Some Kind of Einstein

February 22, 2016

Now available at ASCE Press

Did you know Einstein was an accomplished civil engineer – Hans Albert, that is. Albert’s son. In Hans Albert Einstein: His Life as a Pioneering Engineer, available on ASCE press here, we are given insight into the lives of both men through first-person accounts, personal letters between father and son, and published technical papers. Authors Robert Ettema and Cornelia F. Mutel seek to present the unified story of Hans Albert’s personal and professional life. Reconciling Hans Albert’s extraordinary lineage with this very practical engineer’s professional sensibility is the key challenge put to the authors.

Most readers will be hooked by the personal relationships between Albert Einstein and his family. There are so many compelling questions to put to the progeny of the greatest scientific mind of the 20th century. What would family time be like? Not surprisingly Albert was known to create complicated logic problems to challenge his elementary school aged son. How would dad describe the purpose of life? Focusing one’s life on research is a good start. According to a letter from Albert to Hans Albert late in life,

“…to rise above mere existence by devoting all of his powers throughout the years to an impersonal goal. This is indeed the best, indeed the only means through which we can make ourselves independent of personal fate and of human beings. For you it is the investigation of the processes that determine the shaping of water courses… This is what gives one satisfaction and life meaning.”

But is intellectual fame as potentially disruptive as that kind faced by entertainers? Yes. After Albert started receiving recognition for his accomplishments, he traveled extensively and eventually lived apart from his family, who remained in Switzerland through Hans Albert’s youth. This required Hans Albert at an all-to-young-age to accept responsibility for caring for a mentally ill brother and exasperated mother. Albert’s wife could have been a successful researcher in her own right, but family obligation and divorce sidelined her career and by accounts broke her spirit.

Albert maintained connection with his family and provided for the family financially. He was there at multiple points in Hans Albert’s life to get him into the right schools and new jobs, and out of the country in advance of war. However, Hans Albert’s reliance on an overbearing but absent father was not without some emotional baggage. Their relationship appeared quite rocky except with regards to scientific inquiry. Albert was a professional sounding board – maybe the only other person who fully understood Hans Albert’s joy for nuanced technical discovery.

The authors have gone to great lengths to demonstrate Hans Albert’s significant technical contributions to the profession. This is perhaps fascinating to hydrologists, but to someone with a tertiary relationship to this branch of civil engineering, it’s a little hard to get geared up for a description of research in pursuit of the  grand unified theory of sediment transport. The science is well explained, but should be read while well caffeinated. If you’re interested in the particular professional events that shaped Hans Albert’s understanding of bed load transport, you should read the book.

Hans Albert’s shared his father’s belief in the mechanical view, or the application of classical physics to explain the motion of bodies from sediment to planets. His research and formulations were often at odds in a field of inquiry with so many variables and local nuances. Engineers were really flying blind as to the effects of dams, levees, concrete embankments, etc. on rivers. Some experts believed in a sort of guess and test method, physical models might approximate results, others felt that empirical results from similar rivers were most valid. Hans Albert tried to combine data collection with these other approaches to develop a mechanical solution. The result was requisitely complex, as acknowledged by other experts. Hunter Rouse, in his book, Hydraulics in the United States, 1776-1976, noted,

“at best a very complex function, the Einstein bed-load formula was probably fully understood only by its creator.”

At several points throughout his career Hans Albert was confronted by engineers who felt that his method was just too complicated to be of practical use. As a practicing engineer, I find this to be a compelling debate. Don’t get me started on the new ASCE-7 wind provisions. Nevertheless, it’s informative to the body of knowledge. We’re told that Hans Albert’s work was transformative for the study of sediment transfer. Shortly after Hans Albert’s death in 1973 computational methods started to come into practice. The industry would take another turn, like the rivers they study.

Natural systems, be they rivers or family relations, are complicated. Even the most brilliant minds can struggle to navigate one or both. Kudos are due to those who attempt to find order in the chaos.

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