Authors: Bruce J. Hillman,Birgit Ertl-Wagner,Bernd C. Wagner
The Man Who
The Man Who
How Nazi Scientist Philipp Lenard Changed the Course of History
Bruce J. Hillman, Birgit Ertl-Wagner,
and Bernd C. Wagner
An imprint of Rowman & Littlefield
Distributed by NATIONAL BOOK NETWORK
Copyright © 2015 by Bruce J. Hillman, Birgit Ertl-Wagner, and Bernd C. Wagner
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Information Available
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Available
Hillman, Bruce J.
The man who stalked Einstein : how Nazi scientist Philipp Lenard changed the course
of history / Bruce J. Hillman, Birgit Ertl-Wagner, and Bernd C. Wagner.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-4930-1001-1 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4930-1569-6 (ebook)
1. Lenard, Philipp, 1862–1947. 2. Einstein, Albert, 1879–1955. 3. Relativity (Physics)
4. National socialism and science. 5. Jewish scientists—Germany. I. Ertl-Wagner,
Birgit, 1970– II. Wagner, Bernd C., 1968– III. Title.
The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of American National
Standard for Information Sciences Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials,
For my wife Pam, who gives me love, encouragement,
and much to think about
For Sophie, Hannah, and Clara—we love you
—Birgit Ertl-Wagner and Bernd Wagner
The Man Who Stalked Einstein
is the product of a partnership among three individuals—an American Jew born immediately
after World War II and a German couple two decades younger, whose generation still
lives with the moral opprobrium of Nazi abuses. Friends for over a decade, we approached
writing our book from different but complementary perspectives to achieve common goals:
We wished to write a history on an important topic. We also wanted to write a good
story in an entertaining, creative style that would read like a novel and appeal to
a broad audience. Although we narrate when necessary, we had a strong preference for
our characters to express themselves in their own words. To the extent the historical
record allows, we give vent to their unique voices.
We believe the result is a compelling story that weaves together engaging characters,
their dramatic actions, and the tumultuous times in which they lived. In addition,
we explain in plain English the research and scientific philosophies of Philipp Lenard,
Albert Einstein, and their contemporaries so as to make them approachable to all readers.
There are several reasons why we decided to write this book. Foremost among these
is that the antagonistic relationship between Albert Einstein and Philipp Lenard makes
for a memorable, character-driven story. Einstein and Lenard were opposites in virtually
every way. That both men were brilliant scientists and Nobel laureates with opposing
views about what constituted important, believable science made some degree of conflict
inevitable. However, the enmity that each felt for the other was based on much more
than their science. It was
. Lenard was so consumed by his own narcissism, his envy of Einstein’s fame, and his
hatred for Jews that he sacrificed the integrity of his science and his personal reputation
among the community of scientists on the altar of his personal prejudices.
We follow the convergence of influences and events that turned Lenard from a productive
and highly respected scientist to a man consumed by racial hatred and an early supporter
of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party. We detail the environment that fostered the flowering
, Lenard’s irrational and unsupportable philosophy of Aryan scientific supremacy.
The acceptance of
by the highest level of Nazi leadership, underpinned by anti-Semitic laws enacted
under the Third Reich, enabled Lenard and his like-minded colleague Johannes Stark
to purge Germany’s institutes and universities of many of the greatest scientists
of the era and force them to immigrate to countries with which Germany would soon
be at war.
Oddly enough, the idea for this book had its origins on the lunarlike landscape of
the Cruden Bay golf links just north of Aberdeen, Scotland. There, fate paired me
for a round of golf with two brothers. Their father had been a Canadian army officer
attached to the U.S. military to observe early nuclear weapons testing. Our conversation
about what he had told them of his experiences carried us through eighteen holes and
a long and bibulous dinner at a nearby pub right up until “last call.” Having just
completed writing a book on medical imaging for lay audiences, I was looking to do
something different. Some aspect of the race to develop an atomic weapon seemed like
just the ticket. After a number of false starts, my research led me to the curled
yellowed pages of a 1946 medical journal detailing Colonel Lewis E. Etter’s postwar
interviews of Philipp Lenard. Doctor Etter had recently been discharged from the U.S.
Army Medical Corps and would soon return to the United States to complete his training
in radiology. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Lenard claimed that he, not Wilhelm
Conrad Roentgen, was responsible for discovering X-rays. Researching further, I found
that Lenard’s conflicts over the delegation of credit for scientific discoveries extended
to the British physicist J. J. Thompson, as well as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.
In Lenard’s brilliantly self-centered and paranoid character, I saw the makings of
a powerful story.
The problem for me, of course, was that many of the letters, writings, and secondary
sources that would be essential to writing
The Man Who Stalked Einstein
existed only in German. Translations of Lenard’s writings, in particular, would be
especially hard to come by. Unable to translate German, I approached Birgit and Bernd
with a proposal.
I had known Birgit since 2001, when she had successfully applied for a medical research
fellowship in the United States, under my tutelage. I met her husband Bernd just a
few months later when they traveled to the United States for a medical meeting. In
2012, over cocktails one evening during a conference in Vienna, Birgit and I worked
out the parameters of our partnership: I would research, write, and relate to our
agent, editor, and publisher—should we be fortunate enough to find one. Birgit and
Bernd would research, translate, edit, and suggest the inclusion of material I had
overlooked. Together, we shared a common vision that made writing
The Man Who Stalked Einstein
interesting and fun. We hope you will agree that this book fulfills our hopes for
Bruce Hillman, Birgit Ertl-Wagner, and Bernd Wagner
The natural sciences took a great leap forward during the period covered by our book,
from the late 1800s until the end of World War II, an era in which scientists modeled
the atom and began to develop new theories about the workings of the cosmos.
Lenard’s experimental physics and Einstein’s theoretical physics represent two opposing
schools of thought that came into conflict throughout Europe (but most notably in
Germany) during the first decades of the twentieth century. Basing their work on classical
mechanics derived from the discoveries of such greats as Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus,
and Johannes Kepler, the experimentalists believed that valid new knowledge was the
product of “induction.” Induction calls for a scientist to express a hypothesis; design
experiments to test the correctness of the hypothesis; observe whether the results
support or reject the hypothesis; and, in the end, employ proven hypotheses to construct
laws describing the behavior of natural phenomena.
In contrast, theoretical physics is primarily based on “deduction,” wherein scientists
express new understandings of how the universe works based on established knowledge
and their assumptions concerning unknown principles. To show the plausibility of his
theories, Einstein famously designed “thought experiments” using familiar, everyday
phenomena to make his theories relevant and understandable. Even so, his theories
awaited experimental observations to ultimately determine their accuracy and utility.
Newton’s universal law of gravity provides a classic example of induction. The law
states that the gravitational force exerted by an object is proportional to the square
of its mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two
masses. In other words, larger objects exert more gravitational pull than smaller
objects, and the impact of gravity lessens as the distance between objects grows farther
apart. Newton’s work on gravity began with observation. Based on his observations,
Newton formed a hypothesis about how gravity worked. He then designed a series of
experiments that allowed Newton to accept or reject the hypothesis based on his results.
By repeating this process for a series of hypotheses, he ultimately arrived at his
law of gravitation.
The problem is that while the laws of classical physics hold up well for many applications,
they do not quite work for all applications, especially when miniscule masses like
atoms and subatomic particles and high velocities are involved. As a generalization,
phenomena that do not fall into the realm of human perception are often difficult
to interpret using the laws of classical physics. With advances in instrumentation
improving the accuracy of quantitation of natural occurrences, breaches in the applicability
of Newtonian physics became more evident.