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Book Review. Great and Imperfect

Darrin M. McMahon

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Einstein's Mistakes
Hans C. Ohanian
Norton, 394 pages, $24.95

Ask anyone where E=mc2 comes from and you will invariably be told "Einstein." The name is forever paired with the famous equation, and the two together -- emblazoned on T-shirts, public monuments and book covers -- are synonymous with genius, like the image of the wild-haired physicist himself.

The problem is that Einstein was not the first to discover the equation: It was known for several years before he presented it in his celebrated 1905 paper, "Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on its Energy-content?" Nor was the proof that he provided there complete. It was only in 1911 that the physicist Max von Laue offered a full proof of the startling assertion that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared -- a truth that has ever since affected our understanding of matter and motion, not to mention the fabric of the universe itself. Einstein tried for years to come up with better proof of his own but could never get it quite right.

Hans C. Ohanian's engaging "Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius" is full of such interesting revelations. "Almost all of Einstein's seminal works contain mistakes," he writes. "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."

Read the entire article on the Wall Street Opinion Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 10-Sep-2008



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