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Review - The Born-Einstein Letters - Max Born & Albert Einstein

 

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Between 1916 and 1955 Albert Einstein and fellow physicist Max Born exchanged a series of letters (occasionally Born's wife, Hedi also contributed to the correspondence). These letters are a fascinating insight into the development of ideas in science between two of the great names in physics, put into historical and political context by the framework of remarks in the letters. They start a bit late to really follow the development of relativity, but here in all its glory is the growth of Einstein's negative position on quantum theory, hardening over the years, and the reader can enjoy his attacks on the ideas of others, occasionally gently, sometimes quite viciously. At one point, for instance, Einstein playfully remarks to Born about a book he has written: "The whole thing is rather sloppily thought out, and for this I must respectfully clip your ear..."

Born edited the correspondence after Einstein's death, and what makes the book particularly effective to the student of the period are Born's comments on each letter, putting it into context, highlighting significant issues and trying to explain what are now often, inevitably, obscure references. The collection has been around a good while, but for this new edition Diana Buchwald and Kip Thorne have added a new preface that helps the modern reader understand some of the implications of what they are to come across.

Many of these letters are everyday, if entertaining observations, suddenly spangled with illustrious physics. They also certainly provide a superb insight into the workings of these two great minds. Why only three stars? This isn't really popular science. It's fascinating research material for the student of the history of science - and many popular science readers will find it fascinating, hence its inclusion here - but these letters were never intended as a means of explaining science to non-scientists, so it would be unfair to expect them to do so.

Great stuff, though!

Reviewed by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007