Dual biography of “the two brilliant individuals who have made the greatest impression on people across the world when they think of science.”
The meeting was the iconic first 1911 Solvay Conference in Brussels, attended by many geniuses besides the two in the title. Orens, a former engineer and executive with Solvay Chemical, presents portraits of Einstein and Curie that will not replace a focused individual life—see Walter Isaacson’s Einstein (2007) and Susan Quinn’s Marie Curie (1995)—but it’s a good read. Ernest Solvay (1838-1922) was a wealthy Belgian industrialist who, like Alfred Nobel, his contemporary, became a philanthropist for scientific causes. Still held every three years, Solvay conferences assemble elite physicists and chemists to discuss a significant problem. Einstein and Curie met at the first and remained friends, although their research never overlapped. As such, Orens skips back and forth as he recounts their lives. Not yet a scientific superstar, Einstein was a central figure at the 1911 meeting, the goal of which was to explain newly discovered quantum phenomena that didn’t make sense. His epic 1905 papers are mostly known for proposing relativity, but one explained that an electron could behave as a particle and energy wave at the same time. A groundbreaking discovery at the birth of quantum mechanics, this “photoelectric effect” (not relativity) won Einstein his Nobel Prize. It was among the first proven phenomena to contradict Newton’s laws, and scientists are still trying to reconcile these quantum effects and classical physics. Curie discovered radium, by far the most radioactive element. Although she didn’t discover radioactivity (a common error), she explained it as a consequence of a breakdown of the atom itself—not, as some theorized, a sort of chemical reaction. Fiercely dedicated, ambitious, and workaholic, she overcame poverty and the almost universal prejudice against educated women to became the first internationally famous woman scientist.
A painless introduction to two of the 20th century’s greatest geniuses.