Michael D. Gordin

 

On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020

The wide angle

There are two fundamental conceptions that animate this book, one drawn from the history of science, and the other from the history of Central Europe.

The first is the principle of not writing Whiggish histories. The goal is not to take the end point for granted and narrate the story as leading up to it. This is merely a logical consequence of a universal truth: nobody knows the future. In the present, you make decisions based on the information available to you right now conditioned by various probabilities, emotions, and circumstances. We should treat historical actors the same way.

Einstein did not know he would only stay in Prague briefly—he planned to stay a while. He did not know that the theory of general relativity he worked on there would have to be discarded and rebuilt when he returned to Zurich—he hoped it would pan out. None of the Prague residents in the book knew that Hitler was coming, that Czechoslovakia’s Jews would be murdered, that the Germans would be expelled after the war, that Communism would come and then go. They lived their lives without knowing that future which we call our past.

With regard to Central European history, Einstein in Bohemia draws on decades of excellent work about the problematic concept of “identity.” People typically take this to be something irreducible, part of who they are: German, Czech, Jewish, for example. The assumption of essential identities has been at the root of a lot of violence in this region over the centuries. I have chosen instead, following sociologist Rogers Brubaker and historian Frederick Cooper, to concentrate on “identification”: how people actively make identities for themselves or others. This works for Einstein (German, Swiss, Jew, American), and it works for everyone else. Prague, as a city that has been torn apart repeatedly on confessional and ethnic lines, is an important setting to explore these ideas.

I came to this topic from three directions. I started out as a historian of the physical sciences in Russia, and the first time I visited Prague I was drawn to the city and its intricate Slavic language. I learned that in 1882 the university in Prague, founded in 1348, was split into a German and a Czech institution. I thought this might be a “natural experiment” to look at the effects of language on science. That project didn’t pan out, but it brought me to Einstein.

The second path is that my previous book, Scientific Babel, explored the rise and fall of “major languages” in science: English, French, German, Latin, Russian (among a few others). I wanted the opportunity to focus on so-called “minor” languages, like Czech. As it happens, following Einstein’s network brought me more German-speakers than Czech-speakers, but the latter are present in the book and their stories are fascinating.

The third path is simple: just about every historian of physics has a secret Einstein project. This is mine.