For reasons I will make clearer presently, the use of the word “stalked” in the title of this book is ironic. At its base, this is the story of a petty personality conflict in the small academic world of physics in early-Twentieth Century Germany. It has a sort of gossipy interest because of the fame of one of the parties involved, and engages the prospective reader’s horror and fascination as a (very) minor incident in the Holocaust.
Philipp Lenard (who?) was a physicist, an early recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with cathode rays. He was an experimentalist (as opposed to a theoretician), light on math skills -- and perpetually aggrieved that Wilhelm Roentgen had copped the first Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of x-rays. Lenard appears to have felt he should at least have gotten co-discovery credit with Roentgen. He sulked about it from about 1901 until he died.
He was also a Jew-hater. (Why mess around with the euphemism “anti-semite”?) Not an unusual prejudice in pre-World War One Europe, even among university professors. It would have passed as just another unpleasant facet of an unpleasant man’s personality if Jew-hating had not been a major part of the German government’s “racial policies” between 1933 and 1945. Lenard’s Jew-hating made him attractive and useful to the Nazis, especially his hatred of one particular Jew.
-- Albert Einstein. Lenard had peaked as a scientist before Einstein came to prominence. A sensible man would have enjoyed his secure academic position and solid reputation within the physics world. Instead, Lenard fixated on Einstein’s theoretical-mathematical approach to physics, the lack of “common sense” in the ramifications of the Special and General Theories of Relativity, and Einstein’s superior public image as a sort of Bohemian, common-touch super-genius. After years of baiting Einstein, criticizing him in public addresses, and setting his grad students to blacken his reputation, Lenard produced a four-volume polemic titled “German Physics” (“Deutsch Physik”) -- as opposed to “Jewish Physics.” Lenard’s opus met with the beaming approval of the Nazis and today is viewed as an object of intellectual embarrassment and a world-historic example of malignant bigotry.
It would be hard not to characterize the antagonists in this tale as “Einstein / Good Guy vs. Lenard / Bad Guy,” and the authors do not resist that temptation much. Lenard seems to have been about as odious a human being as any other academic who never did anyone any direct physical harm. Einstein enjoys the image of a scientist-saint nowadays. The Hillmans and Wagner recount in some detail Einstein’s treatment of the women in his life -- which was callous and selfish -- but without engaging in moral condemnation. (This is why the use of the word “stalked” in the book’s title raised my eyebrow.)
Literary sins: At the end of the book, there is an extended vignette of Lenard in his old age that is novelistic, closely describing his mental state and even physical sensations, the better to demonstrate his pettiness and moral blindness. History, it ain’t. There is also a one-sided and condemnatory biographical sketch of Hungarian physicist Edward Teller that is at best irrelevant and at worst hateful.
“The Man Who Stalked Einstein” is gossip. A “do-tell!” from the world of science. You’ll enjoy it while reading it. And feel a little ashamed of yourself later. I would hope.
By the end of World War I, Albert Einstein had become the face of the new science of theoretical physics and had made some powerful enemies. One of those enemies, Nobel Prize winner Philipp Lenard, spent a career trying to discredit him. Their story of conflict, pitting Germany’s most widely celebrated Jew against the Nazi scientist who was to become Hitler’s chief advisor on physics, had an impact far exceeding what the scientific community felt at the time. Indeed, their mutual antagonism affected the direction of science long after 1933, when Einstein took flight to America and changed the history of two nations. The Man Who Stalked Einstein details the tense relationship between Einstein and Lenard, their ideas and actions, during the eventful period between World War I and World War II.