Einstein: Superman or Super Stubborn?

“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt
“Citizenship in a Republic,”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius

Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius
Hans C. Ohanian
W.W. Norton and Company
New York
394 pages

On November 6, 1919, the British astronomer Arthur Eddington announced his results confirming the deflection of light by the Sun during an eclipse as predicted by the General Theory of Relativity of the German/Swiss physicist Albert Einstein, then little known outside of his field. The announcement took place at a special joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Philosophical Society in what appears to have been a carefully staged media event shortly before the first anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I (November 11, 1918). In what may not have been a coincidence, the next day was the second anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (November 7, 1917). Significantly, Eddington was a Quaker and a pacifist who had been a conscientious objector during the war. His colleague and correspondent Einstein was also a pacifist who had avoided military service during the war. The story of a British astronomer and a German physicist working together on a revolutionary breakthrough offered an inspiring example to a war weary world buffeted by revolution and severe economic problems. On November 7, 1919, Albert Einstein became an international celebrity with adulatory articles on the front pages of the London Times and the New York Times. That celebrity continues to the present day.

A substantial mythology grew up around Einstein, aided and abetted by Einstein himself, his secretary Helen Dukas who inherited much of his estate, many fellow physicists, well meaning admirers, the German government of the Weimar Republic, avaricious book publishers, and others. Einstein became a superman and a saint. In many accounts, he launched the Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb by writing a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt at the urging of his friend and onetime business partner the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. He was an erstwhile pacifist reluctantly forced to advocate the atomic bomb by the menace of Nazism.

Einstein became an icon of popular culture and counter-culture. Einstein was probably the model for Professor Jacob Barnhart in the famous sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). A myth even grew up that Einstein succeeded (partially) in his quest for a theory unifying electromagnetism and gravity, creating an electromagnetic invisibility device that transported a US Navy ship at the Philadelphia naval yard into an alternate dimension, peddled by William Moore and Charles Berlitz in their book The Philadelphia Experiment (1979) and other sources. Einstein actually did work as a consultant for the Navy in Philadelphia during World War II. Posters of Einstein decorate dorm rooms at MIT, Caltech, and other technical universities. Every year sees new Einstein books, most ranging from positive to very positive.

Within the rarefied world of theoretical physics, there was another, less flattering mythology about Einstein, one rarely exposed to the general public until recently. Einstein, along with Erwin Schrödinger and Prince Louis de Broglie, was on the losing side of a bitter dispute over the “completeness” of quantum mechanics. In a nutshell, Einstein, Schrödinger, and de Broglie argued that quantum mechanics was logically inconsistent or incomplete. The theory could not be correct. Primarily they focused on the problem with how and when the wave function “collapsed” in the winning Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Some further fundamental insight was needed. Despite Einstein’s public celebrity, most leading physicists trace their “lineage” to the winners: Niels Bohr and his school at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen and the physics department at the prestigious University of Gottingen in Germany. In this mythology, Einstein was a mediocre mathematician, a has been, a loopy old man who couldn’t keep up with the revolutions in quantum and nuclear physics, a useful mascot for awing the unwashed masses but certainly not to be taken seriously by the real physicists of today. Generations of physics graduate students have been taught this alternate mythology quietly behind closed doors, not infrequently by the winners or the students of the winners or the students of the students of the winners.

Over the years, only a few books have been highly critical of Einstein. A well known example is The Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter which purports to detail Einstein’s numerous affairs, failed marriage, and other personal failings. Hans Ohanian’s recent book Einstein’s Mistakes takes aim at Einstein the scientist, arguing that Einstein made numerous sometimes serious and sometimes obvious errors in many of his papers and even some famous results.

On the whole, Einstein’s Mistakes is well written, an enjoyable read, and probably a worthwhile antidote to the more extreme adulation of Einstein. It also suffers from several minor factual errors, a glaring flaw in a book about Einstein’s Mistakes. More seriously, one can question the standards and philosophy used to measure and critique Einstein.

The author Hans Ohanian is a physicist. Physics is a highly competitive field, especially since the atomic bomb elevated its status, making physicists advisers to Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Premiers. Through about the middle of graduate school, advancement in physics is determined largely by performance on competitive exams, standardized tests like the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and Graduate Record Exams (GRE) in the United States, qualifying exams in graduate school and so forth. The winners, especially in theoretical or mathematical physics, are those who can perform various derivations and calculations quickly and accurately in a few hours. The winners in modern physics are extremely good, some able to perform difficult calculations perfectly under tight time constraints. Einstein was not competitive in this way, ending up with a job at a patent office while working toward a Ph.D. part time at the less prestigious University of Zurich. As Einstein’s Mistakes notes, many of Einstein’s contemporaries were astounded by his discoveries. His former professor Minkowski was flabbergasted, having reputedly referred to Einstein as that “lazy dog.” In the even more competitive world of physics today, the ideal is to be one hundred percent right fast. Ohanian’s book reflects this prejudice.

The problem is that most inventors and discovers, including in mathematical fields such as theoretical physics, make lots of mistakes. Ohanian notes with scorn grievous errors by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton amongst others. In fact, this is not unusual. Almost every individual or team remembered for a great discovery or invention failed, failed again, kept failing, screwed up some more, made even more mistakes, and finally got it right. Not infrequently, subsequent researchers had to repair gaping holes. The theory or technology taught in a textbook usually turns out to be much improved from the actual theory or invention as originally discovered. Einstein’s work is no exception to this common pattern.

It seems likely that some people can perform extremely well or perfectly on academic exams because they are applying a known method or formula for solving a problem (e.g. addition using place value arithmetic on an SAT mathematics exam). This ability, whether inborn or acquired, appears only somewhat correlated with the discovery of new methods and new concepts. Regardless of academic performance, discovering new methods and concepts often involves a large amount of trial and error as well as conceptual reasoning and visualization that is difficult to measure in a typical exam. Thus Einstein made numerous discoveries that his more technically proficient colleagues missed.

Einstein’s Mistakes largely accepts the winner’s narrative of the dispute over the foundations of quantum mechanics. Einstein was and is often criticized for the “mistake” of refusing to accept quantum mechanics — more accurately arguing that quantum mechanics is “incomplete,” a somewhat arcane term of physics jargon. Yet the logical problems and paradoxes that Einstein, Schrödinger, and de Broglie noted remain, largely unexplained. How and when does Max Born’s probability density wavefunction collapse to a single point or a measurement indistinguishable from a point particle? Was Einstein foolishly stubborn or foresightful not to accept Bohr and Born’s confusing explanations of their theory?

In quantum mechanics, the state of a “particle” such as an electron in the atom is represented by a state or wavefunction often represented by the Greek letter [tex]\Psi[/tex]. In basic quantum mechanics, the wavefunction [tex]\Psi[/tex] is governed by a partial differential equation, Schrödinger’s Equation, discovered by the physicist Erwin Schrödinger. In the quantum mechanics of Niels Bohr and Max Born, the wavefunction [tex]\Psi(x)[/tex] is interpreted as the probability density of making an observation or measurement at the point x. The wavefunction [tex]\Psi[/tex] is often said to collapse to a point when an observation or measurement is made, for example when an electron strikes a sheet of photographic film or a modern electronic imaging device. Each electron appears as a distinct point on the film, yet an interference pattern is seen as many electrons strike the film over time. But what exactly is a measurement and how and when does the wavefunction “collapse”? When electrons diffract through a crystal creating an interference pattern on film, does the wavefunction collapse at the film or earlier (or later when the scientist examines the film)… how and why? Such questions have bedeviled quantum mechanics since its establishment in 1927 and often been swept under the rug by confusing rhetoric.

Einstein spent much of his life in the apparently futile pursuit of a unified field theory that would combine electromagnetism, gravity, and perhaps all other forces, also hoping that this unified field theory would explain the paradoxes of quantum mechanics to his satisfaction. Einstein was then and is now mocked for this pursuit. Yet, Einstein’s position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton was secure. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain. Better to try and fail than to never try. Physics and many other fields are full of papers of no consequence, computing some parameter that no one should care about to another decimal place because it can be done, safely and securely. Rather, both taxpayers and donors should surely want the Einsteins of the world to try to do something significant, rather than settling for safe mediocrity.

Ohanian compares Einstein’s quest for the unified field theory to the obsessive pursuit of string theory by most of the current generation of theoretical physicists. It is a fair comparison and a cautionary tale. But, it was not wrong to pursue string theory given the promising results published in 1984. Rather the mistake has surely been to pursue string theory almost exclusively and continuously in the face of poor results. More likely if the theoretical physicists of the last thirty years had diversified their efforts, working on the problems of quantum mechanics that Einstein noted as well as many other ideas including string theory, instead of focusing single-mindedly on string theory, more substantial discoveries would have occurred. So, too, if Einstein failed with his unified field theory while others succeeded with quantum electrodynamics and possibly quantum field theory, so much the better. If everyone had followed Einstein’s lead, as arguably happened with the prominent theoretical physicist Ed Witten and string theory in 1984, then everyone would have failed in Einstein’s time as well.

In conclusion, Einstein’s Mistakes is well worth reading. It is unhealthy to deify scientists like Einstein, Richard Feynman, Ed Witten, or many others. However, readers should keep in mind that Einstein’s tale of mistakes and errors, far from unusual or odd, is often the story of actual invention and discovery. It is not inappropriate to recall the Aesop’s Fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. The Tortoise won the race by stubbornly and doggedly advancing forward while the faster easily distracted Hare ultimately lost. Einstein, like many inventors and discovers, spent many years stubbornly pursuing his great discoveries — about seven years for special relativity and the other discoveries published in 1905 and seven years for General Relativity. His accomplishments did not come easily or quickly or without error.

Copyright © 2010, John F. McGowan, Ph.D.

About the Author

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. is a software developer, research scientist, and consultant. He works primarily in the area of complex algorithms that embody advanced mathematical and logical concepts, including speech recognition and video compression technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Joseph C. Fineman September 4, 2010
  2. qmathematical September 4, 2010
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