but later departed for America never to return to his European roots.
Over thirty pages into the book, in a section called ‘The Happiest Thought of My Life,’ Robinson emphasises Einstein’s high regard for Isaac Newton’s knowledge of physics (while simultaneously seeing off many aspects of Newtonian mechanics) and tells the story of a discussion Einstein had with a man named Besse who triggered an idea that led that same night to an understanding of special relativity. Einstein’s studies in quantum theory and the proving of his ideas by British astronomers concludes the section. That it was the British who observed and reported on Einstein’s prediction that light from a distant star would bend around the Sun is really interesting, given that while scientists in Europe and the United States were extolling Einstein’s achievement, British scientists were noticeably restrained. The American physicist John Archibald Wheeler remarked that ‘Matter tells space-time how to curve, and curved space tells matter how to move’ (40).
As far as English scientists were concerned Einstein’s theory was wrong on technical grounds, or on philosophical considerations. One scientist that Robinson instances rejected the new ideas based on his unshakeable belief that space must be Euclidean. The inferior position of science at Oxford was of no concern as the man in charge had a first class honours degree in classics and philosophy and could get up to speed on science in a fortnight. Robinson quotes biographer Ronald Clark as remarking on Einstein’s offending against common sense. Robinson informs his readers that it was not until 1919 and subsequently that a nation of sceptics became a hotbed of believers. That Einstein’s name was well known to scientists and students by the early 1920s is attested to by the story of a meeting Robinson describes where, to a packed hall, Einstein lectured in German to a void of complete silence until he mentioned that his talk was going on too long. The resultant shouts that he must continue confirmed that his audience was enthralled by his every word.
Meanwhile in Germany: “A funny lot, these Germans. To them, I am a stinking flower, and yet they keep putting me into their buttonhole” (Einstein’s travel diary, Argentina 1925, quoted in Robinson page 86). In 1919 – 21 in Germany saw an anti-relativity group form and outspoken condemnation of Einstein as a Jew. Here were fears of an assassination attempt, especially following the assassination of Walther Rathenau in 1922. Following this chapter – devoted largely to anti-Semitism comes a section called ‘God Does Not Play Dice with the Universe’.
This section of the book is particularly fascinating. It deals with quantum mechanics and Einstein’s idea of a cosmological constant. Quantum theory, as Robinson is at pains to make clear, is a very slippery fish indeed. Einstein is quoted in Robinson (120) as writing in a letter to fellow scientist Max Born in 1926: ‘quantum mechanics…theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the ‘old one’. I, at any rate, am convinced He is not playing at dice.’ The chapter describes the development of Bose-Einstein statistics, makes an attempt to summarise quantum mechanics in one paragraph (including the wave concept of light introduced by Schrodinger), and moves quickly into an explanation of cosmology and the expanding universe. (It is instructive of Robinson’s compression of so much science to allow him to tell his own story that David Bodanis has written a substantial book called Einstein’s Greatest Mistake (Little Brown, 2016) in which a cosmological constant plays a major part).
When England scientists finally took Einstein seriously, they showed what they were thoroughly persuaded. Identities like George Bernard Shaw, Sir James Jeans and the poet-scientist Sir John Squires lauded his achievements. Robinson covers this area in fine detail so that we are left in no doubt about Einstein’s standing. There is a priceless visit to Winchester School, there are lectures to eminent scientists and others, there is a pen portrait of Walter Lindemann who worked alongside Churchill, and a fascinating interchange relating to music with Margaret Deneke (close friend of the pianist Clara Schumann). The section which follows is heavy on science and philosophy which nobody could surely complain about, as this chapter more than most opens the mind of Einstein as much as it ever was. With the Nazis confiscating all of Einstein’s assets, he became a refugee.
The remaining chapters maintain the same high levels of both interest and scholarship. Readers learn the depth of the danger in which Einstein placed himself and his family, with killer squads forming to terminate him. We also understand what was always a vexed problem, understanding why Einstein departed English shores for America and why he refused to return to his homeland.
I would enjoin readers to buy the book. No chapter is less interesting than another. No chapter contains scholarship at a lower level than any other. I hesitate to draw comparisons between authors, but Andrew Robinson must feature highly on any list I would make. An excellent publication.
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