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Thanks, Albert
by Asa Butcher
2006-09-04 11:12:25
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Please, Mr Einstein
Jean-Claude Carrière (Translation by John Brownjohn)
Harvill Secker, 2006

When I told Thanos my plan was to write an iKritic for Please, Mr Einstein (Einstein S'il Vous Plait) he arched his eyebrows, smiled and wished me luck. I understood exactly what he meant because this book could easily be analysed in a thesis and it still wouldn't be long enough, so my decision, as always with these iKritics, was to encourage people to actually read it; thereby avoiding a lengthy critique of the content.

It is rare that my wife suggests a book for me to read, but that is what happened with Please, Mr Einstein. She later admitted that somebody else recommended it to her in a forum she uses, but by then I was half way through the opening chapter and already encouraging her to read it after me. The blurb on the inside cover proclaimed, "A novel to make you fall in love with physics and philosophy" and, for once, it was almost true.

The book begins with a young woman entering a building in a nameless contemporary European city. She walks into a waiting room where a dozen other people, with briefcases or sheaves of documents, are waiting patiently. Shortly afterwards, she is requested to go into another room where she meets Albert Einstein who is engaged in trying to figure out the equation that explains the universe. He is charmed by her, and agrees to answer her questions.

Over the course of the book, we learn that Einstein has actually been dead for over fifty years and he exists in this inexplicable dimension. We are invited to suspend our disbelief and listen to a conversation with one of the greatest minds in human history, but, as the woman ask, why is he famous? Personally, I couldn't have answered the question, except by quoting his famous equation:

'Which one?'
'The one everyone knows: E = mc².'
'Oh, that one. But there are others, you know, and they're just as interesting if not more so.'

I didn't know, but now I do, plus I even learnt a great deal more about him. Over the course of their interview, they discuss his religious and political views, and she continually returns to the question of his guilt over the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. I also didn't know that he was offered the presidency of the new state of Israel in 1952, which he declined 'on grounds of incompetence'.

The gentle mix of biography, physics and philosophy kept me hooked, even the physics explanations were dealt with in an interesting manner. The room in which the interview takes place has no windows, but there are many doors that open into different places, such as 1930's Nazi Germany, Madison Square Garden and even the Hiroshima explosion. No matter how surreal the book becomes, such as Isaac Newton bursting into his office demanding explanations, you happily accept the circumstances and listen to Einstein patiently explain his theories to the pompous English scientist.

I have very little knowledge about quantum mechanics, super string theory and dark matter, so the physics were occasionally too heavy, but the balance was the fascinating revelations about his life. Reading about how he suddenly became famous, the Nobel Prize, the horrors of his persecution, the letter to President Roosevelt and so many more events that you truly realise how important and intelligent this man was.

Some of the most touching parts of the book are listening to Einstein talk about the atomic bomb and how he blames himself for it, which is especially sad when he explains how he campaigned for peace all his life. The ingenious style of this book takes us from melancholy to witty and then back to science again in fluid movements, which is no minor task when tackling the mechanics of the universe.

The book may have the formal title Please, Mr Einstein, but you end the book on a far more personal tone: Thanks, Albert.

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