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INTERview: Hans Ohanian: A professor of physics explores the human failings of genius in a new book, Einstein窶冱 Mistakes.

Posted: 2008-09-24

This is from The View, Sept. 24, 2005.
Ohanian's new book shows how Einstein used a
sleepwalker's intuition テ「 rather than force of
logic テ「 to catch the tail of a cunning universe.

In 2005, scientists and historians around the

world wrote papers, shot fireworks, created

exhibits, held conferences, and raised a glass テ「

all to praise Albert Einstein.

One hundred years earlier, in a year of boggling

productivity, the young physicist completed five

papers that reshaped human understanding: he

described light as a stream of photons,

determined the size of molecules, proposed a

theory about Brownian motion that proved the

existence of atoms, created his theory of

relativity, and blessed the marriage of mass and

energy in the tidy package E=mcテつイ. In physics,

1905 was the year of miracles.

Hans Ohanian joined the centenary celebrations.

He attended lectures, visited new museum displays

across Europe, and read a stack of new books テ「

all dedicated to taking the measure of Einsteinテ「冱

greatness. But the life-long student of

relativity, and UVM adjunct professor of physics,

was struck by a constant omission from all these

accounts: no one talked about Einsteinテ「冱

mistakes, though they were well-known to

physicists both in his day and today.

So Ohanian, the author of some half-dozen

textbooks, set out on a new writing venture: a

forensic biography that dissects these mistakes.

Not, as he says, because of Schadenfreude, a kind

of テ「徊oy of harm,テ「 but because these mistakes

reveal Einstein as human テ「 and a human whose

genius depended on errors.

THE VIEW spoke with Ohanian to learn more about

his new book, published this month by W.W.

Norton, Einsteinテ「冱 Mistakes: The Human Failings

of Genius.

THE VIEW: Someone picking up this book might

expect an exposテδゥ on how Einsteinテ「冱 mistakes show

him to be less of a genius than an adoring public

would believe. But you argue nearly the opposite:

some mistakes are a sign of genius and maybe even

a necessity of genius.

HANS OHANIAN: In the case of Einstein, the

mistakes were necessary. He could not have

arrived at some of his great pieces of work, such

as special relativity and general relativity,

without relying on mistakes that showed him a

path towards a final result that was correct.

Give an example. Whatテ「冱 the most telling error

he made that gave him a shortcut to insight?

To arrive at general relativity, Einstein took a

shortcut through what is called the テ「徘rinciple of

equivalence.テ「 He observed that behavior inside a

freely falling elevator is as though gravity

didnテ「冲 exist. Things seem to float. So gravity

and acceleration are equivalent.

But that was a short cut, because itテ「冱 not really

true. Even in a freely falling elevator, with

careful experiments, you can detect the presence

of the gravitational field in which youテ「决e

falling. Einstein just ignored these little

details テ「 and that permitted him to get to

general relativity fairly quickly. Other people

who might have approached the study of

relativistic gravitation by a different track

would have taken an extra 20 years to get to the

same point.

Is there embedded in what you say a skepticism

of the unique insights of genius? You seem to be

saying Einstein was merely ahead of what would

have been discovered anyway.

I think that is generally true of science. In

science, all discoveries ultimately get made.

When a genius intervenes, it merely ensures that

a discovery comes much earlier than it would have

happened otherwise. In the case of Einstein, the

discoveries he made would have been made anyhow

within 10 or 20 years.

As your book makes clear, not all his errors

were helpful or launched him toward new insights.

Tell us about the various kinds of mistakes he


Yes, his mistakes were of different characters.

Some were just blunders in calculation. Those are

in some sense the trivial errors. We all make

mathematical errors, but I think Einstein was

more prone to them than most. He was not a

particularly good mathematician. He neglected his

mathematical education in his studies at the

University of Zurich, and he never made up for

it. Instead, what he did throughout his life was

hire assistants who would do calculations for

him. He called them his Rechenpferde, his

テ「彡alculating horses,テ「 a reference to Clever Hans,

the horse that apparently could do arithmetical

calculation by tapping its hoof.

And there were more fundamental errors,

conceptual errors in the basic ideas on which he

based his theories, such as the example of the

principle of equivalence. This mistake and a few

others were ultimately productive, giving him the

insight, for example, that in the presence of

gravity, spacetime is curved. Without the

mistake, he might never have arrived of such an

outrageous テ「 but true テ「 idea.

But he also made odd errors in logic. A good

example of this is one of his attempted proofs at

E= mcテつイ where he proved that when you add some

amount of energy to a system, the additional

quantity satisfies the condition that E is equal

to mcテつイ for the increment you have added. But then

he claimed that this means that what you had

there originally has to also satisfy E= mcテつイ. This

is, of course, an absolute error in logic. But he

believed it. He printed it in his papers, he

printed it in a book he wrote about relativity;

he never saw that this was just an absurd error

in logic.

According to the chronology you lay out in the

book, Einstein makes not just one mistake in his

proof of E=mcテつイ, but many.

Yes, seven times. Every one of his attempted

proofs went off the track somewhere. He did

manage to prove E=mcテつイ for a few specialized

configurations, but he, of course, really wanted

a general proof that E=mcテつイ was always going to be

valid. And he never managed to prove that.

Why not?

To a large extent it was his poor mathematical

background. It turned out that the solution of

that problem hinged on using tensor mathematics,

something Einstein was not familiar with until

much later. He ultimately learned it when he

needed it for general relativity but by that time

other people had gotten ahead of him in their

understanding of tensor mathematics and so they

were able to produce the proof that he never


Did Einstein recognize his own errors?

Einstein recognized that theoreticians might make

mistakes. He classified them in two ways: either

errors in the basic concepts on which they base

their theories テ「 they are led into these errors

by the devil and we should pity the theoretician

for that.

And he said there are errors of mathematics and

logic, and for these we should not pity the

theoretician. Instead, we should give him a

beating! Well, he made mistakes of both kinds, so

sometimes we should pity him and sometimes we

should give him a beating.

Did Einsteinテ「冱 contemporaries give him a

beating for his mistakes?

By and large his contemporaries were very

forgiving of these mathematical errors. I guess

because they recognized the greatness of Einstein

and they felt they shouldnテ「冲 hold some

mathematical errors or some slips in logic

against him.

But on his conceptual errors, yes, some of his

contemporaries came down very hard on him,

especially in the errors in connection with the

unified theory of fields. Wolfgang Pauli, a Swiss

physicist, for many years made fun of Einstein

for the construction of his unified theories,

because Pauli immediately recognized that these

theories were totally mistaken and totally silly.

Like many geniuses, Einstein had this period

of almost unbelievable productivity as a young

man. 1905 is the year of miracles and within ten

more his most important work had been done. And

then he goes on for decades searching fruitlessly

for this unified theory.

I donテ「冲 think that is terribly surprising. In the

1920s, when his productivity declined, he was in

his early forties. Thatテ「冱 a pretty old age for a

theoretical physicist to make any more

discoveries. There is an expression in physics:

theoreticians suffer from Knabenphysik, physics

of boys. They have to make their discoveries

early テ「 or not at all. Einstein lasted longer

than most.

Einstein is famous in many ways. And one of

them, that you describe in the book, is that he

is seen as being a person of mystical insight.

What does mysticism mean in the world of physics?

When I say that his approach to problem solving

is that of a mystic, I simply mean that he didnテ「冲

approach it through logical thinking, but came at

it in an intuitive, visceral manner. He would

just sit in a corner and think about it and then

suddenly get an idea out of apparently nowhere.

In that sense I describe him as having the habits

of a mystic.

He did rely greatly on what he thought was the

beauty and compulsory nature of the ideas that

came to him. That clearly has a mystical element

to it. Why would you think that this or that idea

is compulsory when you can offer no logical

reason for that? I regard that as a mystical

trait in Einsteinテ「冱 thinking.

Einstein, like many great thinkers,

presupposed that the world was knowable and

ordered and in some way beautiful. But today we

have a group of theorists, the string theorists,

who have been failing for so many years that some

of them are starting to say: maybe the world is

not knowable or that the universe is


I donテ「冲 think thatテ「冱 true. The string theorists

of today are very much imitating Einstein in the

sense that they want to construct theories on the

basis of criteria of beauty and aesthetic

qualities of the mathematical constructs that

they are using. Which was exactly what Einstein

tried to do with his unified theory and

absolutely failed. I think the string theorists

are failing in their unified theories for exactly

the same reason: ultimately you canテ「冲 construct a

theory of the universe on the criteria of beauty

and aesthetics alone. You also have to have solid

experimental input.

And Einstein failed with his aesthetic, mystical

approach once he got to regions of physics where

he had no experimental input anymore. And what is

happening to the string theorists is exactly the

same. They are failing because they are

proceeding without using any experimental input.

Is Einsteinテ「冱 nearly saint-like status as the

greatest genius of physics justified?

He made mistakes. He made stupid mistakes. We all

make stupid mistakes. But as Paul Dirac, the

famous British physicist, said, we have to judge

a theoretical physicist not by the worst work he

did, but by the best. And if you look at the best

work of Einstein, it is of absolutely amazing

quality, and he richly earned his reputation as

the greatest genius of physics in the twentieth

century. There is no question about that.

Iテ「囘 say he was the greatest genius of all time

after Newton. Newton is the one physicist Iテ「囘

place ahead of Einstein. If you wanted to make a

list of the greatest geniuses of physics, Iテ「囘 say

Newton is at the top, Einstein is second. I would

place Archimedes third and Galileo fourth.

A key lens you use in the book is a

psychological one, a Freudian one: here is

Einstein as rational theorist on one level and

yet his greatest insights come from this

unconscious realm. How did you try to illuminate

this strange dark world of unconscious thought?

That is the big puzzle. I have struggled and I

canテ「冲 say that I am satisfied with the level of

understanding Iテ「况e attained of Einsteinテ「冱 thought

processes and how he went about conceiving of

these ideas. Maybe thatテ「冱 just a general problem

of dealing with genius テ「 ordinary persons canテ「冲

understand how they do this! And maybe it is that

all geniuses have some element of madness.

So the honest biographer of genius is left at

the edge of darkness?

In trying to understand the mental processes of

these people, yes, the biographer is left

confused. I doubt that we will ever understand

how geniuses really operate. Einstein says he

doesnテ「冲 know how these ideas came to him; they

just came. And he apparently was not able to

explain this ultimate process of creation any

better than anyone else.

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