Einstein’s Mistakes

Book Review:

Ohanian, Hans C.   Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failing of Genius. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

A friend at church loaned this book to me several months ago, and I just recently had the opportunity to read it. Initially I was discouraged by the font size of the text (10 !!) in this 338 page book. That’s just too small for my comfort when reading, but I began anyway.

Hans C. Ohanian, student of relativity at Princeton and author of this book, begins by pointing out the mistakes of both Galileo and Newton. This discouraged me even more. Along with Einstein, these are the big three in astronomy, and I was not looking forward to reading a bunch of negative stories about them.

When reading I keep my eyes open for descriptions or analogies that will help me explain astronomy. While detailing young Einstein’s weaknesses, Ohanian gives us a limerick to remember:

There was a young lady named Bright,

Who travelled much faster than light.

She set out one day in a relative way,

And returned the previous night.

Then it was time to describe Galileo’s mistakes. Ohanian summed it up by claiming that Galileo’s confession to the Inquisition had some truth to it!

Pope Urban insisted that scientists can never truly know the true mechanism of nature. Since God could produce a particular situation in many unthinkable ways, a scientist should begin by confessing “It’s as if…” when making a claim.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.21.22 AM
Portrait of Robert Hooke by Rita Greer, 2004


Next, it’s Newton’s turn. Along with suffering effects of mercury poisoning and just being a bad teacher, Newton was overly possessive of his discoveries and vindictive toward competitors. His “Shoulders of Giants” statement was possibly not offered in the kindest of meanings. Ohanian claims that despite his flaws, Newton was worth several Einsteins.

The typeface seemed to get small and the writing seemed to get denser, so I skimmed several pages in the middle of the book. I read the first sentence or two of each paragraph and based on that reading decided if I wanted to read the whole paragraph. Many times I did read whole paragraphs and occasionally I even read whole sections.

An example of the kind of description I’m looking for is

The workings of an electron microscope is like fingers feeling the bumps on a coin.

I liked the demonstration of a blackbody. Cut a small hole in a cardboard box. No matter what color the inside of that box is, the hole always appears black.

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.16.48 AM
Sandra Bullock in a scene near the end of the movie “Gravity”

On pages 227 and 228 I discovered the most wonderful description of a gravitational field. I’ll sum it up with

            “A gravitational field is a relative acceleration of neighboring particles.”

I think the description that leads up to that bottom line is worth the difficulty with all the rest of the book.

All objects of mass have a gravitational effect on all other objects of mass. How much? Of course, that depends on size and distance. The pull of the Sun (1 solar mass at 1 A.U.) on

Screen Shot 2016-07-17 at 8.11.33 AM
Easter Egg

your body is about the weight of an egg. (p. 228) Wonderful!

After some review of the meaning of “theory” in science, Ohanian explained that Einstein called his major works “principles” not theories. Theories explain why something works. “Principles” described how things work. For example, Einstein’s famous papers were about how to synchronize clocks and how to impose time dilation, meaning they are principles.

But later, some of Einstein’s supporters changed the titles to “theory.”

The bottom line for Ohanian: Einstein’s mistakes put him about 20 years ahead of the other physicists of the time. Wow, that’s the kind of mistake to make.

But Einstein’s relationship with his youngest son is included in this book. Though not labeled a “mistake” I think it’s pretty clear that Einstein made many in regards to his family.

Looking for a casual read? If so, I’d skip this book.

If you’re looking for a dense look into the ugliness of scientific politics, this might be for you.

Dickkopf. Dumkopf (p. 3323)

July 17, 2016




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