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.
As I mentioned in an earlier reading status post, I was both drawn to this book and apprehensive about reading it. I wanted it for the bits about Einstein and relativity, but I’ve had it up to my eyeballs in the hypocrisy and vicious hate that’s the order of our days (unless I’m at the hydrotherapy pool, and then I’m all about the hate, because seriously, parents need to learn, and then teach their unruly monsters, some damn common courtesy – especially when they share the pool with frail, injured and/or elderly tax-payers. But I digress.)
I decided to read the prologue and was immediately sucked in, and I figured I could skim the war bits if they started dragging me down. The war bits did drag me down, but I didn’t skim, because this book was so much more than I expected it to be in a lot of unexpected ways.
This book is not only the story of how Einstein became Einstein, it’s the story about how his theory came into this world, bit by bit, painful mistake after painful fruitless searching, with duct-tape slapped on and removed, rationalisations made, and the whole thing scrapped and started over again. I found this part enlightening because modern tellings tend to make people think the general theory of relativity just sprouted fully formed one day from Einstein’s pencil. I also enjoyed his small attempts, with illustrations, to describe aspects of relativity, and that he included details about some of the thought experiments that Einstein used.
This book is also about A.S. Eddington, a brilliant British mathematician turned astronomer, a Quaker, and a conscientious objector during WWI. It’s about how his faith informed every part of his life, and his refusal to divorce his religious beliefs from his work when the British government tried to demand it of him. It’s about how his religion guided his efforts to repair the integrity of international science when it was thought to be irreconcilably broken, and how his choice for this international bridge building – proving a calculation that verified Einstein’s theory of relativity, via the 1919 solar eclipse – and how he went about doing it, was largely responsible for turning Einstein into science’s first and only genuine superstar. It’s about one man’s efforts to quietly and modestly fight the vicious hate and anger that permeated every part of the UK at the time.
I loved this book. I took half a star off because the author’s fast and loose, zig-zagging time lines during the war years drove me crazy. I know it’s difficult to be linear about complex historical events that happened in tandem, but I’d be reading about events in 1918, thinking we were getting to the end of the war, and suddenly the author had me back in 1917 without the appropriate signage. This happened a few times and left me lost on every occasion.
But putting that aside, I loved this book. I wasn’t expecting the respect the author showed towards Eddington’s religious integrity. I wasn’t expecting the author’s objectivity when acknowledging Einstein’s controversies, small though they might seem in the grand scheme of things. (I’m completely icked out by the fact that he told Elsa and her daughter that it made no difference to him which one of them he married.)
I liked that Stanley addressed and discussed the question of how much Einstein’s ex-wife Mileva may have contributed to his work, and I really liked how the author included the female scientists throughout the years that touched on Einstein’s work or life. I loved that when he did so, it was casually, in the same narrative tone and voice he used for everything else in the book, like women working in science wasn’t special, or unique. He was honest about their chances of advancement, or of even getting paid, but he didn’t treat them like they were some rare exotic or token.
Where the author really earned my respect though, was at the end. Up until that last chapter, I thought the book insightful, thoughtful, well-written and engaging, but the last chapter really brought home the author’s sense of balance. I can do no better than to quote him. Warning, this quote is long.
Everyone wants a simple explanation for why things turn out as
they do. Popper thought the expeditions were extraordinary and made
them exemplars of good science. Everitt thought the expeditions were
biased and made them exemplars of bad science. Collins and Pinch
thought the expeditions were shaped by politics and authority, and
made them exemplars of socially constructed science
Einstein’s War has been a story about how none of those are enough.
Einstein and relativity’s victory involved good science, bad science,
politics, and personal authority. Any episode in science does. None of
those mean relativity is wrong (it has been confirmed many, many
times since then) or that Eddington fudged the numbers (there were
good reasons to trust the 1919 results). Science is done by people. That
means it will be inherently complicated and often confusing. People
will make mistakes, equipment will break, poor decisions will be made
because of political or personal bias.
Note that you could replace “science” and “scientist” in this last paragraph with any profession in the world today and it would be just as apt, and just as relevant.
We do not have to be forced into extremes. The presence of human
scientists does not make science unreliable. We need to understand,
though, what science-done-by-people actually looks like and how it
works. That means leaving behind some comforting myths about the
dispassionate, purely rational, always-objective nature of science. The
deeply human, sometimes chaotic story of relativity is not an excep-
tion. It is an exemplar. Science is messy, it is also a powerful way to
learn about the real world around us.
By the end of this book I was wanting to yell “Preach it!” Given that I’ve never uttered those two words, never-mind thought them, in the whole of my modestly repressed life, they’re probably the best summation for just how much this book resonated with me. Overall, it as just a really excellent read.