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The Practical Einstein

, 216 pages

66 halftones, 6 line drawings

March 2012



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The Practical Einstein

Experiments, Patents, Inventions

2012 Outstanding Academic Title, Choice Magazine

Albert Einstein may be best known as the wire-haired whacky physicist who gave us the theory of relativity, but that’s just one facet of this genius’s contribution to human knowledge and modern science. As József Illy expertly shows in this book, Einstein had an eminently practical side as well.

As a youth, Einstein was an inveterate tinkerer in the electrical supply factory his father and uncle owned and operated. His first paid job was as a patent examiner. Later in life, Einstein contributed to many inventions, including refrigerators, microphones, and instruments for aviation. In published papers, Einstein often provided ways to test his theories and fundamental problems of the scientific community of his times. He delved deeply into a variety of technological innovations, most notably the gyrocompass, and consulted for industry in patent cases and on other legal matters. Einstein also provided explanations for common and mundane phenomena, such as the meandering of rivers. In these and other hands-on examples culled from the Einstein Papers, Illy demonstrates how Einstein enjoyed leaving the abstract world of theories to wrestle with the problems of everyday life.

While we may like the idea of Einstein as a genius besotted by extra dimensions and too out-of-this-world to wear socks, The Practical Einstein gives ample evidence that this characterization is both incomplete and an unfair representation of a man who sought to explore the intricacies of nature, whether in theory or in practice.

József Illy is a visiting senior editor with the Einstein Papers Project and a visiting associate in history at the California Institute of Technology. He is the editor of Albert Meets America: How Journalists Treated Genius during Einstein's 1921 Travels, also published by Johns Hopkins.

"A lesser-known aspect of Einstein's incredible contribution to understanding the physical universe and human creations makes up the subject of this fascinating book... In this compact, readable account, one discovers Einstein's practical interests that lay beyond his seminal work in relativity and quantum physics... Highly recommended."

"One turns to József Illy’s lovely little book on Einstein the experimenter and inventor... With a lean and matter-of-fact prose, he takes us through a long history of such things as Einstein's many expert opinions on everything from gyrocompasses and pile drivers to an 'electrophonic piano' and a makeup mirror. We learn about Einstein’s own inventions, ranging from an airfoil and a refrigerator to an altimeter and a light-intensity self-adjusting camera. The book concludes with the most complete history ever written of Einstein’s work for the US Navy during World War II on magnetic-influence proximity fuses for torpedoes."

"Einstein’s papers reveal a down-to-earth side. Learn about his inventions and ideas, including waterproof breathable clothes and an explanation for rivers’ meanderings."

"A must for any Einstein historian and refreshing reading for anyone interested in the meanderings of a great scientist, The Practical Einstein is a special book. Enjoy!"

"This short but well-documented book is not a radical evaluation, but an engaging one. It suggests a more human and more 'hands-on' Einstein than the popular myth, and perhaps a better role model: his career of mixed productivity, eclectic interests, consulting work and brief enthusiasms may be recognizable to more than a few contemporary scientists."

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