Moffat: Einstein Wrote Back

November 26, 2010

Einstein Wrote Back
My Life in Physics
John W. Moffat (Thomas Allen, 2010)
244 p.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, my office was adjacent to an office occupied by John Moffat. He would pop in occasionally to chat, and once or twice to ask us to work out a tricky integral, but I never had the opportunity to work closely with him. By reputation he was something of a maverick, working on ideas one or two steps outside the mainstream, always with an interest in whether the data could be accounted for by means different from the conventional explanation.

From time to time I picked up hints that his education and entry into physics had been rather unorthodox. It was rumoured that as a young man he had lived in Paris and pursued the art of painting before turning to the sciences. Indeed, I once saw a book of photographs of his paintings. Yet I never had — or, at any rate, never took — the opportunity to talk with him about this at any length.

I was delighted, therefore, to see that he has published a memoir. It is principally an account of his early life, and in particular of the way in which he came to study physics, which turns out to have been even more unconventional than I had suspected. In addition to his interesting biography, a chief pleasure of the book lies in Moffat’s hilarious, and often touching, first-hand stories about his encounters with many of the great physicists of the twentieth century.

As a child his schooling had been somewhat desultory, and he showed no special aptitude for mathematics or science. He took up painting as a young man, and moved to Paris to study with Serge Poliakoff. After some time, however, it became clear that it was not easy to earn a living at that noble art, and he returned home to Denmark, pondering his future. It so happened that he stumbled upon some of the popular cosmology writing of Sir Arthur Eddington, and these books changed his life, permanently. Moffat puts it this way:

After reading the books, I began having strange visions of the structure of the universe and the fabric of space-time as revealed by Albert Einstein. In these daydreams, I tried to comprehend how the universe was structured. These daydreams were intuitive forms rising from my subconscious rather than conscious attempts to understand the universe. The visions seemed to indicate some primal urge developing in me to connect with the stars and galaxies of the universe.

Under the sway of this powerful experience, he resolved to pursue theoretical physics, and in particular to study Einstein’s general relativity. With no training whatsoever in mathematics or physics, he began frequenting a local library and reading everything he could find on the subject. Incredibly, within a year he had taught himself enough mathematics and physics to compose an original paper on an aspect of general relativity. Even more incredibly, a family friend arranged for him to meet with one of the great physicists of the century, and certainly the greatest physicist in Denmark, Niels Bohr.

This meeting provided Moffat with the entry point he needed, and it was just the first in a series of remarkable meetings with the luminaries of modern physics. Bohr sent him to Erwin Schrödinger, and Schrödinger wrote him a letter of reference to Cambridge. (Moffat was a British citizen, and had a better chance of pursuing graduate studies there.) Surprisingly, Cambridge agreed to accept him into the doctoral program, despite his lacking an undergraduate degree of any kind, and he began formal studies under the supervision of Fred Hoyle.

During this transition period, Moffat wrote to Einstein, who was then at Princeton, and, to his surprise and delight, he received several thoughtful and encouraging letters in return. These letters gave him the confidence to imagine that he could succeed as a physicist, and it makes good sense that he has structured his memoir around them.

As a graduate student, post-doc, and young professor, Moffat crossed paths, and sometimes swords, with an amazing number of famous physicists: Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli, Abdus Salam, Murray Gell-Mann, and others. His stories about these meetings are tremendously entertaining. It is said that genius is to madness near allied, and these stories provide evidence to that effect.  More than once I had to set the book down for laughter and astonishment. He relates all these tales with a good-natured affection, as well he might.

Moffat went on to have a very successful career. He is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, and is on staff at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he pursues an active research program. This memoir, which makes a nice pendant to his earlier book Reinventing Gravity, is well worth the attention of anyone with an interest in the human side of the sciences.


I did not know that books could have trailers, but apparently they can. Here is the trailer for “Einstein Wrote Back”:


Related reading: John W. Moffat – Reinventing Gravity

One Response to “Moffat: Einstein Wrote Back”

  1. […] one of the books I read this year was actually first published this year, so I am allowing myself to […]

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