November 15, 2019

Einstein's Crisis of Confidence

“‘Why is it that no one understands me and everyone likes me?’ Einstein wondered. His appeal lay in his supposed incomprehensibility. Charlie Chaplin got it: ‘They cheer me because they all understand me,’ he remarked, accompanying the theoretical physicist to a film premiere, ‘and they cheer you because no one understands you.’

Several new books mark the centenary of the 1919 eclipse observations. Though their aims diverge, they all to some degree capture the likeness of Einstein the man, messy personal life and all, while rendering his physics a little bit more comprehensible to the rest of us. Each successfully negotiates the single besetting difficulty facing books of this sort — namely the way science approaches its own history. Scientific findings are often best explained as stories of discovery: emollient tales of how one or two figures unwove a complex problem, and in doing so brought human understanding closer to the truth of things. This has the huge advantage of making extremely complicated ideas comprehensible, by building them up brick by brick. Of course, it’s a terrible way to write history.

Historians, meanwhile, show how the business of science is as contingent and dramatic as any other human activity. They give us a much clearer, more inclusive, more humane view of what science actually is. If you want to understand what the science has revealed, however, you’d best steer clear of their nuanced accounts, full of thwarted ambitions, contested theories, doubts and contingencies.”

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