Seventy-five years ago on Saturday, planet Earth lost arguably its greatest genius of atoms made flesh. It is impossible to distil Albert Einstein's impact on our understanding of our place in the universe into a single sentence. Without him, we would likely know a lot less - if anything at all - about such exotic physical phenomena as black holes, gravitational waves, quantum entanglement, the Big Bang, and the Higgs boson. We would have no laws of relativity – Einstein’s theory of large-scale space and time – nor the world's most famous equation, E=mc2.
But he had controversial ideas, too. Not least those surrounding quantum physics – the theory that explains how the universe works, from the nature of the particles that make up matter to the forces that govern them. Which is to say: you, your cat and the computer on which you're reading this, on some level, are all dancing to the same quantum tune. It is the most successful scientific theory ever formulated; tried, tested and accepted for almost a century. Einstein believed it was wrong.
The electric-shock coiffed genius thought it could go further. So he made it his mission to discover what the theory was missing to truly understand our objective reality. His goal: to rewrite reality as we know it. Only, he died before he could. Physicist Lee Smolin, however, believes it can be done. And Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution is Smolin's attempt to make new sense of the universe, Einstein-style.
Smolin – a theoretical physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, and something of a maverick, like Einstein, in his field – is a seriously clever guy with big ideas, and bigger ambitions. And here he elucidates quantum mechanics in the simplest of possible terms (not an easy task), ultimately suggesting a new set of principles that apply to both quantum mechanics and the notion of space-time (time still exists, but space? No, it's an illusion because distance doesn't exist.)
It is not, surprisingly, a boggy read at all, rather an energetic and breezy jaunt through as much of the philosophy of physics as its science, starting with a call to 'expunge this quantum insanity from our understanding of the world' and going on to give a history of the field that, as one reviewer put it, 'reads like Game of Quantum Thrones.' It is an eye-opening insight into the fierce rivalries and cat-fights that have electrified the field, as well as a celebration of the world's most-famous scientific mind.
This, for anyone interested in the molten-hot debate over the line between scientific reality and fantasy, is one giant of modern physics' attempt to pick up where The Godfather left off.
Aside from his controversial views on science, Einstein was also outspoken against racism ('a disease of white people'), nationalism, and nuclear bombs, prompting FBI mastermind J Edgar Hoover to brand him an 'an extreme radical'. By the time of his death, on April 18, 1955, the FBI's case file on the German-born physicist had grown to 1,427 pages of documents.