by Matthew Stanley
Publication Date: May 21, 2019
Genre: History, Science
Few recognize how the Great War, the industrialized slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein&;s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. He lost fifty pounds in three months, unable to communicate with his most important colleagues. Some of those colleagues fought against rabid nationalism; others were busy inventing chemical warfare&;being a scientist trapped you in the power plays of empire. Meanwhile, Einstein struggled to craft relativity and persuade the world that it was correct. This was, after all, the first complete revision of our conception of the universe since Isaac Newton, and its victory was far from sure.
Scientists seeking to confirm Einstein&;s ideas were arrested as spies. Technical journals were banned as enemy propaganda. Colleagues died in the trenches. Einstein was separated from his most crucial ally by barbed wire and U-boats. This ally was the Quaker astronomer and Cambridge don A. S. Eddington, who would go on to convince the world of the truth of relativity and the greatness of Einstein.
In May of 1919, when Europe was still in chaos from the war, Eddington led a globe-spanning expedition to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein&;s bold prediction that light has weight. It was the result of this expedition&;the proof of relativity, as many saw it&;that put Einstein on front pages around the world. Matthew Stanley&;s epic tale is a celebration of how bigotry and nationalism can be defeated and of what science can offer when they are.
I picked this off the TBR shelves yesterday because Einstein! I almost put it back because Nationalism! War! and I’m in the mood for neither. I decided to read the prologue, and got completely sucked in.
I’m only 60 pages in, so Einstein and Eddington are still relative newbies to the science scene and WWI is only a gleam in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s eye, but I’m thoroughly sucked it. I’m really enjoying the author’s way of leading the reader through all of Einstein’s papers, so it’s apparent that the general theory of relativity was a process that was built upon, layer by layer, instead of something that sprouted fully formed one day. I’m also appreciating the graphs and illustrations, even if the mathematical formulas are way over my pay-grade.
I’m really hoping my zeal for the book will withstand WWI.