In this intriguing new book, science historian Arthur I. Miller looks in parallel at the achievements of Einstein in physics and Picasso in art and explores the common origins of each. But first he asks the important question of why--what were they after? No less than the truth, it seems, and a representation of nature--space and time--that went deeper than the side of it we perceive through our senses. He shows how it was basically the same problem for both, and how they went about tackling it, with particular details given as the story unfolds.
The author's energetic writing style captures the spirit of that magic time at the beginning of the 20th century when dramatic changes were in the air--the discovery of X-rays, new developments in photography and filmmaking, breakthroughs in mathematics and psychology. The book shows how Einstein and Picasso responded to these changes, arriving on the scene poor but full of optimism and confidence, with a savvy in picking up on opportunities that Bill Gates would probably admire.
Chapters on Einstein alternate with those on Picasso; occasionally, one man makes an appearance in the other's space (in the form of an observation by the author, because, of course, the two never met). This gives a sense of events occurring at the same time. At one point we see them grappling with questions of simultaneity, framed in this technique. Harold Pinter couldn't have done better.
The stories of their personal lives, and how they influenced their work, are told in a very absorbing way--their poignant relationships with women that often ended in tragedy, the friends they spent time with, the opinions they listened to, the books and journals they read, and the cafes they frequented (especially when their early apartments didn't have kitchens).
A recent Sunday New York Times review aptly likens the book to "an intellectual thriller." The key to the mystery lies in the book by French mathematician Henri Poincare, "Science and Hypothesis," mentioned repeatedly. Picasso was intrigued by Poincare's discussion of the fourth dimension--motion in time--and the author describes how Picasso got wind of it and who explained it to him. Einstein had read a German translation of the book and was impressed with its brilliant mathematics and views on "aesthetic sensibility," and we read how notions of aesthetics were essential to his discovery of relativity.
The author gives due credit to Cezanne's influence on Picasso (After all, who can forget his famous aphorism that everything in nature is modeled on the sphere, the cone, and the cylinder?) Then he shows how Picasso took geometrization a step further, and then some, with a very well thought out analysis of the mathematical underpinnings of cubism that gives a fuller understanding of the paintings.
Arthur Miller draws on his background in physics to show how Einstein discovered relativity. (Math phobes shouldn't worry--there aren't any equations.) He especially goes into how Einstein, rather than relying completely on empirical data, used conceptual thought, which is often a difficult process. It's an approach that goes a long way to explaining why Einstein succeeded where others didn't.
The author supports his views with an abundance of carefully researched information and ties it all together, and doesn't overlook subtle clues. It could take some effort to get through certain parts of the book, but he gives you a great deal of help. He takes you along on the adventure, and in some of the pages on Einstein invites you to do your own thought experiment, using examples from everyday life, such as an elevator ride.
I imagine this book will fascinate a wide range of readers, both scholars and laypersons interested in the ideas that shaped our time, and will inspire lively discussions for years to come.