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Einstein in Love

Dennis Overbye
Publisher: 
Viking Press
Publication Date: 
2000
Number of Pages: 
416
Format: 
Hardcover
Price: 
0.00
ISBN: 
978-0670894307
Category: 
General
[Reviewed by
Andrew Leahy
, on
03/23/2001
]

It would be a mistake to judge Dennis Overbye's book Einstein in Love: A Scientific Romance by its cover, because this book is as much a story about science at the beginning of the twentieth century as it is a story about the romantic life of one of the great scientific minds of the time.

At its heart, this book is a biography of Albert Einstein that focuses specifically on his most productive period as a scientist, a time that spans roughly the years 1900-1920. In the course of 370 pages, it discusses his accomplishments as a scientists and the episodes that were shaping his personal life during this time.

Of the two, Einstein's place as a scientist is most well-known to even the most unscientific among us. (The fact that Einstein's likeness was recently found on television dancing among the stars while selling something as mundane as a soft drink is a testament to his position as the archetypal scientist in our collective subconscious.) And it is to these unscientific masses that Overbye has pitched his book. That doesn't mean that this is not a well-researched work. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The fifteen pages of end notes and 70 bibliographical references attest to the research that has gone into producing it. Rather, it is a warning to mathematicians that they won't attain a deeper understanding of the scientific work of the time by reading this book. They will, however, learn some of the basic facts of the history of science at the end of the nineteenth century.

A typical example is Overbye's discussion of non-Euclidean geometry. Like much of the mathematics and physics in the rest of the work, non-Euclidean geometry is presented as the outgrowth of a long philosophical conversation that was reaching a climax at the turn of the century. Overbye's description begins with Plato, whose argument that anyone could attain absolute knowledge with the proper reasoning was the basis of the absolute laws that were the goal of scientific exploration. However, this perspective had been mortally wounded when the empiricist David Hume launched his critique of causality. As Einstein himself wrote (and Overbye relates), "Hume's clear message seemed crushing: the sensory raw material, the only source of our knowledge, through habit may lead us to belief and expectation but not to the knowledge and still less to the understanding of lawful relations." Enter Immanuel Kant, who argued that the mind had pre-built categories into which it could organize the output of sensation. Among these categories, he argued, "were the ideas of absolute space, time, causality, and the axioms of geometry". For Overbye, the discovery of non-Euclidean geometries was the next phase in this Hegelian process of history. Lobachevsky and others showed that there was nothing sacred about the axioms of Euclidean geometry and Bernhard Riemann ("a man seriously ahead of his time") then showed these different geometries had a reality all their own when he "demonstrated that they described the surfaces of various curved three-dimensional objects".

And... well, that's about it. As in the remainder of the book, there is no mathematics here, only broad descriptions of powerful mathematical ideas and of the scientists who were thinking them. In fact, for Overbye the people are as important as the ideas. Boltzmann, Curie, Helmholtz, Hertz, Hilbert, Hopf, Hurwitz, Klein, Lorentz, Maxwell, Minkowski, Planck, Poincaré, Riemann — the index reads like the index of a science or math text and in many lengthy passages Overbye introduces his readers to the many mathematicians and scientists who were wrestling with the problems of the day. For instance, Poincaré, who enters the stage in the midst of the debate on non-Euclidean geometry, is described vividly:

A portly man of medium height with a bushy beard, pince-nez, and a legendary air of distraction about him, Poincaré was the greatest living mathematician in France and perhaps the world, arguably the greatest living Frenchman. Poincaré was the last man who seemed to know everything. He had qualified for membership in every section of the French Academy of Sciences, from geology to mathematics. As the author of thirty books and five hundred articles, he was elected as well to the literary section of the Academie Française. On top of everything else, he was an avid dancer. Every year he lectured on a different field of physics. His trademark was inventing new fields of mathematics.

There are also many equally vivid geographical descriptions scattered throughout the book. At times, Overbye shifts into the present tense and the book is suddenly transformed into a travel guide for central Europe. Consider Overbye's description of Schaffhausen, Switzerland, where Einstein worked briefly as a private tutor:

Schaffhausen, its cobbled, walled streets arranged around an eleventh-century cathedral, a vineyard fortress whose cannons command the Rhine valley to this day, is one of Switzerland's prettier towns, famous for its rococo architecture and frescoed facades. An astronomical clock tower with gold sun, moon, and planets sweeping the zodiacal circle, capable of tracking eclipses and changing seasons as well as the time, stands over Fronwagplatz, the central marketplace.

Undoubtedly, the most important thread winding throughout the entire story is Einstein's relationship with Mileva Maric, his first wife. Much has been written about the role that Maric played in Einstein's professional development, with some even suggesting that Einstein gave her his Nobel Prize money (which was awarded after they were divorced) because he felt she was more deserving of it than he was. Overbye does not seem to be sympathetic to this perspective. He recognizes that Maric was truly ahead of her time and was able to accomplish many things that other women could not. There is also no doubt that she shared Einstein's love of physics, that early on in their relationship they spoke constantly about it, and that they both eventually succumbed to the expectations placed on each of the sexes during that time period. ("Things don't look nearly as bad at home as you think. You'll be able to clean up in short order," he once wrote to her.) But in the end, the Mileva Maric that Overbye describes suffers from the same faults and frailties that separate the rest of us from the Einsteins of the world. The most he is willing to admit is that working with Einstein "was bound to undermine her own self-confidence".

Moreover, for Overbye, the major focus is not the professional attachment, but the personal attachment between the two of them. Drawing on many sources, including numerous personal correspondences, Overbye relates much of the raw emotion of this relationship and its consequences throughout it's entire trajectory, and the scenes from this ever-evolving relationship are a major source of the drama of this work. There are happy moments when they are both students studying physics in Zurich and lamenting the "philistine" ways of their society, but it's mostly a long painful journey that seems doomed from the beginning. To start things off, it seems Einstein may have never even seen his only daughter — born before he and Mileva were married and presumably given up for adoption. In fact, the fate of this daughter is a mystery that historians are still debating, and even Einstein's own sons didn't know she existed until after their mother's death. When Einstein and Maric eventually married six years after they had met, Einstein made his vows only "out of a sense of duty". Eventually, Einstein would leave Mileva to take up with his cousin Elsa in Berlin. In the process, he would severely strain his relationships with both of his sons. For a long time his oldest son Hans Albert wouldn't speak to him, and, as Overbye relates, his youngest son Eduard began to feel abandoned, writing at one point: "The worst destiny is to have no destiny, and also to be the destiny of no one else." Moreover, even after leaving Mileva, Einstein still could not put his personal life in order. When it came time to commit to Elsa he found himself tempted by her daughter, Ilse, and seems to have settled for Elsa only when Ilse turned him down. As expected given these prenuptial problems, his time with Elsa was also marked by numerous infidelities.

The sad story of Einstein's personal life aside, I enjoyed this book. In fact, I couldn't put it down. As someone who knew only the vague outlines of Einstein's life, I was enthralled by the drama of it all. Not only was this the all-too-human story of one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, it was also the story of a genius, laboring at the fringes of the scientific establishment, who might not have been. Overbye captures this drama on every page — from Einstein's carefree days as a student in Zurich and his post-graduate days as a patent clerk with a wife and family waiting at home, all the way to his discovery by the popular press following the astronomical observations during the eclipse of 1919 that confirmed general relativity.

This book won't make the subtleties of Einstein's work clear, but for someone trying to get a feel for the history of science at the end of the nineteenth century, there is much that can be learned from it. Avid historians may be bothered by Overbye's lofty goal of making the turn-of-the-century discoveries of physics the dramatic conclusion of a story of scientific progress centuries in the making, but mathematical generalists will enjoy both the well-told tales from the history of mathematics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the personal stories from the lives of scientists and mathematicians of the time.

For mathematics educators, there is also a lot to think about in this book. Einstein succeeded in spite of — and not because of — the education he received. In many ways, he was his teachers' worst nightmare — a "nondiligent" student who skipped classes and had little respect for his teachers, who in turn had little respect for him. In fact, it's likely that a professor's poor recommendation was the reason this undisputed genius began his working life as a patent clerk. On the other hand, Einstein was gifted with those basic qualities that every teacher tries to inspire in his or her students. He was extraordinarily curious and an inveterate reader who, unfortunately, indulged in his passion for philosophy and physics both on his own time and on his professors' time. Maybe Einstein was the ultimate counter-example in a long tradition of seemingly disinterested students who even today wander through the halls of colleges and universities. But maybe he points to an untapped well of talent and motivation that all educators should continually seek to discover and harness in any student that happens to cross their path.


Andrew Leahy is an assistant professor of Mathematics at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.

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