Book Review: Secrets of the Old One – Einstein, 1905

Imagine that poor, uninformed Neanderthal man who didn’t know to rub two sticks together to make fire. Then compare him to today’s Homo Sapiens who know this secret. Seems like a great disparity. However, though people today know this secret, few have tried it and fewer still know the best wood, twine and grass. The same awareness can be said for the field of physics. Most know of its secrets, some use this knowledge but fewer are experts on the details. Jeremy Bernstein, in his book ‘Secrets of the Old One – Einstein, 1905’ gives an excellent recount of secrets learned by experts over a century ago. Reading it will give a great assist to those wanting to be more informed.

Most people associate Albert Einstein with a few short equations and some neat phrases. They will also usually credit him with nearly single-handedly developing atomic theory, astrophysics and many other areas of physics that seemingly sprang up in the early 20’th century. Certainly Einstein was a gifted individual, but there was a degree of serendipity that aided his rise to fame while he broadcasted his ideas. Across the globe, researchers everywhere were and still are delving ever deeper into the secrets hiding in nature. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before another person happens upon appropriate equations and phrases.

Bernstein’s book focuses on Einstein. It is both a homage and piece of technical history. He includes many quotes from Einstein, the logic of Einstein’s four papers written in 1905 and several first hand recollections of Einstein. These certainly demonstrate that Einstein was gifted as well as being at the right place and time. This homage, though pervasive and interesting, doesn’t provide any new insight nor much detail about Einstein himself. (Here are some Albert Einstein quotes)

Bernstein’s take on the technical history weighs more heavily in this book. His focus is Einstein’s four papers of 1905, to which he roughly aligns one to a chapter. Each chapter includes a layman’s guide to the paper’s implications as well as some of the developments that preceded them. Typically, the developments begin with Newton, though occasionally they slide all the way back to Greek philosophers. In a sense, Bernstein’s approach is similar to climbing a tree; there are many branches and routes to take you to the top and you can decide which way to go. Bernstein’s route follows notable and some lesser known researchers including; Lorentz, Mach, Schrodinger and Planck to name a few. With these he presents the subtle shifting in our knowledge base from such lore as ethers in space and infinite divisibility of matter to today’s views of relativity and atoms. In particular, he shows how Einstein’s ideas were exceedingly counter to the traditional concepts, hence, they were of such import to technical history.

Further, the historical review is for more than associating dates with events. Bernstein uses mathematical equations and prose to educate the reader. But the math stays within the level of secondary school. True as this is, the passages with equations are not trivial, as the simple algebra still has significant implications as to how we perceive the natural world. There’s a fair amount on time dilation and a little on probabilities. The examples are not new, such as one of a person in a train who is compared to a person watching the train. With lots of words and ancillary sketches Bernstein provides aid, but there still may be much for those not mathematically inclined.

One of the nicest touches of this book is that credit is spread about. Bernstein does not overly emphasize Einstein. Rather, he often notes researchers who provided equivalent information and sometimes at an earlier date. With this, he shows that the foundations for Einstein’s work were already put in place by many other exceptional individuals. As such, this book has a stronger flavour of being an essay or discussion instead of being a reference text or a biography. This will appeal to the casual reader who wants to learn a bit more of the secrets of nature without getting bogged down with technicalities or personalities.

Einstein’s expression for God was ‘the Old One’. And whether unknowns are considered secrets or just facts that are seen and are awaiting comprehension, there’s lots still to look for. Jeremy Bernstein in his book ‘Secrets of the Old One – Einstein, 1905‘, shows how people, and Einstein in particular, continue to press the boundaries of comprehension. Perhaps with all this information, we are learning whether the Old One did ever play dice.

Review by Mark Mortimer

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