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A historian dives deep into Einstein’s brief, often overlooked time in Prague

Einstein in Bohemia

Michael D. Gordin
Princeton University Press
2020
360 pp.
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A little-known encounter between Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka may have occurred in Prague in 1911. We know that both men attended, on at least one occasion, evening gatherings in the famous salon of Berta Fanta, and that Einstein may have lectured to this audience on the relativity principle in May 1911. It is likely that Kafka was present at this lecture.

As Michael Gordin points out in Einstein in Bohemia, it is “overwhelmingly tempting to imagine Einstein and Kafka engaged in a meeting of minds,” given that both were about to become creators and icons of major cultural transformations. But, alas, no record of such a meeting exists, and although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, Gordin wryly observes, it is hardly evidence of presence either. To illuminate the elusive significance of Einstein’s brief tenure in Prague, both for the biography of the famous physicist and for the cultural history of Bohemia, is the aim of Gordin’s book.

Einstein lived in the capital of Bohemia a mere 16 months, from April 1911 to August 1912, having accepted appointments as a full professor at the German University of Prague and director of its Institute for Theoretical Physics. He was unhappy with his new situation from the beginning. He found life in Prague with his wife and their two sons, aged 7 and 1, “less homey (the Czech language, bedbugs, miserable water, etc.),” he confided to his Zurich friend Marcel Grossmann. As his correspondence attests, he began in November 1911 to inquire about his chances of returning to his alma mater in Zurich and soon began negotiating the terms of his return. It is no wonder, then, that Einstein’s brief stint in Prague has been downplayed as a brief interlude of little significance by most biographers.

Gordin sets out to challenge this view. An expert in the history of modern physical sciences and of Russian, European, and American history, he pulls together a wealth of information about the wider context of Einstein’s stay in Prague and of the cultural, scientific, and political history of Bohemia.

Einstein’s most important work in Prague was an early paper on gravitational light deflection, published 4 years before the completion of his general theory of relativity. During this time, he also attended the 1911 Solvay conference in Brussels, the first international conference at which participants discussed the puzzles of the emerging field of quantum physics. We learn about notable individuals with whom Einstein interacted during this period, including those who would have an impact on his work. One chapter, for example, is devoted to Philipp Frank, Einstein’s successor at the German University of Prague. Frank authored one of the first biographies of Einstein and was a source of much of what is known about the physicist’s stay in Prague. Gordin also discusses Max Brod, whom—like Kafka—Einstein met at Fanta’s salon. Some scholars have argued that one of the main characters in Brod’s 1915 novel, Tycho Brahe’s Path to God, was modeled after Einstein (a claim that Gordin convincingly refutes).

Readers also learn about Prague’s complicated and convoluted history. The westernmost and largest region of the Czech lands, Bohemia was plagued by troubled relations between its Czech and German populations, a conflict that played out in the city’s Czech and German universities and in Einstein’s life as a physicist, as a German, and as a Jew. Here, Gordin also discusses the cultural impact of Einstein’s work in Prague academia, revealing, for example, how Oskar Kraus, a Prague philosopher and colleague of Frank’s, evolved into a vocal critic of relativity. Frank, meanwhile, turned a 1929 meeting of German physicists and mathematicians in Prague into a venue for the philosophical framework of logical positivism, leading the city to become a center of a philosophical tradition that was inspired and challenged by Einstein’s innovations in physics.

Gordin turns his account into an analysis of how key developments in 20th-century theoretical physics are intertwined with and play out in regional, cultural, and broader political history. But would Einstein’s biography or Prague’s history have looked much different if Einstein had not spent a year in Bohemia? As Gordin aptly remarks about the encounter between Kafka and Einstein: “The meeting happened but the minds did not register it.” I enjoyed reading this highly informative, profoundly researched, and well-written book but, in the end, was not convinced that Einstein’s time in Prague left any deeper traces beyond what one would expect.

Nonetheless, Gordin explores unknown connections and forgotten biographies with impressive scholarly meticulousness and fervor, tracing lines of development that follow a dynamic of their own. Even if they played only a minor role in the biography of the famous physicist, these details are interesting in their own right.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Physics, Mathematics, and Computer Science Department, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, 55099 Mainz, Germany.