WASHINGTON, May 17 (UPI) -- Science writers Karen Fox, author of "The Big Bang Theory," and Aries Keck, a science reporter for public radio station WHYY-FM in Philadelphia, have produced an easily readable tome on the legendary and lofty genius Albert Einstein -- "Einstein A to Z" (John Wiley & Sons, 320 pps., $12.21, Amazon). It is an omnium gatherum of each letter of the alphabet for the German scientist going from A for absentmindedness to Z for Zionism.
In between, the reader encounters such important listing as M for McCarthyism, which Einstein eschewed, and also M for Marilyn Monroe, traveling through the alphabet to arrive at R for the famous "special theory of relativity."
Each alphabetical entry helps to fill in a picture of the personal life and predilections of a man who changed the view of the cosmos forever and who launched a revolution in science.
Whether for Einstein novices or for experts, The Fox/Keck alphabetical compendium makes for an informative read.
Following is an e-mail interview with Fox, a Washington, D.C., native who told United Press International everything from how she and Keck researched "Einstein A to Z," to what the century-old theory of relativity means.
Q. What was your first ever encounter with learning something about Einstein?
A. As a physics major in college ... I learned the special theory of relativity there for the first time. I don't think I -- like many people -- could have told you much about what Einstein did before that point. He sort of has this aura of genius about him -- but with little information about what he really did.
Q. What inspired you to do an alphabetical compendium of Einstein's life?
A. It was discussed in conjunction with my editor for my previous book, the "Big Bang Theory: What it is, Where it Came From, and Why it Matters." He had the initial idea and Aries Keck -- my co-author -- and I expanded on it. We decided to make the book a little lighter than he had originally envisioned it.
What's great, though, is I think we've discovered a fairly valuable way of looking at a life. Einstein is so complex, with so many different facets to his personality, that it was really interesting to just focus on one at a time. Sometimes when Aries and I were working in the same room we'd come together and she'd sigh, because she'd just been researching some less-than-perfect story about the way he'd treated his wife, and I'd come back with how excited I was about the way he'd handled some unique physics problem. We'd have such different emotions simultaneously about the same person -- it makes one focus that a real person is actually the sum of so many things all at once. I think that's a much more interesting way of looking at Einstein than just to give him hero-worship.
Q. How difficult was it researching all about "Einstein A to Z"?
A. It would have been harder 10 years ago. In the last few years, most of his papers and letters have finally been released, and suddenly there is a wealth of new material and interesting information about him. For several decades after Einstein's death the people who had been closest to him tried to maintain a very prim image of the man. They only released letters that showed him in his best light, and that revealed no secrets. Thankfully that has changed, and suddenly we have a great deal more information than we had before.
Also, it was a lot of fun. Since I was working with a co-author, we would gather ourselves and our research for the weekend, and sit on two couches with books piled up around us. We'd drink coffee, compare notes, and each get absorbed in the work we were doing. It was a great way to spend the day!
Q. Who was Albert Einstein -- the man and the myth.
A. Since I have spent a lot of my career writing about the history of science, I am always seeing examples of where the "myth" of how a science quandary was solved has little to do with what actually happened. Many scientists have been taught science history as if it happened in very neat progressions -- something that doesn't really happen in real life.
Researching Einstein proved no different. The image of him, the myth -- that is the absentminded guy with the German accent and the crazy hair who embodies the scientific genius -- has just been blown into such a huge icon. The reality is that he WAS that guy -- at least he was toward the end of his life when he was at Princeton -- but he was many other things as well. He was, first of all, as brilliant as people like to think. But it seems to have been because he was great at visualizing the problems he was working on, as well as asking the right questions.
He was not necessarily a great mathematician (though he did not, in fact, fail math as legend has it). He was also particularly outspoken, and even a bit curmudgeonly. I think that might be one of the secrets of his scientific success -- he was willing to speak out loudly against the status quo, and stick to his guns in the face of no one agreeing with him. But what that also means is he was that outspoken about everything. He could be rather belligerent on certain political topics, and he could be fairly aggressive on science subjects where today we'd say he had been wrong. Again -- he was a guy with faults as well as a genius.
Q. What was Einstein's life like before he became well known?
A. Einstein was a bit haphazard before he jumped into the limelight. Smart as he was, he clashed a bit with his professors.
Q. Of all the entries, would you say that "Relativity, Special Theory of," about Einstein's famous 1905 postulation, is one of the most important listing in the book?.
A. I wouldn't actually. The special theory of relativity -- containing as it does, both the E=mc squared equation, and the idea that time and space can shorten -- is one of his most famous, but Einstein had some equally impressive theories. For one thing he didn't even get the Nobel Prize for relativity, but for his work on the photoelectric effect -- the important part of which is that he theorized light was not just a wave but was made up of particles. He called those particles "light quanta"; we call them photons today. He started that work in 1905, too. Einstein's other great work from 1905 was on Brownian Motion -- the random movements of atoms -- and a way he devised to quantify the motion. As a by product, this work really proved atoms existed, something that most people agreed upon at the time, but wasn't completely established.
Also, of course, he later came up with the General Theory of Relativity, which established a whole new way of understanding gravity that is still used today.
Q. Can you give us a simple example of the Theory of Relativity?
A. Well, Einstein said something along the lines of: "Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity." But that's obviously meant humorously. In broad brush strokes, what it comes down to is this: when objects move incredibly quickly time and space shorten for that object. An example in real life is that if you take two atomic clocks and synch them up perfectly and then send one on an airplane and have it travel around the Earth, it will be out of synch when it comes home. The one on the plane will have experienced a shorter amount of time. Since atomic clocks are based on atoms -- i.e. natural movements -- there is no way that this can be an artifact of a bad technology. A person on a plane will also experience shorter time -- their heart will beat more slowly, they will age more slowly.
Without getting into all the details, the theory of relativity springs from the fact that light always moves at a constant speed, and that the laws of physics should be the same for everyone - whether or not they're moving quickly or standing still. But the only way to make those two facts true simultaneously is for something ELSE that was believed solid to give. In this case, Einstein realized that if you didn't assume time and space were experienced the same by everyone, then everything else worked.
Q. Tell us a bit of Einstein's view of religion and his belief in the "cosmic religion."
A. Einstein had a fairly interesting, and unique -- for his time -- view of religion. He was born Jewish and certainly always associated himself culturally with Judaism. He was not -- other than for a few years as a child -- observant, however. He didn't believe in a personal god, but he did embrace the idea of what he called "cosmic religion." He felt that there was an inherent spirituality to the world, and that it was a thinking person's duty to try to seek out that deep mystery -- whether through art, music or science. Indeed, he actually reprimanded an author who tried to denied the existence of God altogether. He said he preferred that people believe in a personal God, than no God at all.
Q. Did Einstein ever meet Marilyn Monroe?
A. Nope! It's natural to put them together since they were contemporaries, and both icons in their respective arenas. There are a variety of pop art images of them together, as well as a movie about the two of them meeting, but the fact is they never met. Monroe is said to have claimed Einstein was her idea of a "sexy man" but this is possibly apocryphal. There's also a common story that they sat next to each other at a dinner party and she said to him that they should have children -- with her looks and his brains the children would be fantastic. He is supposed to have said: "Ah, but what if they had my looks and your brains?" This story is definitely false -- it gets told about George Bernard Shaw as well -- and makes Einstein sound a lot meaner than he in fact was. However the story does keep getting retold...
Q. Tell us about Einstein's time in America and at Princeton.
A. Einstein came to America in 1933, just as Hitler was coming to full power in Germany. He became a citizen of the U.S. in 1940. It was an interesting time for Einstein as his major scientific works were behind him, but he remained so famous. As such, the media asked him for his opinions on everything -- and outspoken as Einstein was, he happily gave them. He had some particularly strong political views, for example. He was adamantly pacifistic, and spoke out against fascism and violence wherever he saw it. He did however believe that one should defend themselves if attacked by someone whose sole goal was to exterminate. As such, he was comfortable with and supportive of America's role in World War II, and even is credited with being one of the reasons the government began the Los Alamos project to build a nuclear bomb. (Einstein wrote Roosevelt a letter urging him to consider the possibility that the Germans might build such a weapon.) After the war, however, Einstein was just as vocal trying to slow down the arms race.
Because he was so outspoken there were certainly some who felt Einstein was being too critical of the country that had housed him when he needed to flee Germany. He was even accused, incorrectly, of being a Communist spy.
In general, however, Einstein sought a fairly quiet life in the U.S. He had a small house in Princeton where he lived with his step-daughter Margot and his secretary Helen Dukas. (His wife died fairly soon after they moved to America.) The two women sheltered him from too much attention.
Q. How has Einstein and his work affected the world?
A. Honestly, I think one of the most dramatic ways in which he affects the world is just through his image. He left us with the absentminded professor scientist stereotype, which really wasn't present before him. (In fact, the stereotype of an American scientist before Einstein was quite gregarious and worldly.)
As for science, however, his work really laid the foundation for modern science. He created the two theories of relativity, and helped create quantum mechanics. Both are at the core of just about all physics in the last century. General relativity also helped create cosmology - the branch of science that studies how the universe formed and what its shape is today.