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

Publication Date: 2008-09-24

This is from The View, Sept. 24, 2005.
Ohanian's new book shows how Einstein used a
sleepwalker's intuition â rather than force of
logic â 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 â"
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=mc². 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 â"
all dedicated to taking the measure of Einsteinâs
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 Einsteinâs
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 âjoy of harm,â but because these mistakes
reveal Einstein as human â" 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, Einsteinâs Mistakes: The Human Failings
of Genius.

THE VIEW: Someone picking up this book might
expect an exposé on how Einsteinâs 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. Whatâs 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 âprinciple of
equivalence.â He observed that behavior inside a
freely falling elevator is as though gravity
didnât exist. Things seem to float. So gravity
and acceleration are equivalent.

But that was a short cut, because itâs not really
true. Even in a freely falling elevator, with
careful experiments, you can detect the presence
of the gravitational field in which youâre
falling. Einstein just ignored these little
details â" 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
made.


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
âcalculating horses,â 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 â" but true â" idea.

But he also made odd errors in logic. A good
example of this is one of his attempted proofs at
E= mc² 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 mc² for the increment you have added. But then
he claimed that this means that what you had
there originally has to also satisfy E= mc². 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=mc², but many.


Yes, seven times. Every one of his attempted
proofs went off the track somewhere. He did
manage to prove E=mc² for a few specialized
configurations, but he, of course, really wanted
a general proof that E=mc² 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
managed.

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 â" 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 Einsteinâs 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 shouldnât 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 donât think that is terribly surprising. In the
1920s, when his productivity declined, he was in
his early forties. Thatâs 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 â" 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 didnât
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 Einsteinâs 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
capricious.


I donât think thatâs 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 canât 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 Einsteinâs 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.

Iâd say he was the greatest genius of all time
after Newton. Newton is the one physicist Iâd
place ahead of Einstein. If you wanted to make a
list of the greatest geniuses of physics, Iâd 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
canât say that I am satisfied with the level of
understanding Iâve attained of Einsteinâs thought
processes and how he went about conceiving of
these ideas. Maybe thatâs just a general problem
of dealing with genius â" ordinary persons canât
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
doesnât 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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