Who Got Einstein’s Office?, Ed Regis

<em class="BookTitle">Who Got Einstein’s Office?</em>, Ed Regis

Addison Wesley, 1987, 316 pages, $17.95 hc, ISBN 0-201-12065-8 nov28

I’m never too fond of reading older, unrevised pop-science books.  Science evolves, revises its own theories and even a decade can mark significant shifts in thinking.  Reading older science books can actually be harmful: readers can end up putting the wrong information in their head from well-meaning but outdated work.

Ed Regis’ Who Got Einstein’s Office? may be pushing almost a quarter of a century by now, but it’s unusually free of obsolescence issues.  A work of science history rather than science fact, it tackles the legacy of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a think-tank set up to provide a place of study for theoretical scientists.  The first decades of the Institute’s history read like a who’s who of American science superstars: Einstein spent his last two decade there, where he rubbed shoulders with people such as Kurt Gödel.  Over the years, names such as Freeman Dyson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John von Neumann and Stephen Wolfram all come to spend time at the Institute.  Who Got Einstein’s Office? is not just the story of the institution, but a look at the personalities that it attracted, the research it fostered and the place of such institutes in science.

The best reason to read the book, even today, remains the portrait of the scientists who worked there.  The book’s title question ends up being a pretext to spend an early chapter looking at Einstein’s history with the institute, and peek a bit beyond the stereotypical image of the one who remains the most famous scientist of all time.  Subsequent chapters study the eccentricities of people such as Kurt Gödel (who ended up starving himself to death out of sheer paranoia), the flamboyance of John von Neumann (“Good Time Johnny”) and the declining years of a politically-persecuted Oppenheimer.

In-between, we get a great portrait of pure scientists at work and play.  The institute being set up to cater to elderly scientists so that they can spend their time thinking without worrying about research money or even getting lunch, it offers an environment where science dominates over more mundane concerns.  Esoteric practical jokes aren’t rare, and eccentricity abounds as Regis offers a look at the various habits of the Institute’s members circa 1986.  It’s a fascinating book, especially when it focuses more on the way science is conducted than the actual content of the science.  I picked up the book in good part because of Regis’ latter work, and wasn’t disappointed to find out that his gift for clear accessible writing is obvious even in his early work.

Needless to say, some aspects of Who Got Einstein’s Office? haven’t aged well.  The illustration in the book are recognizably Macintosh-generated low-resolution graphics, while the lengthy passages on chaos theory, fractal graphics, cellular automata, Conway’s Game of Life and then-current computer technology instantly date the book.  Stephen Wolfram has moved from the Institute to quite a number of astonishing things, which leads one to wonder what has happened to the Institute since then.  After all, one of Regis’ conclusions is that the Institute not only had a harder time attracting big names, it didn’t seem to produce as much good science as it should: it worked better as a decent pre-retirement home for elderly scientists than a boiling think-tank for cutting-edge science.

But none of this reflects badly on the book itself, which is filled with anecdotes, quotes, science and surprises.  Science Fiction fans (once they get over the profiles of Dyson and von Neumann) may be thrilled to see a quick quote from a mathematician named “Rudolf Rucker” [P.47] –the same Rudy Rucker known for his outlandish SF.  Other good stories involve Einstein distracting Gödel long enough for him to pass his American citizenship exam, the grander-than life personality of von Neumann and the various Faculty munities during the Institute’s history.

It all combines in a book that could use a minor revision for details, but can still be read with pleasure and interest today.  Students of twentieth-century science will find a lot to like here, and even those who can’t remember any scientist’s name except for Einstein will learn a lot about some of the finest minds of the twentieth century.

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