Germany in the first half of the 20th century often is associated with the Nazi movement that ultimately ravaged the country. In the world of physics, however, it had become a battleground for opposing schools of thought: One side embraced experimental physics, which was based on the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton and driven by the scientific method; the other believed in theoretical physics, which revolved around theories that sometimes were untested experimentally and was grounded in the work of Albert Einstein.
For Philipp Lenard, the recipient of the 1905 Nobel Prize for physics and an adviser to Adolf Hitler, the conflict between experimental and theoretical physics was personified in his hatred for Einstein. In The Man Who Stalked Einstein: How Nazi Scientist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History, Bruce Hillman ’69 and co-authors Birgit Ertl-Wagner and Bernd C. Wagner recount the events that led to Einstein’s rise, his rivalry with Lenard, and his eventual self-exile from his homeland, bringing to life the “smoldering, personal cold war” between the two men. The book’s publication coincides with the 60th anniversary of Einstein’s death.
Eventually, Lenard and other Nazi scientists succeeded in pushing not just Einstein but virtually all Jewish scientists out of Germany. Einstein ended up in Princeton. For Lenard, Hillman writes, being able to drive out his intellectual enemy must have felt like a triumph. It would later become clear, however, that Lenard’s actions had unforeseen consequences for science — and those consequences would resonate long after Lenard’s victory.
Hillman is a professor and the former chair of radiology at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American College of Radiology. He also is the author of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: How Medical Imaging is Changing Health Care.