Non­fic­tion

The Man Who Stalked Ein­stein: How Nazi Sci­en­tist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History

  • From the Publisher
June 3, 2015

The Man Who Stalked Ein­stein tells the lit­tle-known sto­ry of the antag­o­nis­tic rela­tion­ship between Albert Ein­stein and Ger­man physi­cist Phillip Lenard. Both men were Ger­man-born, bril­liant sci­en­tists, Nobel Prize win­ners, and ide­al­ists. But their ideals were dia­met­ri­cal­ly opposed to one anoth­er, and their scholas­tic rival­ry esca­lat­ed into per­son­al animosity.

Lenard was an exper­i­men­tal­ist, and devel­oped some of the ear­li­est instru­ments for pro­duc­ing X-rays. Ein­stein was a the­o­rist, a man who per­formed his famous exper­i­ments with time and space in his mind. Lenard believed deeply that space was filled with a mate­r­i­al, an ether” through which elec­tro­mag­net­ic waves trav­eled. Ein­stein uni­fied space and time, giv­ing rise to the idea that those same waves trav­eled with rel­a­tive speed.

These dif­fer­ences, as both men saw them, were insur­mount­able. While Ein­stein worked to explain his the­o­ries to the world, grow­ing ever more pop­u­lar, Lenard’s oppo­si­tion to Einstein’s ideas were stoked by the grow­ing nation­al­ism and anti-Semi­tism of the Nazi par­ty in Ger­many. He became a man obsessed with dis­cred­it­ing Ein­stein. Dur­ing one pub­lic debate in 1920, Lenard pub­licly mocked Ein­stein, an exhi­bi­tion that was the gen­e­sis of Einstein’s even­tu­al depar­ture for the Unit­ed States.

Hill­man is a tal­ent­ed sto­ry­teller, and The Man Who Stalked Ein­stein deft­ly brings to life key his­tor­i­cal scenes that illus­trate the dra­ma between the men. A num­ber of famous sci­en­tists — Born, Heisen­berg, and Plank— as well as infa­mous Nazis — Himm­ler, Johannes Stark, and even Hitler — make appear­ances. The book relies heav­i­ly on direct quotes from Ger­man writ­ings and speech­es, which were trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by coau­thors Bir­git Ertl-Wag­n­er and Bernd C. Wag­n­er. While the quotes do imbue the book with his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy, some­times the switch from sto­ry to quo­ta­tion is jar­ring and takes the book from nar­ra­tive tale to his­tor­i­cal text. The book begins near the end, a time of tense con­tro­ver­sy in 1933, and then shifts back to the ori­gins of the antag­o­nism in lat­er chap­ters. This too feels some­what dislocating.

Hill­man and his coau­thors bring a new per­spec­tive to the his­to­ry of sci­ence in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and the chal­lenges Ein­stein faced as a sci­en­tists and as a Jew. Through Lenard, they take a hard look at the mad­den­ing effects of anti-Semi­tism on a bril­liant mind. Timed to coin­cide with the six­ti­eth anniver­sary of Einstein’s death on April 18, 2015, this book is an impor­tant, sad, and fas­ci­nat­ing piece of near­ly-lost history.

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