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Once Upon Einstein

Thibault Damour
A. K. Peters
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Michael Berg
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This is quite a wonderful book, unusual in several ways, and eminently readable. It should be of interest, and of use, to a number of different kinds of reader, from a newcomer to the life and works of Einstein to a seasoned veteran who’d like to revisit Einstein’s great adventures, and the wild times they took place in, without doing any real work, so to speak (what Einstein would call “xerei ”).

This ideal reader should have an interest in the history of modern physics, and come equipped with some background in the subject, for while Damour’s book is singularly sparing in mathematical formulas, it is chock-full of science, philosophy of science, history of science, and scientific biography. The latter in particular is served up with a light touch, with Damour obviously indulging his imagination without holding back, and this makes for the book’s idiosyncratic quality: it’s not a biography in the ordinary sense, at all, but it does deal intimately with the life of Einstein, and most of all his thoughts. Let Damour speak for himself:

This book is not a biography of Einstein. We shall hardly speak of Einstein the husband, the father, the musician, the pacifist, or the Zionist. We shall not discuss his youth in Munich, his studies in Zurich, his difficulty in finding a job, his university career, his social life in the vibrant Berlin of the 1920’s, the letter he wrote to Franklin Delano Roosevelt mentioning the possibility of building a nuclear bomb, nor his reclusive life in the small college town of Princeton. This book is even less a course on Einstein’s theories, or a review of modern physics. Rather, this book will try to put the reader in Einstein’s place, and will encourage the reader to share some of those particular moments when Einstein succeeded in ‘lifting a corner of the great veil’ — those times when he understood some part of the hidden order of the universe.

And this describes Once Upon Einstein to a tee: it is a collection of essays on Einstein’s contributions, largely as an exploration of his thoughts: Damour quotes Einstein as follows, “…the essential in the being of a man of my type lies precisely in what he thinks and how he thinks, not in what he does or suffers…” Damour’s book is a concerted effort to place this dimension of Einstein’s life in the foreground, dominating all other aspects, as he himself would have it.

This said, one does learn a lot about physics in the book’s mere 185 pages, and a good deal about physicists, too. It can’t be otherwise, of course, and it is for these reasons that the reader should have some knowledge of the subject already. However, Damour, like Einstein (indeed, using Einstein’s original formulations) seeks to make difficult physics transparent and simple, even though this is generally a relative affair (pardon the pun) in that such transparency is often a function of the reader’s perspective. But it is all quite accessible.

The book’s coverage of things Einstein is conveyed by the list of chapters: “The question of time,” “The world’s checkerboard,” “Elastic space-time,” “Einstein’s world-game,” “Light and energy in grains,” “Confronting the sphinx,” and “Einstein’s legacy.” Accordingly, we encounter both theories of relativity, Einstein’s contributions to quantum theory (and his battles with quantum mechanics), and his later quests toward grand unification. So, to quote Feynman, we find here “most of the good stuff.” And Damour’s coverage is engaging, imaginative, and at the same time very scholarly (he is after all a specialist himself: a professor at IHES, a theoretical physicist working on cosmology and string theory, and a winner of the Einstein Medal). It bears mentioning specifically that as far as Damour’s imaginative style is concerned, one of the most remarkable properties of the book is the “you are there” accounts of Einstein’s interactions with other scientists, ranging from Michele Besso in his early days in Switzerland, to “the usual suspects” such as Bohr and Heisenberg; but many other characters enter then game along the way, including Henri Bergson and Marcel Proust (who, Damour points out, were cousins).

Obviously this is a fine (and fun) book. Highly recommended.

Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in California.

The table of contents is not available.