This article is about my novel, A Solitary Smile, which was published in
THE JEWISH POST & NEWS, Wednesday, September 18, 2019
A historical novel about Einstein - the first one ever!
A Solitary Smile: A Novel on Einstein by David Topper (Beeline Press 194 pgs.)
Review/Interview by MARTIN ZEILIG
“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” - Albert Einstein
He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” - William
In this reflective work of historical fiction, Albert Einstein is reminiscing about his life while sitting in his study in Princeton, New Jersey, on a single day (March 21, 19555), only a few weeks prior to his death. He is trying to compose a letter of condolence to the family of a friend who has just died. The book’s title refers to a class photograph taken when a young Albert was in school in Ulm, Germany. His fellow students and he male teacher all have stern, serious looks on their faces. The future famous scientist, who is standing front row to the right, is the only one smiling at the camera.
Author David Topper earned his PhD in the History of Science from Case Western Reserve University in 1970, and became an award-winning Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg, where he taught courses in the history of science and the history of art for 42 years. He has published four previous books: Quirky Sides of Scientists: True Tales of Ingenuity and Error from Physics and Astronomy; How Einstein Created Relativity from Physics and Astronomy; Idolatry and Infinity: Of Art, Math, and God; and Einstein for Anyone.
This concise novel humanizes the great 20th century theoretical physicist in a way that fiction, historical or otherwise, must do in order to fully engage and enlighten the reader. It’s obvious that a great deal of research went into this work. Real events from Einstein’s life are blended with imaginary dialogue but, as Topper notes, from documented sources. The author’s clever use of different fonts forces one to focus – and that is a good thing– on the words of those characters with whom the elderly Einstein is interacting, either through his thoughts, dreams/day dreaming or in conversation. Einstein’s ruminations and conversations introduce us to the some of the influential people in his life:, Michele Angelo Besso (1873-1955), Helen Dukas (1896-1982), Eduard (Tete) Einstein (1910-1965), Elsa Lowenthal Einstein (1876-1936), Hans Albert Einstein (1904-1973), Hermann Einstein (1847-1902), Ilse Einstein (1897-1934), Margot Einstein (1899-1986), Mileva Maric Einstein (1875-1948), Pauline Einstein (1858-1920), Otto Nathan (1893-1987), J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), and other individuals–including a fictional gardener. We see the crucial role that music played in Einstein’s life. He recollects the women in his life, his struggle with his Jewish identity, his progressive social and political ideas, and, of course, his revolutionary scientific theories. The author agreed to an email interview with The Jewish Post & News.
JP&N: Why did you decide to write a novel about Einstein?
D.T.: My decision to write this novel came about this way. While teaching history for 42 years, I often encountered someone who would say something like this: “Oh, you teach history. I find history boring, but I like historical novels.” As well, when I looked at some historical novels on topics I knew about, I found many mistakes. And so, I had a running aversion to that genre of writing.
But after I retired from teaching and I was writing books, some of which were not selling as much as I would have liked, the thought occurred to me that if my books were historical novels they might do better on the market. (I don’t write to make money, but to communicate my ideas. So, if no one is reading them, there is no communication.) And so, for the first time in my life, I considered joining the crowd rather than fighting them.
Yet I hesitated, not only because I never wrote fiction before, but I assumed that I would be duplicating what others had already done. However, a search of the Internet came up empty, as if no one ever wrote an historical novel on Einstein, which I thought was hard to believe, since everyone famous has numerous books in this genre written about them. I mentioned this to several scholars I knew and they were skeptical of my conclusion, at first; they later got back to me and said that I may be right; they too could not find a novel about him. One person said she was sure there were historical novels on Einstein in French & German, which may be true, but I have not found them yet. Hence, it seemed that I had an opportunity to write the first such book, at least in English. And so, I started working on it.
JP&N: Why did you choose to write in this style, i.e. a reflective Einstein?
DT: How I came up with the format of the book taking place in one day near the end of his life,
with Einstein looking back over that life through daydreaming, dreaming, and such – frankly, I cannot reconstruct how I arrived at this. Sorry, but it is gone from my memory. I do remember that I was sure I could not write a standard (Dickens like) narrative structure, with Einstein being born, etc. Instead, I knew I needed another format that I could do. Somehow, I came up with the one I used. Once I had it, I jumped right in.
JP&N: How long did the entire process take you?
DT: I didn’t keep a diary but it took about one year to complete a first draft of the book. It went
quicker than I expected, for the juices just kept coming, so to speak. After my friend Sheilla Jones read the first draft, and encouraged me to keep going, I worked on a revision for several months, using her excellent suggestions.
JP&N: What sparked your initial interest in Einstein?
DT: There was no spark. For me, as a kid growing up in the USA in the 1950s, the word Einstein was an eponym for someone smart. But, humorously, I first heard the word in a sentence addressed to me, such as: “Well, you are no Einstein.” – and, I thought it was a compliment. You see, I thought it meant something like, “Well, you are no Frankenstein.” Of course, I eventually realized that it was really a putdown. By high school, in the late 50s, I found that I liked math, and I did quite well in algebra and geometry. In my senior year I had a physics course taught by an easy-going and very good teacher, and so, upon graduation I found myself in university with a double major in physics and math. Importantly, the background to all this was Sputnik, the Russian satellite launched into space in October, 1957. I was, therefore, one of those kids who was drawn into science as part of the attempt to beat the Soviets to the moon, since they beat us to orbiting something in space.
So, where was Einstein in all this? He wasn’t. I don’t remember hearing his name in school in any profound way – beyond the “being very smart” business. But I was stimulated into learning about math and science, and I read some popular books on the subject. One of the first, a book which I still have, was 1, 2, 3 …Infinity by George Gamow. There I first learned about transfinite numbers, conceived (or discovered, depending on your point of view) by Georg Cantor. He is mentioned in my novel, in the boxcar dream, if you recall. Crucially, a major section of Gamow’s book was on Einstein and the Theory of Relativity: a section I read and re-read many times over the years, starting around my senior year in high school.
In university, however, there was no Einstein in any significant way, until my last year. I had, in retrospect, an innovative physics professor. First, he gave us a course on relativity using original papers. I still have the book, The Principle of Relativity (it is a classic text of sources, translated into English in 1923 that is still in print through Dover books). We read, among other things, Einstein’s 1905 paper that launched the theory (that is, the Special Theory, about motion). I had no idea at the time how prophetic this course would be in my life. Then in a spring course just before graduation, he taught us General Relativity (Einstein’s theory of gravity). I still have his printed-out notes: Tensors and Relativity. Yes, we were introduced to tensor calculus, which was quite an experience, even for me, who was a double major in physics and math. As a result of taking this course, if today I see tensor equations in Einstein stuff, I don’t panic.
Very early in my undergraduate years, I decided what I wanted to do with the rest of my life (or, at least, my working life): I wanted to be a university professor. And so, I worked my butt off over those four years, and it paid off. In 1964 I found myself in graduate school at Case Tech in Cleveland, Ohio, studying more physics. (Today it is part of Case Western Reserve University.) Physics at that time, was primarily quantum physics and its various offshoots. Of course, Einstein was mentioned for his extremely important role in quantum physics. But I also recall that his General Relativity Theory was dismissed by a professor as being too erudite and without much proof or relevance to anything. And he was not making a radical statement then, for this was a common view at the time. There were few schools teaching it in the 1960s.
By my second year in grad school, at the end of which I would get my Master’s degree, I had serious doubts about going on for a PhD in physics. Nonetheless, as if by divine intervention, in the fall of that year a new course was introduced with the intriguing title: Some Conceptual Development of Modern Physics, taught by Martin J. Klein. I later learned that Klein’s PhD was in physics, of course, but for the past many years he no longer did research in physics; instead, he was publishing articles on the history of physics. And in time, he became one of the world’s top scholars on modern physics (and especially Einstein) receiving numerous awards over his life. He was, for example, the main editor of several volumes of The Collected Works I mentioned before.
Back to the fall of 1965: I took Klein’s course, and it changed my life. I was enamored by what he taught, and I decided to change my major. My fellow physics chums thought I was nuts (“No one changes fields in grad school,” they chided), but (in retrospect) it was one of the best decisions of my life. I went on to get my PhD in the history of science in 1970, and never looked back. And that is why I dedicated my Einstein novel to Martin Klein. Without his wonderful course, I would not be talking to you about Einstein now. God knows where I would be? Or what I would be doing?
In August 1970 my wife and I crossed the border at Emerson and proceeded to Winnipeg for me to take up my professorship at the University of Winnipeg, where I taught for 42 years. Over those years of teaching courses in the history of science, I increasingly got more interested in Einstein, eventually creating a course on him alone. Indeed, the last course I taught before retiring was my Einstein course. Hence, it does not seem peculiar that my writings since then have been primarily on Einstein.
So, to answer to your question: There was no spark, but seemingly from a small dim flame a gradual fire grew over the years to its present blaze.
Wednesday, September 18, 2019, THE JEWISH POST & NEWS
Albert Einstein and the high school geometry problem
The famous physicist’s answer to a Hollywood high schooler’s letter went viral 65 years ago.
David Topper & Dwight E. Vincent
Physics Today (People & History), December 19, 2017
In a Note (Feb. 11, 2019) from the editor of Physics Today we were informed that
this article was the 2nd most popular on-line and the 4th overall for 2018.
Since the editor of the Physics Today journal edited out the biographical part of our paper,
I have added this story below, because I think it will be of interest to most readers.
Born on October 2, 1937, Johanna was the daughter of Herman Mankiewicz, a writer, who collaborated with Orson Welles on the movie Citizen Kane. His brother was Joseph Mankiewicz, the famous producer and director, and hence Johanna grew up in the atmosphere of Hollywood, with Jane Fonda as a childhood chum. Since she was living within the world of notoriety and stardom, I wonder how much the idea of writing a letter to Einstein was of her own volition, and especially whether she alone initiated the press photos and interviews. Of course, we can only leave these as probably unanswerable questions.
Her brother was Frank Mankiewicz, who went on to a career in journalism and became involved in politics. He is best remembered as Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, who announced Bobby’s death to the press after the assassination on June 6, 1968. His son, Ben, is the TV host on Turner Classic Movies.
After High School graduation, Johanna went east to Wellesley College where she met and married a Harvard University student, Peter Davis. They had two children, and she started a writing career, eventually working for Time magazine, and even publishing in 1973 a novel, Life Signs. The book was well received by reviewers, and even spent some time on the NY Times best-seller list. As her career was taking off, so was that of her husband, who was working in TV and movies, focusing on issues of social conscience. Indeed, he went on to win an Oscar for his feature documentary on Vietnam, Hearts and Minds (1975), which is considered a classic today by many film buffs. Davis’s acceptance speech on April 8, 1975 before the Academy, however, was bittersweet. The previous year, on July 25, 1974, Johanna was walking in their neighborhood of Greenwich Village with their 11-year-old son, Timothy, when she was struck by a taxi and pinned against a mailbox. She died at the age of 36. Timothy was unhurt (LA Times, July 27, 1974, p. B3).
I recently came across a website trying to revive her novel, calling Life Signs a neglected book. I read Life Signs, and found it partially but plainly autobiographical: the main character (Camilla) lives in New York, but she grew up around Hollywood; her father is a movie writer and her Harvard-graduate husband makes documentaries. The book is smartly written and both witty and bleak. Haunting the text for this reader, needless to say, was the knowledge of Johanna’s shocking death. Yet I still broke out with a chuckle when Camilla said at one point that “she had always been good at math,” but I discernibly felt a deep chill when Camilla was crossing a street in New York and she was almost hit by a truck.
A Note on Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (1994):
Or, why this book is not an historical novel about Einstein
Lightman’s little book is beautiful but strange. It is set in 1905 Berne, when Einstein was working in the patent office with his best friend Michele Besso. It consists of 30 very short chapters, dated from April 14 to June 28, each being a dream about a world with a different concept of time. In addition, there is a Prologue, three Interludes, and an Epilogue. (I should point out that it was during this period of Einstein’s life, specifically from March 18 to September 27, that he submitted his four revolutionary physics papers to the German Physics journal. In particular, on June 30, he sent the first paper on relativity that put forth his new theory about time.)
In the Prologue, Einstein is waiting for a secretary to arrive, since he has a paper on relativity for her to type. In the Epilogue, he gives her the paper.
In the Interludes, Einstein is with Besso: going for a walk, in a café, and fishing from a boat in the river. In these episodes, Einstein is absent-minded, even moody, distant, and almost incommunicative. There is very little real engagement between them – this, despite the fact, that Einstein thanked Besso, and only Besso, for his help with the paper on relativity. (Lightman does not mention this.) Importantly, there is no discussion about the concept of time between them, even though historians have evidence that something Besso said was a catalyst for the idea of the relativity of time. (Lightman does not mention this, either.) Also, there is a brief mention of Einstein’s wife and son, but otherwise nothing on his life.
In the 30 chapters of dreams, different concepts of time are considered. For example: time going in a circle, time standing still, a world without time, time going backwards, a world where people live forever, a world without a future, and so forth. Only one dream, on May 29th, where time slows down as people move faster, has any relevance to Einstein’s theory.
Now, importantly, there is no evidence that Einstein ever considered the other 29 concepts on his road to relativity, nor that such ideas would even emerge in terms of the problems he was working on. I find this all extremely odd. Lightman could have carved out these lyrically written fantasies about other worlds with other times, without bringing in Einstein. That’s why I call this book beautiful but strange. Why he wrote it this way, I do not tknow.
Moreover, the scope of the novel is only this very short period (two months, however important they were) in Einstein’s life. I therefore cannot categorize this little book as an Einstein novel in any meaningful sense of the term. It is more fantasy than history. It least, it certainly cannot be considered an Einstein novel in any comprehensive sense.
This Letter to the Editor
appeared in the
May 8, 2014 issue of the
New York Review of Books.