June 6, 1974
No scientific breakthrough really happens by chance. A theory of relativity demands more than an Einstein, says Lewis Feuer. It takes a certain intellectual climate, a decisive tension within the very fabric of society, to spur one man’s potential genius into world-shaking achievement.
It is Dr. Feuer’s provocative thesis that intergenerational conflict plays a key role in scientific creativity. And in Einstein and the Generations of Science, he vividly re-creates the unique social, political, and philosophical milieux in which the extraordinary promise of Einstein – and scientific contemporaries – took root and flourished into greatness.
In this absorbing intellectual history, we come to know Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, de Broglie, and many others not as formidable theoreticians, but as men of high imaginative powers – influenced by and influencing the social worlds in which they lived. Dr. Feuer portrays them locked in generational conflict with tradition-bound fathers and a rigid scientific establishment. they emerge as men endowed with rare talents, strong emotions, and very personal ideas about the nature of social and physical reality.
Entering the exhilarating world of Zürich at the turn-of-the-century, we meet the young Einstein engaged in debate with comrades of the anti-establishment “Olympia Academy” – among them the son of a socialist leader (who would later assassinate the Austrian prime minister), a down-at-the-heels Rumanian, and an Italian engineer (to whom Einstein first expounds his theory of relativity). We encounter Niels Bohr among sons of the Danish elite; Werner Heisenberg as a member of the nationalistic, anti-Semitic German Youth Movement; Louis Victor, Prince de Broglie, allied to the young Bergsonians of the Third French Republic. Each of these restless, brilliant young men were fired by the works of great philosophers – Mach, Kierkegaard, Plato, Berkson – and Dr. Feuer shows precisely how they turned the most profound ideas of these thinkers into fuel for scientific advancement.
Einstein and the Generations of Science displays the towering scientists of our century in their most human detail. It is also a revealing cross-section of the early 20th century itself – and of the crucial discoveries and ideas that hurtled us into a new world.
Lewis S. Feuer is Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. His previous works include The Conflict of Generations (1969) and The Scientific Intellectual (1963). Writing of Feuer in The New York Times Book Review, Bernard Cohen hailed him as “a challenging questioner and raiser of doubts concerning many generationally accepted points of view.”