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Being 'Inside Einstein's Mind' is Mind-Bending and... Downright Weird
November 25, 2015  | By David Sicilia

The force you feel acting on your body as you read this brilliant* review is indistinguishable from the G-force you would feel if you were floating in space inside an exact replica of your office or bedroom that was accelerating at a constant rate (calculated to exert the same force). When Albert Einstein performed that thought experiment in his mind it was an epiphany. He concluded that the two forces – gravity and acceleration – not only would feel the same, they were the same.

He would go on, as we know, to dispense with gravity altogether and replace it with the notion of curved space, and to integrate space with time, and energy with matter. Plus you get the steak knives!

If you liked the opening thought experiment, you’ll lap up Nova’s Inside Einstein’s Mind, (Nova, Wednesday night, PBS, 9 p.m., ET, check local listings) which patiently sketches the emerging contours of the genius’s special and general theories, then follows the careers of those ideas beyond Einstein’s death. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s general theory. Though it transformed physics during Einstein’s life, most of its proofs and applications have come after his death in 1955.

This is not a program to watch over the shoulder while coaxing the saffron risotto toward stove-top perfection. But it doesn’t bog down, either. Biographer Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, Kissinger) is one of several lively talking heads, including physicists and a British historian with the requisite bad teeth. Some nifty graphics help make Inside Einstein’s Mind an hour of often mind-bending television, which focuses on the physics, with a few dashes of historical context.

The special doesn’t connect all the dots, nor could it possibly with such a capacious mind. I wanted more thought experiments with model trains and animated bodies in space. Einstein’s universe is downright weird. Just when you think you’re getting it, scientists take an atomic clock up a mountain to show how it runs more slowly than its sea-level cousin. Yikes!

Of course, then and now, only a handful of theoretical physicists could even pretend to understand what was going on inside the German scientist’s mind. Robbert Dijkgraaf currently heads Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein holed up after fleeing Nazi Germany and where several physics brainiacs toil today. Dijkgraaf is a great explainer, who closes the program wondering if his scientific cohort might be a “small part of the universe reflecting upon itself and trying to understand itself.”

Since we civilians can’t climb inside such minds, or the high mathematics they run on, Nova gives us lots of reenactments of young, middle-aged, and elderly Einstein scribbling with his fountain pen or simply sitting and thinking. To the extent Inside Einstein’s Mind offers an interpretation of how advanced physics works, it is that Einstein (and his protégés today) are loners in a mental workshop. Their primary tools are the imagination and mathematics, though Einstein was much better endowed with the former than the latter.

Theories – if they are to become more than that – must meet empirical tests. Einstein’s postulate that light would bend with the curvature of space wasn’t proven until several years after he published the general theory, thanks to conditions created by a solar eclipse. Today, massive particle colliders and other superscience projects operate according to principals unveiled by Einstein. Before him, there was no big bang theory. If your GPS weren’t adjusted according to his calculations, it would track within several miles instead of just a few feet.

During Einstein’s late career, quantum theory emerged as an exciting new paradigm. It remains unreconciled with the general theory. Yet many theoretical physicists – following the great man’s lead – continue to search for an elegant formula that will make sense of it all. They hope to say – as perhaps Einstein told his first wife before they divorced in 1919 – “I can explain everything.”


*Your trusty reviewer was born on Einstein’s last birthday … the day of the mind transfer?
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