Einstein's Heroes

Australian mathematics professor Robyn Arianrhod has a rare mix of scientific understanding and an ability to express herself clearly in an engaging literary style. In Einstein's Heroes: Imagining the World Through the Language of Mathematics she focuses on the triumvirate of mathematicians and physicists that had the most direct effect upon Albert Einstein's scientific contributions: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell's work had the most significant effect on Einstein's theories of relativity. Maxwell's portrait hung in Einstein's laboratory.

Arianrhod discusses extensively Maxwell's noted set of four equations that explained the basic nature of electricity and magnetism. She places special emphasis on mathematics as a universal language, one that transcends national and cultural boundaries, writing that it is “a language of unity, both culturally and philosophically.” She illustrates how mathematics is capable not only of explaining many physical phenomena but also of foreseeing and predicting undiscovered physical phenomena. Einstein's heroes did not themselves articulate theories of relativity but posed questions that contributed to Einstein's articulation of such a theory in 1905 and, as the general theory of relativity in 1916.

The stories of the heroes Arianrhod focuses upon are fascinating. She demonstrates how Newton's key to discovering the truths he reached about gravity were achieved through his knowledge of analytical geometry. Faraday, much dependent upon geometry in his research, identified electrical fields by observing how iron filings react to magnetization. Maxwell discovered the laws of thermodynamics by moving from integral to differential calculus as he sought to explain Faraday's electromagnetism. Each in his own way moved toward the truths Einstein ultimately expressed.