Book Review: Einstein for the 21st Century: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture

Why is an anthropology blogger doing a book review on a book about Albert Einstein? The answer can be found in the book, and if I were mean I would tell you to figure it out on your own. Since I’m not mean, although you should still buy the book and read it, I will tell you. While at the ETH in Zurich, Einstein took (elective) classes in the “…prehistory of man, geology of mountains, politics and culture history of Switzerland,… social consequences of free competition…” among other things. We also find out that Einstein had read Darwin.


Einstein.gif Einstein for the 21st Century: His Legacy in Science, Art, and Modern Culture Edited by Peter L. Galison, Gerald Holton & Silvan S. Schweber originated in lectures presented at the Berlin Einstein Symposium held in 2005 and, as the subtitle implies, explores the impact of Einstein on sceince, art, politics and everything in between. The book is divided into three sections. The first, Solitude and the World, deals with the impact of Einstein on politics and religion. In this section we get essays on Einstein’s Jewish identity and views on God, nuclear weapons and politics. Several of the essays are, more or less, introductory overviews of Einstein. The one essay in this section that really stands out is Susan Neiman’s Subversive Einstein. The essay begins by juxtaposing the two common portrayals of Einstein as either a forgetful clown (ala the famous picture of Einstein sticking his tongue out) or saint – which sometimes get combined to portray Einstein as a cloudcuckooland type of figure. Obviously, he is neither, and Neiman’s article does a good job of showing how wrong both portrayals are. In 1932 Einstein was invited to America, which upset some. A group called the Women Patriots (previously an antisuffragist group but at that point an antisocialist group) protested the visit and issued a sixteen page indictment of Einstein for “…acts of rebellion…” “…conflict with public authority…” and in general of being worse than Stalin. This led to the U.S. Consul in Berlin interrogating Einstein, who responded that he was invited on the trip, which he would be more than happy to cancel if is visa wasn’t delivered in 24 hours – a response that was leaked by his wife to the press, and in short order his visa was granted. In other words, he played the press and the State Department. We also learn in this essay that Einstein was considered to subversive to obtain the necessary clearances to work on classified defense projects.
The second section, Art and the World, deals with Einstein’s impact on art and music. Of particular interest in this section are the essays by artist Mathew Ritchie and E. L. Doctorow.
The final section, Science and the World, examines Einstein’s impact on science, in particular Quantum Theory. Some of the essays in this section were math heavy and a bit over my head. Several of the essays demonstrate that Einstein’s oft quoted “God does not play dice with the universe” is a somewhat oversimplified statement of his views on, and, contributions to Quantum theory. One surprise in this section occurs in David Gross’ essay, Einstein and the Quest for a Unified Theory. In this essay we learn about Einstein’s look at the work of Kaluza and Klein on relativity in five dimensions. According to Gross, modern versions of Kaluza and Klein’s work show up in string theory.
Overall, the book was a fascinating look at Einstein’s impact on the world and along the way we learn a lot about Einstein himself, so interesting in fact that I read it in one sitting.

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2 Responses

  1. Was it Kaluza or Klein that submitted a journal article using 5-dimensional space-time to unite the theories of gravity and electromagnetism, that was sent to Einstein for peer review? Albert didn’t like it, held onto the manuscript for about a year before sending in his review, and actually submitted a paper of his own to refute it before it was even published. Yup, he sure was an interesting chap, and haven’t scientific ethics come a long way since his time?

  2. It was one of Kaluza’s papers and he held it for two years. He did later return to the idea – at one point playing with an 8 dimensional universe. He didn’t really like those kinds of theories, but he couldn’t quite leave them alone either. Just goes to show that no ones perfect…

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