In a previous post I mentioned that I was hoping to write an article called Mythematics. The idea is that I will investigate famous mathematical myths and either give evidence that they are true or debunk them.
One that I had on my radar was the myth that Albert Einstein was bad at math.
I was hoping to juxtapose two different kinds of myths—those which deify our mathematical heroes (such as the baby Gauss story) and those which humanize our heroes by showing them to be flawed (Einstein’s struggles with mathematics).
You will be disappointed to find that I have not yet done my homework on the Einstein myth. My hunch is that this myth is one that can be debunked, but I’m proceeding with an open mind.
The reason I’m blogging this myth right now is that I came across a new book on a related subject, Hans C. Ohanian’s Einstein’s Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius. In it he writes:
Almost all of Einstein’s seminal works contain mistakes. Sometimes small mistakes—mere lapses of attention—sometimes fundamental failures to understand the subtleties of his own creations, and sometimes fatal mistakes that undermined the logic of his arguments.
The book was reviewed positively in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
A theoretical physicist by training, Mr. Ohanian doesn’t write like one. He recounts his 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. Anyone who has read the recent biographies of Einstein by Walter Isaacson or Jürgen Neffe may find some of the material familiar, but on the whole “Einstein’s Mistakes” is original and fresh. Nor is Mr. Ohanian one of those petty biographers who delight only in turning up the failings—or turning out the dirty laundry—of great men. Rather he notes Einstein’s errors for a purpose, showing us why his achievement was all the greater for them.
And a little less favorably in the Los Angeles Times.
Ohanian, the author of physics textbooks and a former associate editor of the American Journal of Physics, 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.
I’m looking forward to reading it myself.
Another well-known myth about Einstein is that much of his work is actually due to his wife, Mileva Maric Einstien. This was the subject of a PBS special. On the website they write:
Much of the debate centers on the words of Abram F. Joffe (Ioffe), a respected member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and an assistant to W.C. Roentgen from 1902 to 1906, who saw the original version of Einstein’s three most famous papers (on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the theory of relativity) and said that they were signed Einstein-Marity (Marity being the Hungarianized version of Maric.) Whether that reference was to one author or two is the nub of the debate. Most researchers now agree, based on a memorial to Einstein, written by Joffe, that he was referring to a single author rather than a husband-wife team.
This story has its detractors as well.
I welcome references to get to the bottom of these myths. Post them in the comments below, or send me an email.