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38-Jan-Feb-2009
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A-Einsteins MistakesIn Einstein’s Mistakes, Hans C. Ohanian, theoretical physicist and author of numerous textbooks, explores the nature of genius through the lens of that most famous of physicists.

The Topic: Although Albert Einstein was the greatest genius of the 20th century, many of his groundbreaking discoveries were blighted by mistakes—ranging from serious misconceptions in physics to blatant errors in mathematics. Need proof? Einstein’s first incarnation of his famous E =mc2 was incomplete, only approximately valid, and not fully original (Ohanian kindly lists this and other missteps at the beginning of the book). In this provocative forensic biography, Ohanian dissects "Einstein’s mistakes" and places them in the context of a turbulent life and times. The news isn’t all bad. Although Einstein was mortal, it seems his big blunders also led to his most revolutionary insights.
Norton. 394 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0393062937

Popular Science 4 of 5 Stars
"[Einstein’s Mistakes] is, without a doubt, one of the most fascinating popular science books I have ever read. … The only slight concern about the approach is that this does result in a rather smug feel to the book, a sort of ‘aren’t I clever, I can tell you where Einstein went wrong’ aura that isn’t helped by occasional descents into loose language." Brian Clegg

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"A theoretical physicist by training, Mr. Ohanian doesn’t write like one. He recounts [Einstein’s] chronicle of errors in clear and engaging prose, giving us in the process a short course in the history of modern physics and a witty and provocative account of his subject’s life." Darrin M. McMahon

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ohanian … sometimes seems to be overreaching in his attempt to humble the great man, but the book’s quixotic approach—retelling Einstein’s story by homing in on his blunders—makes for good intellectual entertainment. … [Despite the author’s] idiosyncratic style and cranky asides (at one point he calls the young Einstein ‘an incorrigible and tactless loudmouth’), Ohanian kept me eagerly turning the pages." George Johnson

New Scientist 3 of 5 Stars
"Ohanian is no historian, but he is an assured physicist—and not to be confused with the cranks who send letters to physics journals claiming to have disproven Einstein. Ignore his irritating style and you will find a well-informed and thought-provoking critique of Einstein’s tantalizing combination of brilliance and blunder, bolstered by Ohanian’s own translations from the original German." Andrew Robinson

Critical Summary

In Einstein’s Mistakes, Hans C. Ohanian draws on his own background in physics to gleefully point out some of Einstein’s more glaring errors. That part of the book is solid, and readers will find a capable guide in Ohanian. What might be less engaging is the author’s fast-and-loose writing style (Van Gogh became a great artist "when he went bonkers") and a tendency to botch some of the historical facts (related to Einstein’s research, his Nobel Prize, and so forth) that underpin much of the narrative. Still, the book’s ambitious scope—when calling out Einstein, writers weak of heart need not apply—and Ohanian’s self-assured reportage make this a worthwhile read. Bring your thinking cap.

Supplemental Reading

Einstein His Life and Universe | Walter Isaacson (2007): 4 of 5 Stars Selection. Walter Isaacson (Benjamin Franklin, 4 of 5 Stars Selection Sept/Oct 2003) is the first biographer to gain access to Einstein’s private archives, unsealed in 2006. In this highly readable, articulate book, Isaacson brings the eminent scientist to life, dismissing myths (for example, that Einstein failed math) and recreating the world he transformed.