Michael D. Gordin


On his book Einstein in Bohemia

Cover Interview of April 01, 2020


My basic assumption is that you have heard of Albert Einstein. Most people have. More than that, you can probably even picture him. (A weird thing about this man is that whether the figure in the photo is young or old, people can unerringly identify Einstein.) Perhaps you can approximate a quotation that has been attributed to him. A lot of those are apocryphal or mistakenly assigned to Einstein, but no matter. You come to Einstein in Bohemia with a version of Einstein already there in your mind.

That’s likely less true of Prague. Perhaps you have been there. (If not, you should go when you can. It’s a really interesting place.) But even if you have not, it is a city worth learning about. For roughly a millennium, Prague has been a central node of European culture. Artists of all sorts have flourished there, ranging from baroque painters to opera composers (Mozart wrote Don Giovanni there) to arguably the most canonical author of the twentieth century, Franz Kafka. Although it has been the site of intense and violent conflict—the Hussite wars of religion in the fifteenth century, the Thirty Years’ War in the seventeenth, the Nazi occupation in the late 1930s, the Soviet-led invasion in the late 1960s—it has never been fully destroyed. There are medieval monasteries right next to modernist masterpieces.

What do you get by putting both together? I hope that you end up with a changed picture of both Prague and Einstein.

Prague is often presented as a city of the arts, a city of religion, a city of culture. It certainly was all that, but it has also been for centuries an important city of science. This should not be surprising, since science is part of culture and is nourished by it, but yet the point always seems to take people aback. My goal is that you will think of Prague as a place where knowledge was made, as well as a city that concentrated much of the best and sadly some of the worst of Europe across its long history. Einstein’s collision with Prague illuminates many of those aspects.

Principally, I would like the reader to see a different Einstein, and through him another way of thinking about identification and belonging. For a brief period, Einstein lived in the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia. Although he did not realize it at the time, the connections he made there, the thoughts he entertained, followed him throughout his life. Viewing Einstein through the prism of Prague brings certain features of his life into focus—especially his political views and his personality—while situating his science in a community of others.

I want people who read the book to think about what it means to be in a place, and perhaps to reflect on the places they have been, and the mutual impact of those moments.