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Einstein’s Mistakes by Hans C Ohanian

  1. Jul 16, 2010 #1
    I have searched around the Physics Forums website for any previous discussion of this book, and there are a couple of places where it is mentioned, but not on this Science Books forum. Mainly where it is mentioned is on the Special and General Relativity forum. And where it is mentioned, it is never actually discussing this book as such, it is just mentioning it in passing as part of a different discussion.

    But something that has emerged from that search is that there are contributors to these forums who actually know Ohanian. Some of them have seen fit to defend Ohanian and say that he is someone who is pretty clued up. But the fact that they have done so shows that there are others who have questioned it.

    And that is relevant to the discussion I would like to generate. I’m not really looking to review this book, but to discuss the matter that it raises. And the clue to that matter lies in the book’s title. If it were just being suggested that among all of Einstein’s extraordinary contributions to the progress of physical science there were also a few errors, I don’t think that would be a particular problem. One of the reviewers quoted on the cover of the copy I have makes a similar point – that Einstein’s errors only demonstrate the fact that he was human which actually serves the better to show up his achievements.

    But when I read the actual text, that is not quite the impression that I got. There are times when it does seem to be that Ohanian is questioning whether Einstein deserves any of the credit he gets. In several cases, Ohanian questions outright whether Einstein was the first to prove a particular point or doubts whether Einstein ever did prove what he supposed he had proved. In other cases where he does seem to concede any measure of achievement at all by Einstein, he seems to feel the need to then juxtapose that with some account of Einstein’s outright incompetence. There were occasions, as I read the text, when I found myself wondering if Ohanian had some active agenda against Einstein’s legacy, though it is not at all clear to me what that agenda could be.

    Of course it is clear that a popular myth has grown up around the figure of Einstein. I accept that there are some very good reasons for believing that some of the prominent figures around Einstein, men like Max Plank and Hendrik Lorentz were significantly his intellectual superior. It is a significant point to grasp that Einstein’s original insights were the product of an unusual way of thinking about things rather than so much a matter of an exceptional intellect.

    But does Ohanian have a case to undermine the accepted view of Einstein quite so totally? Or am I perhaps reading too much into the text? Does anyone disagree with my assessment of Ohanian’s account? Or does anyone share my disquiet about Ohanian’s motivations?
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  3. Jul 16, 2010 #2

    George Jones

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    Last edited: Jul 16, 2010
  4. Jul 16, 2010 #3
    Thanks George. I really was uncertain how to react to this book. Graham Farmelo’s article leaves me thinking that I was foolish not just to trust my instinctive feeling. I have downloaded a pdf of the Steven Weinberg article he refers to – for anyone interested it is available here:

    http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/programs/2010/math-and-truth/weinberg-einsteinsmistakes.pdf [Broken]

    Though I cannot claim to fully understand it, I do grasp its much greater professionalism of approach in assessing Einstein’s errors.

    There is one passage in Ohanian’s book, at the beginning of the chapter about the discovery of the mass energy equivalence equation, that struck me as a rant the first time I read it: Ohanian begins the chapter by discussing how famous this one equation has become, and lists examples of how it has been popularised. He continues:

    ‘All of this is hype and nonsense. It illustrates that 50 million Frenchmen can be wrong and they often are. Einstein was not the discoverer of E=mc2. The equation was known several years before Einstein… The equation played only a marginal role in the discovery of nuclear fission and the development of the atomic bomb. … E=mc2 was of little concern to [the physicists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb] –although they occasionally used E=mc2, they could have done just as well without it.’​

    At the very least this is a serious failure of dispassion by Ohanian. On the one hand he wants to remove the credit for the equation from Einstein. But on the other, just in case we have any lingering feeling for Einstein’s credit for it, he also wants to disparage the practical value of the equation anyway. Even a layman such as me understands that physicists do not daily perform calculations based on this equation. I am not, of course, in a position to say whether Einstein really deserves the credit for the equation, but I understand that it expresses an important natural relationship, and I am familiar with the more usual account which is that, whoever may have previously mentioned it, Einstein was the first to grasp its full enormity and to demonstrate to the rest of the world exactly what the relationship that it expresses is and what its full implications are. In that more general sense, nuclear reactors and nuclear arms were children of Einstein’s discovery, though it may be that no physicist who worked on the development of either ever sat down to perform a vital calculation based directly on that equation.

    Farmelo’s suggestion that the book is ‘mean spirited’ is probably a better assessment than my suggestion of a hidden agenda. I remain baffled as to exactly why Ohanian bears such a grudge against Einstein’s popular perception, but perhaps there is a clue in the fact that his mean spiritedness is not only reserved for Einstein. Later in that same chapter he discusses the discovery of nuclear fission. It is a story of which I have encountered many other, much more generous versions. Ohanian begins his version by saying:

    ‘The tale of the discovery of fission is one of those convoluted comedies of errors that often precede the birth of a new scientific idea. The comedy that led to the discovery of fission had an international cast of characters with a generous scattering of Nobel Prizes, and it illustrates that sometimes even Nobelists can be pretty dense.’​

    Okay, Hahn and Strassman were looking for trans-uranium elements and discovered nuclear fission largely by accident. I see nothing comic about it, nor any justification for seeing Hahn and Strassman, Meitner and Frisch as anything other than dedicated and professional scientists. I see only a story that illustrates very well how it often goes for science. And I think that Farmelo, in his discussion of Weinberg’s article, expresses beautifully the problems with writing up boundary challenging discoveries as they are made:

    ‘…how difficult it is to make real progress in science and to write up radically new ideas clearly soon after they have been hatched and long before further reflection and colleagues' criticisms have honed them into elegant concision.’​

    All Ohanian demonstrates is how easy it is to throw darts at those early efforts. I think that most of us find the stories of scientist’s struggles to understand compelling and feel no loss of respect for their achievements because of the false starts and grand illusions they pursue on the road to great discoveries.
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