Review ID: CBB221778719

Review of "Einstein in Bohemia" (2021)


A new “trolley problem.” A trolley in the middle of Berlin in the winter of 1923. You get on a car at the rear, and there are five men already there: Kafka, Nabokov, Einstein, Agnon, Planck. Three Jews, three foreigners, three Nobel Prize winners. Yet, as Michael D. Gordin notes in his deeply pleasing account of Einstein in Bohemia, you can mix and match, depending on how you define each category and the inflection of their self-identification. But whom would you recognize in 1923? Albert Einstein—hair and all, of course.In 1911, Einstein followed a call from the German University in Prague, the third city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but unlike Vienna and Budapest, a linguistic and cultural orphan. He made a conventional choice and followed the money. He had been an “assistant professor” in Zurich; Prague offered him a chair and substantially more money. The downside: he had to go to Prague. From his perspective, he did well, as he escaped from the periphery back to the center after only three semesters. Gordin’s account of these three semesters, missing from any real examination ever since Philipp Frank’s 1947 account of Einstein’s life, is extraordinary in its depth and breadth. Frank was Einstein’s successor in Prague, and like Einstein, Frank fled the Nazis, eventually settling in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Unlike Einstein, Frank needed an income source and proposed a biography of Einstein, the advance for which carried him through financially. Because he spoke with real “authenticity” about Einstein’s life, his account of the Prague semesters has simply been replicated in almost all work on Einstein ever since. Gordin’s intelligent and comprehensive account of this time is full of the most wonderful debunking of Frank—not in a mean way, and certainly not elevating the Prague time to an ah-ha moment in Einstein’s life, career, and thought. What he asks, at the center of his book, is a question that haunts not only Einstein scholarship but perhaps all scholarship looking at the way scientists in the modern world define themselves: how Einstein’s self-identification shifts over time based on the flow of historical events, simultaneously analyzing the location from which such events are experienced or observed.

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Book Professor Michael D. Gordin (2020) Einstein in Bohemia. unapi

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