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Inspiration and Perspiration

Einstein's Universe

Young Albert Einstein

When we admire someone, we tend to overlook their flaws. We see this in a young crush, and we see it in the veneration of our ancestors. Why do we find it so difficult to embrace the entire person, to acknowledge the whole of their humanity?

Michel Janssen, professor in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program, School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, would like to weigh in on the hagiography of Albert Einstein. “My main problem is summed up well by John Stachel, founding editor of The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein and one of my mentors,” he says. “He's fond of saying that the biggest myth about Einstein is that he was born at the age of 50.”

The truth of the matter is that the heavy lifting of Einstein’s work wasn’t done by the wispy-haired, wizened, and quotable old sage—“It's telling that even the picture in the LearningLife catalog is of the old Einstein,” Janssen notes—but by the young student and professor. “What I find popular books and TV series don't get across is how he did his science. In my view, what accounts for much of Einstein's spectacular success in physics is the methodology he followed during the period he was most productive, roughly from 1905 to 1920.”

Janssen's four-session course Einstein's Universe digs deep into the inspiration and perspiration of the German-born physicist, whose earlier work was not always correct work, as time would bear out, but nonetheless important and foundational for later achievements.

Published on October 24, 2018