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April 20, 2006 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Please, Mr Einstein

“Step inside the greatest mind in history” says the tag line on the book’s cover. It sounds gimmicky, and maybe it is a little bit, but Please Mr Einstein is weightier and more satisfying than its weak title suggests. It takes the term science fiction to an absolutely literal level; it is fiction completely wrapped up in physics and astrophysics. ‘Oh no’, you might sigh, ‘I don’t do science!’ Neither. This book helps the science retarded out a little bit.

We sit beside the narrator, as he, in third person plural (which can get annoying, but is done sparingly enough in this case) direct our attention to an attractive, European woman in her early twenties. We know nothing about her, aside from what we can deduce from her appearance, and her actions. She walks through a European city, enters an apartment block, walks into a waiting room and is, from this point, in a very odd situation indeed. A secretary invites the woman into an office and, predictably enough, the office happens to be Einstein’s. There’s no dull explanation of why she’s there, why he’s there, or how this metaphysical meeting is occurring. We just have to go with it. In a similar vein to the three wishes you can request from a genie, this woman is allowed to ask Einstein questions, as big as she likes.

You may have done, or are in the process of doing, paper called ‘the big questions’. This book is likely to appeal to you if you registered for this paper and you are more likely to finish reading this book than you are to attend all the lectures of the said paper. In a Socratic-style dialogue, the young woman and Einstein discuss life, the universe and ‘everything’. Newton joins them for a brief argument (he had been in the waiting room too). Kant is mulled over. Spinoza is mentioned. Einstein is keen to help this girl find answers to the questions that are troubling her (mostly because she’s pretty), but he can’t gauge her level of understanding in terms of what he’s talking about. This is lucky for us laymen, who aren’t terribly versed in science generally.

As the conversation progresses, Einstein becomes an increasingly likeable and interesting character. He wears corduroy trousers, flirts with the young lady, wiggles his moustache and plays his violin. He has regrets, laughs loudly and spontaneously, explains why he hates socks and is primarily concerned with getting the girl interested in physics.

The girl, to her credit, is intelligent, but not unbelievably so. She asks incisive questions. She remains relaxed in an ultimately incomprehensible situation, but flinches when Einstein opens a door and shows her Hiroshima at its worst moment. In short, she’s a useful interviewer in what is essentially a whirlwind biography of Einstein. Carriere has used up to date research and convincing inferences to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the world’s most famous scientist.

Before reading this book, Einstein was the man Warhol lit up in fluorescent colours, the one who may or may not have been responsible for nuclear weaponry, and the person everyone mentions when they want to refer to someone brainy. I’d never realised he was Jewish in Germany during both the world wars. I hadn’t considered quite how famous he was in his day, and the effect this had on his quality of life. Now I am better informed.

Granted, the last twenty pages or so cram an awful lot of fairly technical stuff. I admit to having skimmed through some parts that were too much for my unscientistly mind. That said, if you are a graduate physics, mathematics, or particularly diligent philosophy student, it might all be a bit simple and tedious. One way or another, if you are average reader who wants to broaden their knowledge and show off more at cocktail parties, this is your cup of tea.

Jean-Claude Carriere
$34.99, Random House


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