Chronology of Einstein’s Mistakes

1905: Mistake in clock synchronization procedure on which Einstein based special relativity.

1905: Failure to consider Michelson-Morley experiment

1905: Mistake in “transverse mass” of high-speed particle.

1905: Multiple mistakes in the mathematics and physics used in calculation of viscosity of sugar solution, from which Einstein deduced size of molecule.

1905: Mistake in the relationship between thermal radiation and quanta of light.

1905: Mistake in the first proof of E = mc2.

1906 - 1907: Mistakes in the second, third, and fourth proofs of E = mc2.

1907 – 1915: Mistakes in the Principle of Equivalence of gravitation and acceleration.

1911: Mistake in the first calculation of the bending of light.

1912: Mistake in the synchronization procedure for accelerated clocks.

1913: Mistake in the first attempt at a theory of general relativity.

1914: Mistake in the fifth proof of E = mc2.

1915: Mistake in the Einstein-deHaas experiment.

1914-1915: Mistakes in several attempts at theories of general relativity.

1916: Mistake in the interpretation of Mach’s principle.

1917: Mistake in the introduction of the cosmological constant (the “biggest blunder”).

1919: Mistakes in two attempts to modify general relativity.

1925-1955: Mistakes and more mistakes in the attempts to formulate a unified theory.

1927: Mistakes in discussions with Bohr on quantum uncertainties.

1933: Mistakes in interpretation of quantum mechanics (“God does not play dice”)

1935: Mistake in the sixth proof of E = mc2.

1939: Mistake in the interpretation of the Schwarzschild singularity and gravitational collapse (the “black hole”).

1946: Mistake in the seventh proof of E = mc2.


“I will resign the game”

On Tuesday, June 24, 1969, Albert Einstein drove Donald Crowhurst into madness. Crowhurst was a participant in the single-handed around-the-globe sailboat race organized by the Sunday Times of London, and he was alone in his trimaran Teignmouth Electron, becalmed in mid-Atlantic, in the Sargasso Sea, about 700 miles southwest of the Azores. There were no eyewitnesses to his descent into madness, but we know what happened because he meticulously recorded the events in his logbook. On that fateful day, he began to read Einstein’s book Relativity: The Special and the General Theory. The book was first published in 1917, just before Einstein became a celebrity, and it explains his theories in more or less nontechnical terms. It sold a great many copies, went through fifteen editions, was translated into a dozen languages, and is still in print. Most of these copies remained mostly unread, but—like the currently fashionable books by Stephen Hawking—they presumably added some cachet to the private libraries of intellectuals and their fellow travelers.

Crowhurst had stowed the book, and a few others, aboard his yacht to while away long boring days with no wind. He was an electrical engineer, and his training in mathematics and physics was certainly adequate for coping with this book. After reading a dozen pages, he came across a paragraph that, quite literally, blew his mind. Einstein proposed to test the simultaneity of two events—say, two lightning strokes—at two widely separated points A and B by observing the arrival of light signals from these events at the midpoint between A and B. Discussing the travel times of the light signals from the points A and B to the midpoint M, Einstein claimed:

That light requires the same time to traverse the path A→M as for the path B→M is in reality neither a supposition nor a hypothesis about the physical nature of light, but a stipulation which I can make of my own free will in order to arrive at a definition of simultaneity.

Crowhurst simply could not believe this. In his logbook he wrote:

I said aloud with some irritation: “You can’t do THAT!” I thought, “the swindler.” Then I looked at a photograph of the author in later years. The essence of the man rebuked me. I re-read the passage and re-read it, trying to get to the mind of the man who wrote it. The mathematician in me could distinguish nothing to mitigate the offending principles. But the poet in me could eventually read between the lines, and he read: “Nevertheless I have just done it, let us examine the consequences.”

But Crowhurst’s attempts to understand the consequences led him down a dizzying spiral into madness. For the next eight days, he wrote some 25,000 words at a furious rate, almost nonstop, taking only an occasional short break, perhaps for a nap or a bite to eat. He wrote like a man possessed, frantically filling his logbook with a string of nonsensical pseudoscientific sentences, such as…

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