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2019 Reading Challenge

2019 Reading Challenge
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Interview: Thomas de Padova, Author of Alone Against Gravity

Today I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Thomas de Padova, author of an intriguing new book on Einstein. Enjoy!

A Conversation with Thomas de Padova
There are so many books on Einstein and his revolutionary physics. Why did you want to write another one?
When I started to focus on Einstein, the upcoming anniversary of World War I was already looming. Christopher Clark’s “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” was only one of many remarkable books and studies on this subject. Science and technology did not play a major role in these works. However, they formed a background to think anew about how scientists and especially Einstein acted in this period from 1914 to 1918.

How did the war change Einstein’s life?
Einstein during the war transformed from being a “pure” scientist into a politically engaged person. It was the violent nationalism of his colleagues that lead him to pacifism.

On the other hand Einstein has often been referred to as “naïve” related to his political thinking.
This is exactly, how some of his colleagues, for example the physicist Lise Meitner, spoke about him during World War I., referring to his pacifist views. But was his pacifism really “naïve”? When he became member of the “Bund Neues Vaterland” in 1915, the fronts were already immobilized and the terrible consequences of continuing with the war foreseeable. The organization wanted to influence on German foreign policy, because there was still a little chance for diplomacy to end the slaughter in Europe.

Being a pacifist, how could Einstein remain a friend of the chemist Fritz Haber, the scientific head of the German chemical warfare in World War 1?
One of the most difficult parts of my research was to get an idea of Einstein’s relationship to the Fritz Haber. In literature, Einstein generally shows up as “Haber’s best friend”. Especially Haber’s biographers – some of them former institute members or children of former colleagues – tended towards this view. Unfortunately, till this day there is no exhaustive and reliable Haber biography. In the archives I found poems regarding his chemical warfare activities, poems Haber had written to German industrialists that have never been published.

Archive material shows, that in 1914 Haber did everything to make life comfortable for his new Berlin colleague and his family. Einstein had his office in Haber’s institute, his apartment nearby and was very thankful to Haber. To give an example: The great scientist gave private lessons in mathematics to Haber’s twelve-year-old son Hermann for three months until Easter in 1915.

However, Einstein moved away from Berlin-Dahlem and gave up his office in Haber’s institute as soon as the director’s preparations for the chemical warfare started. Their correspondence, lively before, almost stopped. From 1915 to 1918 the two scientists did not meet anymore in the German Physical Society, the Prussian Academy of Science or any other scientific institution, because Haber did not participate in such proceedings and conferences during the war. They frequented completely different social and political circles. Einstein’s correspondence shows, that his view on Haber was much more critical than often asserted.

Didn’t he live rather isolated during the war?
In the first month of war Einstein generally shut himself in. He said, that he felt “alone, like a drop of oil on water, isolated by attitude and cast of mind”. Nevertheless, he was looking for like-minded people and started to frequent the meetings of pacifist organizations. In the meanwhile, Berlins leading scientists still liked his company. Einstein enjoyed the reputation of being the most significant physicist of his time. Philosophers and politicians, artists and journalists were among the growing circle of acquaintances of the physicist, who was surrounded by the aura of a genius. He himself registered with some wonder how rapidly news of his revolutionary worldview spread in Berlin.

And beyond Berlin? Didn’t he become famous only in 1919, when the results of the first empirical test of his theory of general relativity were announced?
When British astronomers a few months after the end of World War I proved that light is bended near the sun as he had predicted, Einstein became the most famous scientist in the world. But in Germany he had already acquired a high degree of fame. His popularity relied not just on his outstanding scientific performances, but also on his persistent advocacy of peace and democratic ideals. When in fall 1918 new democratic parties were founded in Germany, Einstein’s name was expected to provide a strong political backing. He could do little against the misuse of his name in newspaper advertisements by the “Deutsche Demokratische Partei” or the “Demokratischer Volksbund”. Einstein demnaded opposing accounts but theese were printed only in the back pages of the newspapers and didn’t attract attention. Therefore, some of Einstein’s biographers used his supposed partisanship for the “Deutsche Demokratische Partei” and the “Demokratischer Volksbund” to underline again his naivety regarding political questions.

Einstein, the pacifist, has also often been accused for signing the famous letter to President Roosevelt in August 1939, in which he warned, that Germany might build atomic bombs. Two years later the US government launched the Manhattan Project.
Einstein later often repeated, that signing this letter was the biggest mistake of his life. But in 1939, when Hitler was preparing the invasion in Poland, he did not see any other way out. As many other scientists, Einstein feared, that German physicist could build nuclear weapons. Einstein even more, because from his experience in World War I he knew about the organizational power of German military and all the scientific minds involved in it. He knew what Fritz Haber as the head of the chemical warfare had been capable of doing: transforming a modest institute into a mayor research facility for new weapons of mass destruction. After World War II Einstein started again to fight for peace and nuclear disarmament.

About the Author
Thomas de Padova is a physicist and science writer who lives in Berlin. He is the author of award-winning history of science books. In 2014 he was given a journalist-in-residence-fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, where he deepened his studies on Einstein and WWI to write this book. The author researched the correspondence, public speeches, newspaper articles and scientific papers of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Fritz Haber, Walther Nernst, Max Born and other German scientists during 1910 to 1920.

Alone Against Gravity explores why Einstein became a pacifist and how he began to devote himself to political issues. It addresses why Einstein did not move back to Switzerland where he had citizenship and had been living previously. Most importantly, it shows how Einstein – working in the center of a collapsing world – reinvents time and space and finishes his revolutionary theory about general relativity.

About the Book
Alone Against Gravity – Einstein in Berlin: The Turbulent Birth of the Theory of Relativity, 1914-1918 by Thomas de Padova will be published by Bunim & Bannigan on September 15, 2018 to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI. (Trade Paperback Original, 274 pages, $18.99, 12 b/w photos). This informative and suspenseful book depicts Albert Einstein in a new light and illustrates the emergence of his general theory of relativity in the midst of the First World War. It shows how far Einstein as a single researcher could reach, and how he transformed from being a ‘pure’ scientist and an apolitical man into a politically engaged person and a pacifist by conviction.

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