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Einstein's mistakes

2009-03-14

“Albert Einstein was certainly the greatest physicist of the 20th century, and one of the greatest scientists of all time. It may be presumptuous to talk of mistakes made by such a towering figure, especially in the centenary of his annus mirabilis. But the mistakes made by leading scientists often provide better insight into the spirit and presuppositions of their times than do their successes.”

With this quote from Steven Weinberg's article Einstein's mistakes begins the review of Svitlana P. Rogovchenko of Hans C. Ohanians, “Einstein’s mistakes. The human failings of genius.” [New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co. (2008; Zbl 1156.01012)], which we like to single out here as a somewhat twisted congratulation to his 130th birthday.

As one might expect by quotes from the book like

“[Einstein wrote] about 180 original items. Of these, about 50 contain mistakes… It’s a bad scorecard. ”

or

“ [most mistakes made by Einstein] were perfectly mundane, careless, and sometimes stupid lapses in logic and mathematics.”,

the author is not shy of a somewhat harsh analysis, characterizing his hero (in the reviewer's words)

“as a remarkable physicist intuitively understanding complicated and significant issues and, at the same time, as a lousy mathematician not interested at all in providing rigorous proofs.”

For the benefits of reading the book, we give here the nice conclusions of the reviewer in full length:

“Probably the biggest disappointment in the book is Ohanian's conclusion `what lessons can we extract from Einstein's mistakes? Not many.' This is absolutely wrong, and if it were indeed the case, what was the point in writing this book? Only those who do nothing make no mistakes at all, but this is not the way scientific research develops. By analyzing mistakes and failures of Einstein and other great scientists, one follows the historical path along which the science evolved and learns a lot (see the quote in the beginning of this review).

“The book is well illustrated and can be understood by wide audience with different scientific backgrounds, and there is a lot of non-technical material in the book, although some delicate details may not be completely transparent to readers lacking knowledge of mathematics and physics at a college level. It is intriguing, readable and diverting, in spite of the author's quite tough stand on Einstein's life and contribution to physics and a rather persistent lack of empathy. The entire story would have probably won if the author was more fair and thoughtful, but it is a stimulating reading anyway. After all, it is always nice to know that, inevitably making mistakes in our lives and research, we remain in a very respectable company of prominent scientists.”


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