When Einstein Was Just Another Physicist

By Audra J. WolfeMarch 23, 2020

When Einstein Was Just Another Physicist

Einstein in Bohemia by Michael D. Gordin

AROUND 15 OR 20 years ago, in the early aughts of this century, it was faddish in certain corners of the history of science to write biographies of obscure figures. The idea was that understanding the life of run-of-the-mill researchers would tell us more about how science actually operates than would studies of rarefied individuals. Enough with Darwin and Newton; it was time to excavate the life of moderately successful 19th-century zoology professors at land-grant universities. This wasn’t quite a call for social history — these studies generally retained the discipline’s traditional focus on the intellectual accomplishments of relatively elite individuals — but it did reflect a yearning to incorporate the quotidian into a field better known for its interest in breakthroughs.

If I’m not naming names, it’s not solely out of a desire to protect the well intentioned. Very few of these projects were ultimately published. I encountered them primarily as a young acquisitions editor at a university press, where I reluctantly rejected them, one after another. As a recently minted history of science PhD myself, I believed these would-be authors when they touted the revelatory potential of the overlooked, utterly average career. But try as I might, I could not convince my editorial colleagues of the untapped market potential for books on people no one had heard of.

My more experienced publishing colleagues were undoubtedly right about the market. And yet, historians of science of my generation occasionally let themselves wonder about what might have been. One of these historians is Michael Gordin, whose fascinating new book, Einstein in Bohemia, demands we take seriously the idea that Albert Einstein himself was once just another physicist. A book about the most famous scientist in the world, it stubbornly, insistently, focuses on a 16-month stretch in which nothing particularly eventful happened. Einstein spent those 16 months as a professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague. He arrived intending to stay. He made a few important friends, played some chamber music, struggled with static theory, took a lot of walks, and then he left.

For Gordin, the banality of Einstein’s time in Prague is the point. Einstein in Bohemia is as much a series of essays on historical method and memory as it is a biography that uses Einsteinian ideas about perspective and spacetime to riff about the relationship between past and present, space and place. It’s also very much a book about Prague. It works in movements, looking backward and forward from Einstein’s Bohemian interlude to explore issues of biography, physics, Czech and German nationalism, the philosophy of science, literature, Jewishness, and public monuments. It is best savored in chunks, to better indulge in moments of reflection.

Einstein accepted the position at the German University of Prague in 1911. The move from Zurich would disrupt both his family and intellectual work. It had been six years since the scientist’s annus mirabilis, when Einstein fired off articles on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity. In 1907, he published a review article that laid out a research agenda to “generalize” the special theory of relativity from objects moving at constant speed in relation to each other to accelerating objects. Einstein’s work since had stalled. He would not make much progress in Prague — but of course he didn’t know this at the time.

“What if,” Gordin writes, “we did not read the past through the future, or through Einstein’s own retrospective haze?” What if, instead of focusing on the moment that we, in the present, now recognize as important, historians wrote about the world as their subjects saw it, as a series of encounters with people, places, things, and ideas that could go in any number of directions? Putting it “in Einsteinian terms,” he writes,

the spacetime interval eventually becomes a defined worldline, but that does not happen immediately and is only clearly discernible in retrospect. While it is still our present, history remains open; to see how it changes, we can dive into the records of the past and hold diverse meanings up to view in our mind’s eye.

In Prague, Einstein lived the life of a physics professor. He taught a handful of courses, occasionally gave and attended public lectures, and traveled to professional conferences. The relatively light demands and intellectual isolation of his position allowed him the mental space to try a new approach to the problem that had thus far stymied him. Perhaps gravity, rather than quantum theory, offered the path to general relativity. Einstein ultimately abandoned the particular approach that he took in Prague — static theory — but Gordin encourages us to see this not as a dead end but as a start to the work that would eventually produce his breakthrough.

Einstein himself rarely invoked his Prague period when reflecting on his life; his static theory is largely forgotten.

The richest sections of Einstein in Bohemia explore similar questions of what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. Einstein, being Einstein, has attracted any number of myths, and his time in Prague is no different. One of the most peculiar of these involves a long-standing claim that Einstein served as the inspiration for the figure of Kepler in Max Brod’s novel Tycho Brahe’s Path to God (Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1915), and that, therefore, the novel can be used as a historical source for Einstein’s time in Prague. Remarkably, as Gordin notes, all but two major Einstein biographies published since 1947 have “equated the physicist with the depiction of Kepler in Tycho Brahe’s Path to God and then quoted Brod’s descriptions of Kepler as though they were straightforward reportage of Einstein’s character.”

What on earth? First, let’s clarify the cast of characters and their relation to the principal. Max Brod is best remembered today as Franz Kafka’s editor. Einstein knew Brod from a salon that gathered at the home of Bertha Fanta. The discussions frequently centered on philosophy and Zionism, but Einstein kept coming back for the chance to play his violin (Brod accompanied him at least once). Einstein and Kafka apparently also met at one of these salons, an incident that Gordin carefully documents only to dryly point out that neither of them remembered it.

The bizarre claim found its way into official Einstein lore via a biography written by physicist Philipp Frank. As fellow physicists, Einstein and Frank had a more substantial relationship than Einstein had with Brod. Frank had been Einstein’s chosen successor at the German University of Prague and, once installed, cultivated a role as the protector of Einstein’s legacy in that city. This continued even after Frank relocated to the United States in 1938 — he and his wife had been on a steamer to the United States for a lecture tour when news of the Munich Accords broke, and they stayed. Frank’s interests gradually shifted from physics to the philosophy of science, particularly the implications of relativity theory for epistemology.

To be clear: Brod did not base his depiction of Kepler on Einstein. Brod read Frank’s biography of Einstein and issued numerous statements distancing himself from it. It’s not entirely clear from Gordin’s account why Frank claimed otherwise, except that it made sense to him at the time. The more interesting questions, for Gordin, are why the myth took hold and what unpacking it can reveal about literary and intellectual life in Germanophone Prague. Language, philosophy, religion, and national identity all find their way into Gordin’s explanation of how and why an obscure historical novel by Kafka’s editor has become part of the Einstein canon. In Gordin’s words,

More distant observers were content to draw analogies between Einstein and Kepler based on little more than their shared commitment to mathematizing the universe, flattening the centuries and worldviews that separated these two Germanophone physicists who happened to share the experience of living for a time in Prague.

It’s a complicated, nonlinear story that loops back in on itself, focused as much on what didn’t happen as what actually did.

Gordin’s attention to this odd conflation of the historical Einstein with a fictional Kepler is representative of a book focused as much on myth, memory, and what might have been as on how Einstein spent his 16 months in Prague. Einstein in Bohemia makes a persuasive case that spotlighting the most obscure moments of a scientist’s career can in fact illuminate larger truths — at least if that scientist is Einstein.


Audra J. Wolfe is a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. She is the author, most recently, of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.

LARB Contributor

Audra J. Wolfe is a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. She is the author, most recently, of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.


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