Book Review: Einstein’s Miraculous Year

Einstein and his works need little explanation. Suffice it to say that he almost jumped out of nowhere to stand tall in the field of physics. His five papers of 1905, by themselves, could stand together on their own as a worthwhile publication. In them, Einstein apparently argues what some consider two sides of the same coin. On side has things composed of particles. Therefore, Newtonian mechanics can provide great insight. On the other side, fields, especially magnetic and electric, cause an effect over distance without the support of a median. Altogether, the papers in the book include; his dissertation on the determination of molecular dimensions, molecular-kinetic theory of heat (Brownian motion), the electrodynamics of moving bodies, the inertia of a body depending on its energy content, and the production and transformation of light.

The forward by Roger Penrose highlights the different thought processes necessary for Einstein to consider both particle and field effects. And herein is the true benefit of this book. Both Penrose and Stachel emphasize the scope, significance and importance of Einstein’s contributions in light of the status of knowledge of physics at that time. The names of other people doing investigations, as well as the state of their progress, provides powerful insight into Einstein’s originality and capability. For example, Penrose draws upon the history of luminaries like Galileo, Newton, Maxwell, and Bohr for his depiction of the significance of Einstein’s amazing insight and prescience,

In addition to this forward, John Stachel provides a brief biography of Einstein. He mostly bases this on written records with the intent of portraying Einstein’s thought process and his method of achieving his advances. Also, to address some controversy, he adds a section discounting the contributions of Einstein’s wife, Mileva Maric. To instill a feeling of authenticity, Stachel includes many references either directly from source (Einstein’s personal letters) or from people who had first hand interactions with Einstein himself.

Don’t forget that Einstein was German. Hence, all his papers needed translation and they were freshly redone for this publication. The translator’s goal was ‘to render Einstein’s scientific writings accurately into modern English but to retain the engaging and clear prose style of the originals’. Accompanying the papers are ‘the historical essays and notes that deal with his contributions to relativity theory, quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics’. The translator seems to have done a superb job, as the papers are simple and easy to read, with little evidence of having been originally authored in another language.

This ease in reading may be surprising given the aura that surrounds Einstein. But don’t let this discourage you. The book mostly uses qualitative imagery with equations only copied directly from Einstein’s papers. Einstein himself gives a thorough and readily comprehensible explanation, as demonstrated by his frequent use of mental imagery to solve and depict problems. This is likely the true source of the ease. There is no need for the reader to have a strong background in physics to understand the concepts. The math is neither overwhelming nor extensive and does not pose an impediment to comprehension. As well, given Einstein’s aura, it is interesting to note the number of errors in the original papers as clarified by the endnotes.

In all, this is a great compilation. The shear scope of the papers themselves is truly captivating. Their implications given the state of the art at the times and even today is quite astounding. The bravery and nervousness of Einstein the person comes out quite clearly. This book succinctly captures one amazing step for humankind, the challenges of the physical sciences and the onward march of our comprehension. The reader can’t help but be left in awe with the realization that all the contents were completed by one of our human race and all within the time frame of one year.

The name of Einstein brings to most everyone’s mind, the image of a stellar individual who almost singled handedly made significant advances in physics. A hundred years later, we can appreciate his contributions even more. For those seeking to grasp some more of the man and a lot more of the science, read John Stachel’s book, Einstein’s Miraculous Year. Read it to grasp the credence of the ability of our species and the contributions that we continually make to our comprehension of the universe within which we live.

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Review by Mark Mortimer