REVIEW: Einstein’s War – How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I (2019)

A Book by Matthew Stanley

Matthew Stanley has done an amazing job looking at the life of Albert Einstein through a lense we rarely see in books like this in his newest book Einstein’s War – How Relativity Triumphed Amid the Vicious Nationalism of World War I. Rather than break down his full life, point to point, the book drops in during one of the most trying times in the history of international science – World War I. Facing not only fears of being conscripted to fight in a war that he never believed in, Einstein struggled to get eyes on his upstart theories on general relativity due to competing mindsets such as aether theory and many not wanting to discredit Isaac Newton. When national embargoes seemingly ensure that nobody outside of the german sphere of influence would see anything written by Einstein, he finds an unlikely champion in a British man named Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, who despite similar uphill battles in regards to his conscientious objector status and possibly being shipped off to go against his Quaker religious beliefs, was able to get the word out to many outside of Germany, and ultimately make Einstein a household name.

“Few recognize how the Great War, the industrialized slaughter that bled Europe from 1914 to 1918, shaped Einstein’s life and work. While Einstein never held a rifle, he formulated general relativity blockaded in Berlin, literally starving. His name is now synonymous with ‘genius’, but it was not an easy road. Einstein spent a decade creating relativity and his ascent to global celebrity owed much to against-the-odds international collaboration, including Eddington’s globe-spanning expedition of 1919 – two years before they finally met – to catch a fleeting solar eclipse for a rare opportunity to confirm Einstein’s bold prediction that light has weight. We usually think of scientific discovery as a flash of individual inspiration, but here we see it is the result of hard work, gambles and wrong turns. Einstein’s War is a celebration of what science can offer when bigotry and nationalism are defeated. Using previously unknown sources and written like a thriller, it shows relativity being built brick-by-brick in front of us, as it happened 100 years ago.”

Einstein definitely comes across as an eccentric (possibly even on the spectrum) that had trouble making or holding relationships in any way. You always hear the old anecdotes about how “Einstein failed math class as a child, so anyone can do good at school if they try hard enough”, which is somewhat misleading. The real story is that young Albert was overtly disrespectful and disruptive in class – always questioning everything and angering his professors. He could have done quite well in his classes, but he had an ingrained aversion to any sort of authority that I’m honestly amazed he didn’t end up in a menial job for the rest of his life. This sort of attitude is what likely led to the collapse of his first marriage, something that led to he and his ex-wife going as far as only speaking through intermediaries for the rest of their lives.

To me, the real hero of the story is Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, a man who had to fight tooth and nail to not only avoid conscription, but be labeled some kind of traitor (if not worse) for his deeply held religious aversion to war and his leaning towards being anti-nationalist at a time when even merely owning a German book would likely cause issues. He knew of the potential in Einstein’s theories, but needed a way to test some of them – a fact that led to a fateful astronomical expedition in which he assembled a team to take photographs of a solar eclipse. The plan was to use the solar eclipse in 1919 to make the first empirical test of Einstein’s theory: the measurement of the deflection of light by the sun’s gravitational field. The rest is history. Eddington risked his life, his legacy, and his deeply held values to try to change the world, and he was a great success.

This book is interesting in that it is part science book (although it never goes to far into the weeds of mathematical equations), part biography of two men in particular, and finally part war history book. By not wholly talking about JUST Einstein, or just the science behind the Theory of Relativity, the book goes to show the bureaucratic nightmares and nationalistic fervor that plagued Europe during World War I. This is a lense into the scientific community we largely don’t get in other books, and makes one really appreciate what it takes for science to move forward in stressful times. While I knew the vaguest, most cleaned-up version of Einstein’s story, having a book like this talk about the world around the man was refreshing.

Overall, this was a great book, and I highly recommend it. I was worried towards the beginning that this would be a math textbook at points, but it drops just enough of this to where a layman can grasp what relativity actually was without scaring away anyone that isn’t actually into complicated physics. This book makes me want to read more about the life of Eddington more than anything, and perhaps read some of his writings on relativity that were published for the general public. It would be interesting to have those papers as a background to reading this.

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