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.