cover image Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: A Biography

Einstein’s Greatest Mistake: A Biography

David Bodanis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-544-80856-0

Writer and futurist Bodanis (Passionate Minds) imparts fresh insight into the genius—and failures—of the 20th century’s most celebrated scientist. Einstein learned early on to follow his own curiosity rather than his teachers, and Bodanis shows how Einstein’s close friendships with a few young scientists gave him a supportive sounding board for his ideas. Later, Einstein’s dull patent-inspector job gave him time to work out the basics of relativity. Trouble arose when astronomical observations suggested, in opposition to Einstein’s equations, that the universe was unchanging. To make his math agree, Einstein reluctantly added a fudge factor called the cosmological constant, only to regret it when later observations showed the universe really was expanding and his original math had been correct all along. That experience, Bodanis says, made the scientist “downright obdurate” about considering experimental results—exactly the wrong tactic to take as quantum mechanics became the new language of modern physics. Bodanis is sympathetic but realistic: Einstein’s stubbornness effectively ended his career, leaving him isolated and marginalized as the rest of physics moved forward. This provocative biography illuminates the human flaws that operate subtly in the shadows of scientific endeavor. Agent: Patrick Walsh, Conville & Walsh. (Oct.)