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Thursday 1 April 2004

Princeton University Press, April 1, 2004, $38.

Review by Ben Gory Gerdorf

This astonishing, revelatory book confirms rumors circulating in academia for years. Dr. McLaurty, an historian working in the Princeton Einstein Collection, found an obscure set of notebooks long neglected. They were written in an odd code nobody had bothered to decipher. McLaurty went to cryptologists and they cracked it easily. After all, it was invented by an amateur: Albert Einstein.

McLaurty had expected notes about Einsteinís personal life, perhaps, but what he found in telegraphic German was a daily log of Einsteinís ideas. He knew some physics but was unprepared for Einsteinís careful notes about his personal reading, and how it influenced his thinking.

McLaurty found the earliest notebook from 1901, four years before the "miracle year" that saw special relativity, E=mc2 and the theory of Brownian motion. Einstein has cryptic entries about reading Verne, thoughts about what possible fuel could send us to the moon, and after reading Wellsís The Time Machine, an extended discussion of time. He wonders if there is a way that physical equations (which prefer no direction in time, an issue that bothered Newton) can be made to rule out time travel. "Of course," he says, "for believing (glaubige) scientists the rule of causality demands that we not venture backward."

Later, he mentions several E.R. Burroughs novels by name, confessing that he sometimes reads for relaxation, not instruction. He learns English to read Weird Tales and in a visit to the US in 1931 picks up pulp magazines, quoting titles with amusement.

In Princeton, 1933, he receives Gernsback, who wants him to write "an article or even a column" and gives Einstein a free subscription. This inducement fails, but Einstein has much to say about Stapledonís Last and First Men and Star Maker, commenting favorably on the idea of an expanding, evolving universe. He notes a visit from the young Isaac Asimov, though Einstein could not understand what positrons had to do with robot brains. McLaurty quotes Einstein on the value of reading "fantastic fiction" — it helps him think:

"I rarely think in words. A thought comes in the mental world (Gedankenwelt) and I try to put it in words afterwards. But at times, particularly at night when the mind is tired, a story brings the thoughts first."

Einstein went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still because friends told him there was a figure like him in it; he liked the movie but thought the robot was the best actor. The last entry in the notebooks (in #17, 1955) is about a Bradbury story.

Einstein even relates an amusing story about a passage he spent in a cruise to Japan in 1936. Next to him in the smoking room of the liner he saw a man reading his book, The Meaning of Relativity. Einstein was reading a pulp magazine and the man sneered at it. But then, obviously not recognizing him, the man began talking about the relativity book. Weary of explaining his ideas for decades, Einstein said he had tried the book but did not find that he could understand it. The man raised his eyebrows at the pulp, nodded and then said condescendingly, "Let me explainÖ"

Ben Gory Gerdorf is a scientist, author, and book reviewer.

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