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NON-FICTION: A PREDICTABLE EFFORT

Updated May 14, 2017 06:15am
Taught to play the violin as a child by his mother, Einstein often used music to help himself brainstorm | AP
Taught to play the violin as a child by his mother, Einstein often used music to help himself brainstorm | AP

In this book, the author tries to cover all aspects of Albert Einstein’s life. In earlier times, when authors wrote serious books, they would often start with an apologia, in which they would explain why they had written the book despite all the other books written on the subject. I think that there is much to be said for providing such a preface. Of course, because of the rapid development of new fields, very often these days there are not all that many books on any given subject. However, when it comes to books on Einstein — his life, his science, philosophy, politics and even his personal life — there is no dearth. As such, the question arises as to what new information or insights are provided in Albert Einstein: Life and Work, by Mujahid Kamran, that are not available elsewhere. Unfortunately, the author has not addressed this issue.

Books written in Pakistan are generally marred by non-grammatical English written with no regard to style or readability. That is certainly not the case here. This book is well-written, with a free-flowing style that is easy to read. It contains a lot of information and an enormous number of quotations. To that extent, it is good. However, the question remains: why another book on Einstein?

The book does not follow any discernible pattern. It starts historically, but then goes into the aspects of Einstein’s life mentioned above and returns to a historical approach within the different material covered. I would like to discuss the book’s coverage of Einstein’s personal life, his public life, his philosophy and his science, in that order.


A Pakistani biography of Einstein fails to justify itself


Any account of someone’s personal life must rely heavily on written sources, which are then quoted and cited. This is done here. Many of the earlier books on the subject did not delve into so much detail on this aspect, perhaps partly to respect privacy and partly because that much material was not then available. Only after Einstein’s personal papers became public could all the details be pieced together. By far the greatest amount of new content in the book under review is on the subject’s relations with women.

Other recent books have also gone into great detail about this. To me, it seems that they cater to the desire for vicarious thrills on the lack of fidelity of a famous person. This book is no exception.

On Einstein’s public life and expressed views, much has been written. Einstein was regarded as a total pacifist and an opponent to all organised religion, which regiments believers. These two aspects are obviously closely linked. What people seem to fail to realise is that people grow up. Einstein grew up. He started with certain feelings against regimentation and that developed into a system of beliefs. His pacifism started later, as the world political situation developed. As the World Wars and situations

developed, his views went on evolving. Insisting that a person’s views remain the same hardly seems reasonable. This book is guilty of this error. The author does give his own views and interpretations as well, so there is something new in it — regardless of how worthwhile it may be considered. Again, Einstein’s flirtation with Zionism has drawn much comment and criticism, with implications that his attraction was substantially due to his feeling flattered by Israeli appreciation and the invitation to become president of Israel. The volume at hand delves into this matter and the author gives his own viewpoint as well.

Finally, Einstein’s science. Here, Kamran has let himself (and Einstein) down. As a physicist (and a winner of the Abdus Salam Prize in Science for Young Pakistani Scientists for his work in particle physics), one would have expected much greater depth in this discussion. In science, there are severe constraints on taking large chunks of statements by others and putting them in one’s own work, even if the other work is duly cited. Of course, for historical content, the constraints would be relaxed somewhat — but not that much. This book not only quotes Einstein but also heavily quotes others, with no word of explanation as to why one should read this book rather than one of the books quoted. Merely putting together quotations from different books with little input of one’s own is not good enough.

The author starts with saying that Einstein submitted four papers to the Annalen der Physik in 1905, three of which were published that year and one the next. Actually, however, five were submitted: four published in 1905 and one in 1906. There were many other papers published in 1906, but they were written in that year. It cannot be argued that any of the first four was not earth-shaking. They were: (a) the proposal of the photon (which was awarded the Nobel Prize);

(b) the explanation of Brownian motion (which was mentioned in the Nobel Prize); (c) the proposal of special relativity (which, along with general relativity, was explicitly ignored by the Nobel Prize Committee); and (d) following up on the third, the paper giving arguably the most famous equation ever, E = mc2. The last paper submitted in 1905 gives the first measurement of the volume of molecules, proving the reality of molecules beyond any doubt. This paper could be regarded, by comparison, as not being a major breakthrough. The author puts (d) as published in 1906 and ignores the one that was published in that year.

The discussion in this book on relativity and cosmology can only be regarded as superficial. For example, the question of priority for David Hilbert or Einstein for general relativity and the Einstein field equations merely quotes Abraham Pais on the issue and does not provide anything new. I believe that the priority for both parts belongs to Einstein and would connect it with the so-called “cosmological constant” that is supposed to have been inserted into the field equations later by Einstein. Nothing of this is discussed. Kamran simply says that the equations led to the prediction of gravitational waves. Newton’s theory would have one believe that changes in a mass at one place would instantaneously affect a distant place. In Einstein’s theory, such changes would propagate at the maximum possible speed, namely the speed of light. The author, thus, misses the significance of gravitational waves and consequently the reason for the excitement when they were detected.

The discussion of the foundations of quantum mechanics does not manage any better. The author seems to be unaware of more recent developments in the field and merely follows the common statements of others. Even if he agrees with the common view, he would need to discuss the other views and explain why he prefers the common view. For this purpose he would need to explain the various views that are current. (There is no clear consensus on the interpretation of quantum formalism and that also does not emerge in the book.)

In particular, all developments with quantum information and quantum cryptography refer to the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox. While the general view takes it that Einstein was wrong and Niels Bohr was right, the fact is that Bohr said that the matter was not amenable to testing. However, it is precisely on the basis of the test that people say that Einstein was wrong. There is a confusion of two points: that EPR can be tested; and the outcome of the test. On the first they were right. On the second, their expectation of the outcome was wrong. (As it happens, Bohr agreed with EPR on the assumption of locality that was proved to be inconsistent with observation.) Again, the matter is not discussed here.

To conclude, the book, though well written, lacks justification (as it provides nothing new) and, in the part on science, it lacks depth as well.

The reviewer is professor emeritus at the National University of Sciences and Technology, formerly associated with Quaid-i-Azam University

Albert Einstein: Life
and Work
By Mujahid Kamran
Punjab University
Press, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9699325359
440pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 14th, 2017