Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Book Review)

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Subtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert EinsteinSubtle Is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein by Abraham Pais
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hmmm… well I think this book should have been called:
” The SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE of Albert Einstein (with a tiny bit of context about his life)”

This is a book by a physicist, for physicists. (I am in no way a physicist.) To his credit, the author makes clear in the introduction that the purpose of the book is to cover Einstein’s work, and he even highlights in the contents the (very few) sections in the book which deal with Einstein’s life rather than work.

Despite knowing that, I made an attempt to read through the book hoping to stretch my brain on the topic of physics. Pretty much every page has at least a couple of formulas, which I skipped straight over, and much of the content is discussing either the details of the most recent formula or how it was arrived at and inspired by others. For a layperson, these parts are sometimes very interesting and sometimes unintelligible. The start and end of the chapters usually provided some (scientific) background on the papers and periods of Einstein’s career, and these served to form an interesting history of physics over the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I did learn a lot of things. I learnt about the old, mistaken concept of an aether. I read the material about special relativity slow enough to grasp most of it and to be able to explain it to others in laymen’s terms. As for general relativity, I understood very little except that Einstein managed to solve the age old riddle of what caused gravity and predicted a few other related phenomena, such as the bending of light around the sun, which were later confirmed to great fanfare. I saw how Einstein worked mostly alone, especially in his early years, having very little knowledge of what else was going on in the world of physics, even re-discovering some phenomena by his own derivation because he wasn’t widely read. I was looking forward to reading about his involvement in the development of the atom bomb, but came to learn that all he did was write a letter urging the US to get to work on it. I saw how theoretical physics is so, so, so coupled with complex mathematics; Einstein in fact teamed up with gifted mathematicians in order to solve some of his biggest challenges. Most surprisingly for me, I learnt that, aside from relativity, Einstein made massive contributions to quantum physics, and that he spent a large part of his career on that issue and on trying to unify it with relativity. And finally, I learnt that, without his make-up on, Charlie Chaplin looks like this.

I struggled my way through to the half way point trying to read every page, but had grown very tired by that point, so I made a resolution to only read pages with no formulae on them and I sped through the rest quite quickly without feeling like I was missing much.

tl;dr – If you’re a physicist, you’ll probably love this book. If you’re not, you probably won’t, but you might learn some interesting stuff by reading it.

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