Ohanian’s book begins by presenting Einstein as a young graduate student seeking a university appointment before accepting a discouraging post as a patent clerk. The narrative is immediately engaging and sets the accessible, and often light-hearted tone carried throughout the book. Ohanian highlights Einstein’s mediocre scholastic performance, poor personal hygiene and challenged interpersonal skills as likely culprits for his inability to secure a more suitable position. While a patent clerk in 1905, however, Einstein published a handful of seminal physics papers that received wide critical acclaim. These papers, notes Ohanian, contained several mistakes.
The book then reviews several hundred years of theoretical and experimental developments in physics, leading up to 1905, Einstein’s “miracle year” during which he published four outstanding scientific papers. One experiment in particular—the Michelson-Morley interferometer results, first published in 1881—is discussed at length. The book’s consideration of the backdrop of Einstein’s scholastic paradigm helps place his work in a greater context, and the physicist is presented as being involved in the great questions of his day. Einstein’s failure to understand the Michelson-Morley result is noted as an additional—and major—mistake.
The book presents a crafted and chronological narrative braid of biographical data, professional work, and authorial analysis. Major life events are noted, and an assortment of amusing or apocryphal anecdotes is included, depicting the physicist as excessively proud, somewhat arrogant, self-promoting, and entirely human.
The book’s portrayal of Einstein is atypical and helpful in positioning the man as an approachable and intelligible person. For example, Einstein’s icily cavalier treatment of his wife Mileva Marić during their divorce for his infidelity illustrates the all-too-human failings of the man behind the genius. On the professional side, Ohanian repeatedly notes Einstein’s basic lack of mathematical insight, characterizes him as a lousy mathematician, and offers a sound rationale for this surprising characterization. Indeed, most of Einstein’s enumerated mistakes are mathematical—“perfectly mundane, careless, and sometimes stupid lapses in logic and mathematics” (p. 332). He is presented as a remarkable physicist capable of intuitively understanding the big picture issues but uninterested in providing the minutia of mathematical proof. The book is compelling in this presentation, and takes the road less traveled by providing a biography that is not sycophantic or focused exclusively on Einstein’s scientific prowess.
Ohanian also considers how Einstein’s several moves among various universities influenced his personal life and professional thinking. Many of the included photographs are of the locales frequented by the physicist, and this contributes to an intimate tone. The book likewise considers Einstein’s relationships with peers and friends, including with his classmate, mathematician Marcel Grossman. The book characterizes this period as one of decreased professional productivity, and the focus is on the mistakes in Einstein’s professional output. However, more than a mere catalog of experiences, travels, theories, and mistakes, the book attempts to examine how Einstein developed his ideas, why he framed them as he did, and where he failed to hit the mark.
The book also considers how Einstein, in his later years as a celebrity, influenced subsequent thinking in the sciences—and not always for the better. He is presented during his later life as keenly interested in his own legacy and well aware of his position as an international celebrity. As such, he was often questioned about personal beliefs and opinions outside the realm of physics; the book presents several interesting anecdotes from this strange milieu and plays with the notion of the interplay between science and opinion.
The book ends with a concise review of Einstein’s aggregated mistakes. Its greatest disappointment is found in the conclusion: “[w]hat lessons can we extract from Einstein’s mistakes? Not many.” (p. 332). This downbeat assessment reflects poorly upon the author’s attempt to chronicle Einstein’s mistakes without “Schadenfreude (roughly translated as ‘gloating’ […])” (p. xi).
Einstein’s Mistakes includes a preface, chronology, and prelude as front-matter; and a “post mortem” (p. 327), extensive and useful endnotes, and a bibliography as end-matter. An index is unfortunately missing. The book is well illustrated with twenty-five photographs and illustrations. The enumerated and named chapter divisions are intuitive and aid materially in making the book accessible. The book will appeal to anyone with an interest in Einstein or the state of physics theory during his lifetime; it will prove interesting to any physics student who has labored through general relativity and wondered about the man who originally conceived it.
A freelance writer living in Utah with his wife and kids.