Michael D. Gordin

 

On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020

In a nutshell

The point of departure for Einstein in Bohemia is a simple observation: for about sixteen months, from April 1911 to August 1912, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was professor of theoretical physics in Prague. Everyone has heard of Einstein, and he has attracted more than his fair share of biographers, all of whom mention his time in the capital of Bohemia. For the most part, though, all you get is a mention. Prague was a “sojourn,” an “intermezzo,” a “way station.”

Suppose that’s wrong. True, Einstein was only there for less than a year and a half, but he didn’t know that when he arrived from Zurich; he had been planning on settling down into his new position. We might judge with the benefit of hindsight that he was only there for an intermezzo, but in April 1911 Einstein thought he was settling in for the full opera.

So let’s take the Prague period the way Einstein did when he lived it: seriously. You might try to trace, in micro-historical fashion, Einstein’s every day as he trotted between his apartment and his office. Even for a scientist as well documented as Einstein—and there is probably no other figure in the history of science, with the possible exception of Charles Darwin, who can compare in terms of the density of surviving materials—this is not possible, and it would probably be a little dull.

Einstein in Bohemia opts not to narrow the angle, but to widen it. We know a lot about Einstein, but we also know a lot about Prague. It was, at that time, the third largest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pivotal economic and cultural center, and one experiencing a demographic transition from a roughly balanced city between Czech- and German-speakers to one overwhelmingly the former (93% and 7%, respectively, when Einstein arrived). It was a city with a strong Jewish community and a rich past and future.

Picture a messy collision. An especially interesting individual interacted deeply with an extraordinary place, and then they parted. Both left traces on each other. The first three chapters of the book chronicle the narrow interaction: how Einstein got to Prague, the work on general relativity that he concentrated on while there, and then his daily life until he came to leave. The four remaining chapters explore the aftermath of the collision: how Einstein and Prague marked each other when it came to philosophy of science, literature, Zionism and Judaism, and the intellectual history of the Czechs.

I want the reader to dive in and feel the immersive effect of a culture on a person, and vice versa. Whatever preconceptions you have about Einstein or Prague ought to be jostled by the experience.