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Book review: Einstein in Time and Space: A life in 99 particles by Samuel Graydon

by
24 November 2023

Adam Ford considers the qualities and views of Albert Einstein

ALBERT EINSTEIN is acknowledged to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. A century ago, he discovered things about the universe which were both strange and surreal to any normal way of thinking. How are we to visualise a world in which space can be bent and warped by gravity, or time altered, accelerated, or slowed, depending on the motion of the observer? And yet, such was his almost immediate fame, that a letter posted in the United States to “Professor Albert Einstein, Europe” was delivered without any delay.

It would be easy to be put off reading a book about him, fearing the demands of a mathematical and incomprehensible world, but Einstein in Time and Space should deter no one. Samuel Graydon has written an immensely readable work about the man himself, collected into 99 short, mostly two-page, chapters, exploring his scientific ideas, quoting his letters, and telling many revealing anecdotes.

He does not avoid the various scientific conundrums and disagreements that faced Einstein, such as the nature of probability in the newly discovered quantum world, or the implications of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle; but Graydon deals with them with a light and human touch.

Following Einstein’s life, we discover an undistinguished childhood, and a poor student record; a dishevelled youth innately disrespectful of academic authority. Briefly, during adolescence, Einstein showed an intense interest in his Jewish heritage (not shared by his parents), but that episode did not last long as his searching curiosity shifted towards physics. (Later he came to view Jewishness as a tribal rather than religious matter, and gave great support to the demand for a Jewish homeland in Palestine).

Sexual infatuations distracted him, both before and after marriage, while he spent years scratching a living by working in the Swiss Patent Office, in Bern. Paradoxically, this was the time when he produced many of his best theories, possibly because the quiet routine of an ordinary job (which he actually enjoyed) gave him ample time to think. The easy visualisation of physical problems was one of his greatest strengths.

A pacifist by nature, Einstein’s kindness shines through many of the anecdotes, as in his great support for the Nobel Prizewinner Marie Curie, when she was pilloried by the press for her affair with a married fellow scientist: “If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptiles for whom it has been fabricated,” he wrote. He also devoted a great deal of energy to helping fellow Jews to escape from Nazi Germany.

Children often wrote to him with questions. His answers reveal a patient and sympathetic side to his extraordinary character.


The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

 

Einstein in Time and Space: A life in 99 particles
Samuel Graydon
John Murray £20)
(978-1-5293-7248-9)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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