Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review - A Lone Traveler: Einstein in California

A Lone Traveler: Einstein in California

By William M. Kramer

with Margaret Leslie Davis

Foreword by Uri D. Herscher

2004, published by the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles

Softcover, 124 pages.


William Kramer (1921–2004) almost lived to see his labor of love published in book form. Toward the end of his life, Kramer partnered with author Margaret Leslie Davis to finish the project, and in 2004 A Lone Traveler was published by the Skirball Center in Los Angeles. I bought the book in the Center's giftshop, on a day when I was a lone traveler myself, speaking at the Center as a guest of Williams College.

A Lone Traveler is a concisely written, pleasurable account of Einstein's three visits to California in the early 1930s. When the book opens, Einstein is still a German citizen and still an outspoken pacifist. By the time of the book's close, Einstein is a U.S. citizen and a proponent of military action against the Nazis. Kramer rightly judged that this transitional period in Einstein's life was worth a closer look.

Kramer covers the transition well, and this alone would have justified the book—but for many readers, the greatest enjoyment of reading A Lone Traveler will be the wealth of stories about the Einsteins' social calendar during their months as Southern Californians. We relive Albert and Elsa's evenings with Hollywood stars, attending premieres and parties; we see them taking weekends in Palm Springs; and we see Albert suffering through myriad interviews, awards ceremonies, parades, and even the occasional fruit judging. In all cases, Einstein graciously and/or puckishly played along.

Studio giant Jack Warner reportedly told Einstein, "You know, I have a theory about relatives too—don't hire them." (Ba-dum-tss.) A guest at one of the Hollywood parties recalled, "It was funny to see all the greatest names in moviedom hanging about Einstein's heels like a crowd of fans hanging around the heels of a film star." Reading between the lines of one understated anecdote, it would appear that at one of those banquets, Albert Einstein was trying to seduce Fay Lesser, wife of producer Sol Lesser.

The book includes seventeen black-and-white photographs, including some that I hadn't seen before, such as a behind-the-scenes shot of Albert and Elsa on a movie set, being filmed for a special-effects movie that I hope still exists somewhere.

Kramer's book meets high standards of scholarship. The notes section includes dozens of footnoted sources, and there's a comprehensive index. A bibliography would have been helpful. Plenty of Kramer's findings were new to me, and a great deal of original research in the book is drawn from primary sources with origins in Southern California's Jewish community (newsletters, Rabbinical statements, and so on).

The author took care to write verifiably; for example, he writes that the daily stack of mail on Einstein's desk "was described as three feet high" (emphasis mine). As another example, there comes an especially dramatic moment when Albert and Elsa are closing up their country house in Caputh, Germany late in 1932. A writer interested only in drama might have written, "Einstein turned to Elsa and said, 'Dreh' dich um. Du siehst's nie wieder.' [Turn around. You will never see it again.]" But Kramer carefully prepends this with, "According to his secretary, Helen Dukas, ...."

The book quotes liberally from Einstein's letters and journals. Some of the quotations reveal a writer capable of poetic expression, as in the following lines written late in 1931, aboard the Hamburg-American liner Portland:
Today I resolved in essence to give up my Berlin position. Hence a migrating bird for the rest of my life! Seagulls are still accompanying the ship, always on the wing. They are said to come with us as far as the Azores.
Passages like this one stand in contrast to Einstein's cliché-ridden activist writings about pacifism. (Politics makes bad writers of us all.)

From Kramer's book we can see that Einstein had complex feelings about America. In a New Year's Eve radio address from California, Einstein praised the American mode of living "in which we find the joy of life and the joy of work handsomely combined." Yet in a letter to a recipient in Berlin, Einstein described his friend Upton Sinclair as being "'in the doghouse here' because he relentlessly 'lights up the dark side of the American bustle.'" In another letter, Einstein disdains America's "barren" culture.

Einstein chose to visit Pasadena for an important scientific reason. Here Kramer quotes Caltech historian Judith Goodman: "The big question at Caltech in 1931 was whether Einstein would give up his cosmological constant and accept the idea of an expanding universe." The context for this statement is that by 1931, astronomer Edwin Hubble at the Mount Wilson observatory in the San Gabriel mountains had amassed a set of red-shift observations that pointed to an expanding universe; but Einstein himself had favored a static solution to his cosmological equations. Einstein wanted to understand Hubble's data, and in addition to Mount Wilson, Southern California offered a burgeoning California Institute of Technology, where Einstein could collaborate with colleagues of his own stature, including Michaelson, Morley, and Millikan. In telling the scientific story, Kramer wisely avoids digressing on the physics; rather, by relating the record of events, he imbues the scientific narrative of these years with interest and, for this physicist at least, drama.

Reading A Lone Traveler, I found myself wondering about the fruits of Einstein's later career. We all know that he was working on a unified field theory, and we all know that he failed to find it. But what exactly was he trying to do? In a speech at UCLA, Kramer quotes Einstein as saying,
My objective is to give a simple, logical, unified development of both gravitational and electro-magnetic fields from a minimum number of postulates. This has necessitated a new geometry which I have invented with the assistance of Dr. Walther Mayer.
That suggests that something, at least, has been definitively completed, having to do with geometry. I wonder what it was.

Speaking of Mayer, Kramer notes:
The record reflects that it was critical to Einstein that his future employer also hire Dr. Walther Mayer, a mathematician from Vienna. ... Einstein was insistent that Mayer's appointment [at Princeton] be independent of his own. 'Otherwise I would feel that he would become unemployed on my death,' Einstein told Flexner.
That refers to Abraham Flexner, the mastermind behind the creation of the Institute for Advanced Study. Flexner was in competition with Caltech's visionary president, the physicist Robert Millikan, to give Einstein a permanent home. But it seems Flexner outmaneuvered Millikan, in part by offering Mayer a permanent position.

"Mayer," Kramer writes, "had worked as Einstein's assistant since 1929 and was affectionately known as 'the calculator.'" Here is a photograph of Mayer, taken from the book. (He's in the back row, wearing glasses.) Looking at this picture, I wonder...whatever became of Dr. Walther Mayer? Did he ever write a memoir of his years as Einstein's mathematical assistant?





William M. Kramer edited and published Western States Jewish History. He was polymathic: professor, writer, rabbi, therapist, and actor. He was also a self-described "Einsteinmaniac." Kramer's diligent scholarship, and his humility toward a subject of lifelong fascination, have together produced a valuable contribution—what he himself called "a Jewish memoir of Albert Einstein's California years." The book will appeal to many audiences and deserves to be widely read.

(Click here for this review on Amazon.com, and click here to buy the book.)

2 comments:

jeff said...

Really enjoyed the review, Jason, as usual. You should consider sharing these via Amazon or Goodreads.

Jason Zimba said...

Thanks, Jeff, for the kind words - and for the great suggestion to post the reviews in places where there are lots of readers and/or book buyers. I just went over and posted this one on Amazon. When I get a chance, I'll port over the rest.