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Hank gets to chat with David Bodanis: an author, and expert on Albert Einstein. They discuss Einstein's fame and his feelings about the aesthetics of science, as well as Bodanis' upcoming book: "Einstein's Greatest Mistake".

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Hosted by: Hank Green
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Hank: Hello this is Hank Green for SciShow and it is SciShow talk show time. On SciShow we talked to interesting people about interesting stuff, today we're talking to David Bodanis, best-selling author of E=MC^2 and also newly the author of Einstein's Greatest Mistake, obviously a guy who knows a bit about physics and a bit about-- a lot about Albert Einstein. Hello David how you doing?

David: Hello sir! Good to sweets you

Hank: I was kind of-- I've always had this question and I've never had an Einstein expert to ask it to so I'm going to start with this: there were there are lots of fabulous famous intelligent scientists people who are absolute geniuses, why did Einstein become synonymous with genius?

David: You're entirely right. He was the first person to say he wasn't the smartest and he wasn't the quickest, the only he was proud of his perseverance. What got him famous was at one of the predictions of his general theory of relativity was it if you shoot starlight near our sun, it will whip around the corner like a cue ball going around in a pool table. And that was an amazing thing, the notion of spaces curl and light can whip around. Nobody had any idea about it, and he came up with this in 1915 which was not a good time to travel abroad and do experiments, it was the middle of World War I. Anyways in 1919 a British team went to, one team went to West Africa, a little island off West Africa, another team went to Brazil, and they they checked this during a solar eclipse and they found that Einstein was right. And people loved it. The World War had just ended, a British physicist was taking a German physicist and showing that there could be unity up in heavens. It was kinda like um, you know, God came down and smiled upon us. It was really great. Einstein was the first person to say was really really unfair, however he didn't mind all the endorsements.

Hank: Yeah I mean, was Einstein a man who was into his own success and into his own fame?

David: He was-- he had a lovely sort of humorous cynicism. You know, he grew up in the late 1800s sort of like typical German Jewish humor. His a sister, little sister wrote a memoir growing up with him, and she said that when he was 7 he threw a bowling ball at her head and he hit her. And she said: that shows it takes a thick skull to be the sister of a world-famous physicist. [Hank laughs] So when I find the London Times right after this 1919 proof of what he had done, they asked him to write an article about fame and explaining his theories, he said, "look you call me famous, and the British, because my theory was proven, the British say 'I'm a citizen of the world' and the Germans say I'm a German, but if my theory was ever proven false, the British would say I'm a German, the Germans would say I was a Jew." [Hank laughs]

By the way Einstein was wrong. Even the great Einstein was wrong. His theory was right and sadly 15 years later, the Germans did say that Jewish people had to leave, and he had to flee the country in 1933.

Hank: So Einstein was wrong about that. Apparently he was wrong about something else, because you've written a book called Einsteins greatest mistake. So I don't want to spoil anything, but what can you tell us about that?

David: Well the title was recommended to me by my magnificent friend Mark Hurst in New York, because like if you write a book called "Einstein's smarter than us and we're a bunch of dumb schmucks" it's not real attractive. You know you don't say "I'm going to read them feel good about myself"

Hank: Yeah.

David: But "Einstein's greatest Mistake" you feel sorry for him, you want to get interested. Anyways it turns out in a scientific career he made one or two mistakes, everybody does, but at one point he made-- and that's kind of interesting but only like maybe for nerdy specialists. But he also made a psychological mistake, and that psychological mistake is one that we can all fall for, and that's what I focus the book on. It takes awhile to get into, so I talk about, you know, his life it and the scientific mistakes that are relevant, and then I get into that big psychological error.

Hank: Interesting and-- you know, like, early in his career I was reading about this, he actually took some criticisms and incorporated those into his theories somewhat begrudgingly, and then later discovered that indeed he had been right all along.

David: Well exactly. At the beginning he was and he was very modest. It's sort of like, I don't know, the British Prime Minister Tony Blair said at one point "I want to go into Kosovo and make things better there" and people said "we don't do it it's not going to work" and indeed it did work. So he got used to oh, kind of ignore what people say. A few years later said "I'm going to go into Iraq. It'll be a walk over, it'll be easy, we'll be out in a few months." And people said "it's not gonna be like that Tony"  and he said, "Hey I was right once, I'm not going to be wrong again." And it didn't, it wasn't the case. So it's not the same as hubris, but you look back at what was your success. You see it all the time in (? 4:48), something that works really really well if it begins to go downhill, some people they double up, they just repeat what they did.

Anyways in 1915 Einstein came up with an equation of just two little symbols that seemed to explain the whole universe. And among other things it predicted that the universe is expanding, so he asked his astronomer friends "is the universe expanding?" they said actually the universe, at that time they thought the universe was totally static. The stars just float in position and don't move. So he said "ugh, my equation must be wrong" so he modified it. He didn't really want to modify it but he says "well, if that's what the experimental evidence says, that's what I'll have to do." So he modified the equation. Instead of two simple little symbols explaining the whole universe, which I talk about in the book, he-- it hit ugly thing with all these extra terms. Ten years later he found out that the universe actually was expanding. Now instead of-- so he managed to take off the ugly bit and went back to his beauty, and if he had done that, that's okay you know, you can make mistake.1 But he drew the conclusion that when he had a strong intuition about how the universe was going to be, that he would always be right. And unfortunately this was just at the time when new experimental evidence was coming in saying that the level of the micro small of quantum mechanics, things jump around in random ways, Remember Einstein famously said "God does not play dice with the universe" and his good buddy Niels Bohr used to say "Einstein, stop telling god what to do"

Hank: [laughs] It was interesting to me to read about how Einstein was so attracted to the to the beautiful simple equations, and and had this this sort of you know, beyond a scientific, beyond a mathematical appreciation for the simple, beautiful explanations of the universe, and when those-- you know when he had to add those that those conditions, to his theory, his equations when they thought the universe was static, how frustrating and kind of gross that was to him, and how liberating it was to remove that and to re-simplify and be able to, you know have that beauty back. That's interesting to me because in a way like just like maybe Niels Bohr is saying, like should our like aesthetic appreciation for an equation have anything to do with the way that we-- or the way that Einstein wants to explain the universe?

David: Well there--I--the interesting thing about aesthetics.  Suppose aesthetics is something totally random.  I happen to believe that, I dunno, plaid shirts are attractive.  Somebody says, no, no, I like striped shirts, you know, whatever it is, that's' kind of random, but suppose sometimes with aesthetics, you manage to open a hole, a portal into the deeper truths of the universe and wow, aesthetics is how God speaks to you.  Einstein, he wasn't a standard religious believer but he wasn't an atheist either.  He felt sorry for atheists, he said they can really be so sure, I'm impressed, you know, he would call himself an agnostic and he thought there were some patterns.  He once said that he felt like a little boy walking into a big library room that's shelves with books all over, but the room is sort of dark and you couldn't really touch the books and very occasionally, one of the greatest minds would be allowed to take down one of the volumes from the shelf and open it up and see what's inside and those books were what was written in the creation of the universe.  How it was created, Einstein said it's not for me to say, but there's a subtle magnificent pattern there and it's kind of simple.  Every now and then we get a little glimpse of it and he thought he got a glimpse of it with e=mc squared, got another glimpse of it with this beautiful general relativity thing in 1915, two little equations.  Then you have to take the book back, put it up on the shelf, maybe in a hundred years, another genius, Stephen Hawking or somebody else, can see something else.  What a beautiful notion and also that in the book, it's really, really simple and so for him, the aesthetics weren't just a random thing, oh, I happen to like equations with two powers that are maybe symmetrical, other people like five or six parts.  He's like, no, that's significant.  The closer we get to understanding what he called the old one, was how he referred to whatever created the universe, the simpler things have to be, and it's just a sign that they're really close (?~8:57).  

Hank: Why did you personally end up getting so into Einstein and also into the process of explaining complicated science to the rest of the world?

David: I think I got into Einstein 'cause when I was little, I knew he was famous, I knew he was super smart, but I had no idea what he did.  I remember on a field trip as a kid in Chicago, our teacher said, oh, here's a portrait of the smartest man who ever lived, somebody said, oh, what did he invent?  Some people went, the lightbulb, some people invent some sort of freeze dried potatoes, you know, other people invented the internet, you know, all sorts of things, and the teacher had no idea what Einstein had invented.  I remember it was sitting there in the back of my head, I wanted to at least understand it.  I can't compose music, I tried once years ago, it was deeply embarrassing.  It was excellent for my humility.  But I can appreciate,  I can listen to like, cool music of all different styles, but unless you have the scientific background, you just can't listen to Einstein.  It's like looking at scribbles on paper and not hearing the beautiful music of Mozart.  George Bernard Shaw once said that if you can't understand Bach, it sounds like a mechanical sewing machine (?~10:06) up and down, click click click click, it's really ugly, but if you can hear the beauty of Bach, it's like you see the musical tapestry coming out.  Anyways, I was lucky enough at university, first in my family to be able to go (?~10:17) to be able to study with professors, including some people who had worked with Einstein and learn what this was, and it was so beautiful.  I thought, should I close the door to everybody else (?~10:29) open the door?   So that's the noble explanation.  There's another explanation.  My parents had five girls and then they had a little boy, me.  This is my only chance to get a word in edgewise.  

H: Just have something to say!  Well, I am fascinated by this book, it is Einstein's Greatest Mistake, we haven't gotten in to what the greatest mistake is, because it is for you to find out and it is a mistake of both physics and the mind, maybe it has something to do with Niels Bohr, maybe we give them a hint.  Um, so thank you very much for joining us and sharing some of your insight with us.  It was fascinating.  It's really great to hear and to know a little bit into the mind of this man and yeah, thanks for spending so much time putting that to paper and for taking a little bit of time with us as well.  

Dnaiel: Thank you, sir, thank you very very much.