Monday, January 24, 2011

Einstein Wrote Back

Einstein Wrote Back / John Moffat
Toronto: Thomas Allen, c2010.
244 p.

The brief book trailer above summarizes this book nicely: John Moffat was a self-taught physicist who wrote to Einstein at age 19, and Einstein wrote back. But the book trailer can not capture the voice of the writer, an anecdotal, bemused and amused, narrator who is always passionately involved in study and discovery.

I enjoyed this book greatly; John Moffat was able to experience a world which has always fascinated me, becoming the first student in Cambridge's 400 year history to obtain a PhD without an undergraduate degree. He is always made aware of that fact, with some of his earlier teachers being a bit leery of his capabilities because of it. But he proves that he indeed is quite capable, meanwhile telling wonderful stories about some of the big names in physics, men who are nearing the ends of their careers as Moffat is beginning his. It was great; Moffat has an eye for eccentricity, and some of the biggest names were extremely eccentric! He is never cruel, however, and states that of all these strange geniuses, he only ever disliked one.... which one it was, you will have to read this book to discover ;)

The story begins with Moffat as a young man, inclined toward becoming an artist -- even living in Paris for a year before going broke and returning home. He grew up in Copenhagen, where you were examined at the end of high school to see whether you had the ability to go on to university; he was nervous and wasn't able to answer a question, and was told that he would not amount to anything.

But he spent a year reading all the science and math books he could find in the local university library and taught himself an undergraduate degree's worth of information in one year. Because he was a British citizen, thanks to his father, he decided he would try to get to a British university to study physics. Through a circuitous route of letters and recommendations, and heavily influenced by the letter he had received back from Einstein, he ended up meeting with Niels Bohr, then Erwin Schrodinger, then being accepted into Cambridge.

The book focuses mostly on his professional life after the biography of his early years. He talks a bit about the effects on his wife and his family life as they move from England to the US to Switzerland and finally to Toronto, but the book is primarily focused on his research and the people he worked with and for. Seeing as he met and interacted with Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac and many others, the story was a great and absorbing read. I also appreciated his acknowledgement of the sexism inherent in this field; he refers to a case in which three researchers made an important discovery but only two -- the male two -- were awarded the Nobel for their work, and he directly states that it was sexism at the root of this decision. Once in a while he is a little bit self-focused, when he's talking about his work, but that is to be expected really, from someone who had to fight his way into his preferred career. He considers himself a little outside the 'herd' in his research interests, and shows those of us not aware of what is being focused on in physics why he thinks so.

The science in this book is not too complex for the general reader to comprehend -- when he refers to a specific element of physics that is important to the book he provides an explanation in the footnotes. Even when I didn't always grasp the math in those explanations, it was enough to give the story meaning. Seeing his travels from Copenhagen to Canada was fascinating and entertaining. And now that he is practically a neighbour, being adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo and a member of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (after many years at the U of Toronto) I really had to read it.

Moffat has continued his work on physics until this day, even into his 70's. Some of his work has resulted in his MOG (modified gravity) theory, returning to his beginnings with Einstein's work. He states that he can not imagine not working, and that he is still creative in his work. He has much to say about the new climate in research, and how it may stifle new work. He concludes by stating:
I feel certain that this ongoing creativity is due in large part to my unusual path in physics. I was never subjected to the severe rigours of rote learning, which students undergo at universities as part of their early training as physicists, and therefore my creative abilities as a human being and a physicist were never quenched. Because I essentially taught myself physics and mathematics, I did not have to prove myself to the authorities at every step along the way that I was competent in successive areas of physics.

Overall, this was an intriguing read which I found added to my knowledge of the physics world, as well as entertaining me with its anecdotes about the great names of physics. There was humour, a bit of pathos, and much reflection on the world in which Moffat has spent his working life.

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