Zach Into 2020

Category: Read Later

When Einstein Was Just Another Physicist 

AROUND 15 OR 20 years ago, in the early aughts of this century, it was faddish in certain corners of the history of science to write biographies of obscure figures. The idea was that understanding the life of run-of-the-mill researchers would tell us more about how science actually operates than would studies of rarefied individuals. Enough with Darwin and Newton; it was time to excavate the life of moderately successful 19th-century zoology professors at land-grant universities. This wasn’t quite a call for social history — these studies generally retained the discipline’s traditional focus on the intellectual accomplishments of relatively elite individuals — but it did reflect a yearning to incorporate the quotidian into a field better known for its interest in breakthroughs.

If I’m not naming names, it’s not solely out of a desire to protect the well intentioned. Very few of these projects were ultimately published. I encountered them primarily as a young acquisitions editor at a university press, where I reluctantly rejected them, one after another. As a recently minted history of science PhD myself, I believed these would-be authors when they touted the revelatory potential of the overlooked, utterly average career. But try as I might, I could not convince my editorial colleagues of the untapped market potential for books on people no one had heard of.

My more experienced publishing colleagues were undoubtedly right about the market. And yet, historians of science of my generation occasionally let themselves wonder about what might have been. One of these historians is Michael Gordin, whose fascinating new book, Einstein in Bohemia, demands we take seriously the idea that Albert Einstein himself was once just another physicist. A book about the most famous scientist in the world, it stubbornly, insistently, focuses on a 16-month stretch in which nothing particularly eventful happened. Einstein spent those 16 months as a professor of theoretical physics at the German University of Prague. He arrived intending to stay. He made a few important friends, played some chamber music, struggled with static theory, took a lot of walks, and then he left.

For Gordin, the banality of Einstein’s time in Prague is the point. Einstein in Bohemia is as much a series of essays on historical method and memory as it is a biography that uses Einsteinian ideas about perspective and spacetime to riff about the relationship between past and present, space and place. It’s also very much a book about Prague. It works in movements, looking backward and forward from Einstein’s Bohemian interlude to explore issues of biography, physics, Czech and German nationalism, the philosophy of science, literature, Jewishness, and public monuments. It is best savored in chunks, to better indulge in moments of reflection.

Einstein accepted the position at the German University of Prague in 1911. The move from Zurich would disrupt both his family and intellectual work. It had been six years since the scientist’s annus mirabilis, when Einstein fired off articles on Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, and the special theory of relativity. In 1907, he published a review article that laid out a research agenda to “generalize” the special theory of relativity from objects moving at constant speed in relation to each other to accelerating objects. Einstein’s work since had stalled. He would not make much progress in Prague — but of course he didn’t know this at the time.

“What if,” Gordin writes, “we did not read the past through the future, or through Einstein’s own retrospective haze?” What if, instead of focusing on the moment that we, in the present, now recognize as important, historians wrote about the world as their subjects saw it, as a series of encounters with people, places, things, and ideas that could go in any number of directions? Putting it “in Einsteinian terms,” he writes,

the spacetime interval eventually becomes a defined worldline, but that does not happen immediately and is only clearly discernible in retrospect. While it is still our present, history remains open; to see how it changes, we can dive into the records of the past and hold diverse meanings up to view in our mind’s eye.

In Prague, Einstein lived the life of a physics professor. He taught a handful of courses, occasionally gave and attended public lectures, and traveled to professional conferences. The relatively light demands and intellectual isolation of his position allowed him the mental space to try a new approach to the problem that had thus far stymied him. Perhaps gravity, rather than quantum theory, offered the path to general relativity. Einstein ultimately abandoned the particular approach that he took in Prague — static theory — but Gordin encourages us to see this not as a dead end but as a start to the work that would eventually produce his breakthrough.

Einstein himself rarely invoked his Prague period when reflecting on his life; his static theory is largely forgotten.

The richest sections of Einstein in Bohemia explore similar questions of what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. Einstein, being Einstein, has attracted any number of myths, and his time in Prague is no different. One of the most peculiar of these involves a long-standing claim that Einstein served as the inspiration for the figure of Kepler in Max Brod’s novel Tycho Brahe’s Path to God (Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1915), and that, therefore, the novel can be used as a historical source for Einstein’s time in Prague. Remarkably, as Gordin notes, all but two major Einstein biographies published since 1947 have “equated the physicist with the depiction of Kepler in Tycho Brahe’s Path to God and then quoted Brod’s descriptions of Kepler as though they were straightforward reportage of Einstein’s character.”

What on earth? First, let’s clarify the cast of characters and their relation to the principal. Max Brod is best remembered today as Franz Kafka’s editor. Einstein knew Brod from a salon that gathered at the home of Bertha Fanta. The discussions frequently centered on philosophy and Zionism, but Einstein kept coming back for the chance to play his violin (Brod accompanied him at least once). Einstein and Kafka apparently also met at one of these salons, an incident that Gordin carefully documents only to dryly point out that neither of them remembered it.

The bizarre claim found its way into official Einstein lore via a biography written by physicist Philipp Frank. As fellow physicists, Einstein and Frank had a more substantial relationship than Einstein had with Brod. Frank had been Einstein’s chosen successor at the German University of Prague and, once installed, cultivated a role as the protector of Einstein’s legacy in that city. This continued even after Frank relocated to the United States in 1938 — he and his wife had been on a steamer to the United States for a lecture tour when news of the Munich Accords broke, and they stayed. Frank’s interests gradually shifted from physics to the philosophy of science, particularly the implications of relativity theory for epistemology.

To be clear: Brod did not base his depiction of Kepler on Einstein. Brod read Frank’s biography of Einstein and issued numerous statements distancing himself from it. It’s not entirely clear from Gordin’s account why Frank claimed otherwise, except that it made sense to him at the time. The more interesting questions, for Gordin, are why the myth took hold and what unpacking it can reveal about literary and intellectual life in Germanophone Prague. Language, philosophy, religion, and national identity all find their way into Gordin’s explanation of how and why an obscure historical novel by Kafka’s editor has become part of the Einstein canon. In Gordin’s words,

More distant observers were content to draw analogies between Einstein and Kepler based on little more than their shared commitment to mathematizing the universe, flattening the centuries and worldviews that separated these two Germanophone physicists who happened to share the experience of living for a time in Prague.

It’s a complicated, nonlinear story that loops back in on itself, focused as much on what didn’t happen as what actually did.

Gordin’s attention to this odd conflation of the historical Einstein with a fictional Kepler is representative of a book focused as much on myth, memory, and what might have been as on how Einstein spent his 16 months in Prague. Einstein in Bohemia makes a persuasive case that spotlighting the most obscure moments of a scientist’s career can in fact illuminate larger truths — at least if that scientist is Einstein.


Audra J. Wolfe is a writer, editor, and historian based in Philadelphia. She is the author, most recently, of Freedom’s Laboratory: The Cold War Struggle for the Soul of Science.

Source: When Einstein Was Just Another Physicist – Los Angeles Review of Books

Special Forces of the Qing Dynasty


This is the story of the Jianruiying, a small elite unit of specially selected Manchu soldiers under the Qing dynasty. They were trained to overcome rough terrain, obstacles, and rivers in order to commence special attacks towards fortifications. In some ways, they are comparable to today’s special forces.

Background story: The Jinchuan situation

In the eighteenth century, several conflicts broke out between local chieftains in the Jinchuan (金川, literally: “Golden River”) area in Sichuan province. The area was divided in Lesser Jinchuan (小金川) and Greater Jinchuan (大金川). Both areas were lead by local kings called Tǔsī (土司), powerful regional leaders that were recognized by the imperial government. Tǔsī were royal hereditary ranks that typically went from father to oldest son.

Greater Jinchuan was lead by a king with the hereditary title Cùqīn Tǔsī (促侵土司) or “Chief of Chuchen” who also used the royal Tibetan title of Namkha Gyalpo. Lesser Jinchuan was lead by a king with the hereditary title Zànlā Tǔsī (赞拉土司 who used the royal title Tsanlha Gyalpo. Both followed the Bon religion, the native Tibetan folk religion, and Jinchuan kings typically also acted as Lamas or “high priests” of the Bon religion.

Woodblock illustration of a native from Lesser Jinchuan
Woodblock illustration of a native from Greater Jinchuan

People from Lesser Jinchuan (left) and Greater Jinchuan (right).
Woodblock prints from the “Illustrated Qing Tributaries” (皇清职贡图).

Until that point, the Qing had governed the area with “loose reins”, which meant as much as bestowing official titles to local lords and encouraging them to maintain peace. In 1747, a large-scale war broke out and Greater Jinchuan annexed Lesser Jinchuan and continued to expand to neighboring domains. The Qing court sent a large military force to intervene and restore peace. What was expected to become a quick and decisive victory for the otherwise highly effective Qing army, ended in a stalemate.

Jinchuan was an inaccessible mountainous region with high cliffs and steep gorges cut out by its rivers. Life was harsh here: the ground not suitable for agriculture, nor for larger numbers of livestock. When food ran out, people would turn to mass banditry and raid nearby settlements. Its towns were fortified with walls and stone towers, some up to 51 meters high. The Jinchuan people were very much accustomed to war, and well prepared for it…

Jinchuan fortifications in Danba, Sichuan. Artwork from and 18th century Chinese copperplate print.

Jinchuan type fortifications in Danba, Sichuan. Artwork from an 18th century Chinese copperplate print, commemorating the 2nd Jinchuan war. Contemporary photographs of remaining fortifications from Western Sichuan: Danba Tibetan village

The Qing army’s main strength, the elite Manchu mounted archers, were of limited effectiveness in the mountains and the Green Standard Army had considerable trouble transporting and setting up their cannon. As a result, the Qing army sustained great losses as their conventional ways of warfare proved ineffective against the Jinchuan rebels, who made clever use of the local terrain and their fortifications. 

The emperor’s new approach

The Qianlong emperor was a hands-on ruler, with a keen interest in both past and present affairs. Inspired while reading about how his Manchu ancestors captured Chinese fortifications in the 17th century, he decided to pick 300 of his best men and train them in special wall-scaling tactics. In July 1748 training commenced at the Fragrant Hills (香山), west of Beijing.

Meanwhile, the Qing army in Jinchuan was sustaining some serious defeats and the war was getting increasingly costly. The Qianlong emperor rigorously changed the command and decided to replenish the troops with fresh ones. His specially prepared wall-scaling troops were sent -along with other forces from all over the empire- to Jinchuan. They probably saw little action because soon afterward the Shaloben (ruler-priest) of Greater Jinchuan surrendered, for no apparent reason, effectively ending the 1st Jinchuan war.

An illustration from the Manchu Veritable Records, showing a battle scene where Nurhaci's Manchus take on Chinese fortifications with ladders.

An illustration from the Manju-i yargiyan kooli or “Manchu Veritable Records”, showing a battle scene where Nurhaci’s Manchus take on Chinese fortifications with ladders. It was probably this text that inspired the Qianlong emperor.

Formation of a new battalion

Despite the limited use that could have been made of them in this short period of service, the emperor firmly believed in his new elite troops. Upon their return in 1749 the Qianlong emperor erected a temple named “The Temple of True Victory” at the Fragrant Hills and organized them as an official battalion that was to keep training in their ways of warfare.

He named them the jianruiying (健銳營).

What’s in a name:
健 (jiàn): Strong, robust, vigorous, persevering. 健卒 (jiànzú): Able-bodied soldiers.
銳 (ruì): Sharp, acute, zealous, valiant. 銳兵 (ruìbīng): Well-drilled troops.
營 (yíng): Army, battalion.

In Manchu: Silin dacungga kūwaran
Literally: “Elite sharp army”.

You get the idea; they meant business. Jianruiying training focused on reaching inaccessible areas and overcoming fortifications with specialized equipment. Their curriculum included the use of so-called yúntī (雲梯) or “cloud ladders” to scale walls rapidly.

They were further trained in rowing and fighting on the water. Riding fast horses, mounting them on the run. Weapons included archery on foot and from horseback, muskets, saber fencing, spearmanship, and the bian (鞭), a heavy steel bar-mace.

The Jianruiying were lead by a commander-general or zongtong. Their importance is illustrated by the fact that this position was initially filled by princes or members of the grand council. The unit consisted of two wings, with a wing commander, yizhang (翼長) for each.1 They also served as imperial guards on some occasions and were issued similar equipment to the guard such as special tents and arrows.

1. From 八旗通志, 33. [乾隆]十四年設健鋭營總統,無定員,以王公大臣兼任,率兩翼長.
Thanks to dr. Ulrich Theobald for pointing this source out.

Colors and uniforms

Regular Manchu troops typically served under one of the Eight Banners and their flags and parade uniforms matched accordingly. The Jianruiying was provided with its own uniforms and banners.

Jianruiying jackets from the Huangchao Liqi Tushi

Left: xinggua or jacket of the Jianruiying Vanguard company commander, each leading ten men. Right: Jacket of the soldiers. Colors added by myself.

Jianruiying banners from the Huangchao Liqi Tushi

Banners of the Jianruiying regimental commanders. Color and wing designation added by myself.

The Jianruiying in action

The first evidence for the use of Jianruiying in the field, under that name, is found in the records on the East Turkestan campaign. It reads:

On Nov 7, 1754, 1,000 troops of the Jianruiying were dispatched to the Western Route along with 1,000 Oirats.1

This campaign was a war against the Dzungars, a rival empire at the borders of the Qing. The Dzunghars kept attacking Tibet and Mongol tribes who were allied to the Qing, and after several warnings the Qianlong emperor sent his armies with orders to annihilate the entire empire. It resulted in a Qing victory that indeed completely destroyed the empire of Dzungaria and added present-day Xinjiang to the Qing territory.

Victory of the Khorgos copperplate print

The Victory of the Khorgos, copperplate engraving by Hellman based on a copperplate commissioned by the Qianlong emperor.

When the troops returned from Xinjiang, the Qianlong emperor erected a stele in honor of the Jianruiying in their Temple of True victory:

“With the protection of Heaven and the blessing of my ancestors I have pacified Dzungaria, the Mohammedan country, Ili, Kashgar, and Yarkand, one after the other, at a distance of 20,000 li.

This monument is to commemorate the conduct of the men of the Jianrui Cloud Ladder garrisons, near this temple, many of whom fought in this campaign.

At the battle of Qurman and at Huo Si Ku Lu Ke a few dozen of our men were greatly outnumbered by the rebels. While they were consulting, and their drums were beating faintly, their flags in disarray, they suddenly reorganized their ranks like a wall, steadily advanced, killed the enemy’s commander and captured his flags.

When my men can do that, even the Solon cavalry, excellent archers and horsemen, who advance and retire at will and spoil the plans of their enemies without being beaten themselves, cannot equal the cool courage of my Bannermen.

A Bannerman would not fear if he were the last man alive in ten thousand fighting for his country. I had not thought it was possible that between the years 1749 and 1761 these garrisons could have so repaid the Emperor’s kindness. This must be a gift from Heaven.” 2

1. From 平定準噶爾方略 (Pingding Zhungar Fanglüe), or “Imperially endorsed Military annals of pacification of the Dzunghars” Central Collection 5: 己亥命派健鋭營兵丁一千往西路調遣上諭軍機大臣曰前將新降厄魯特兵一千名派往西路已降㫖令於原派緑旗兵一萬名内裁減三千此外著添派健鋭營滿洲兵一 千名命往西路再將緑旗兵裁減一千其所派官弁毋庸裁減照舊遣往以備調遣. Thanks to Ulrich Theobald for this reference and its translation.

The Second Jinchuan War

In July 1771, trouble broke out in Jinchuan once again. The Green Standard Army had been proven ineffective and unreliable, and after great losses at Mugom in 1773 the emperor dispatched 9,500 Elite banner troops from the Jianruiying and the huoqiying, a Banner unit specialized in the use of firearms, as well as Banner troops from Jilin, Heilongjiang and the garrisons in Chengdu, Jingzhou and Xi’an including some Ölöd Mongol and Solon troops.

In addition, 11,000 Green Standard troops were dispatched from nearby provinces so that together with the Banner troops and the native auxiliaries, 74,900 imperial troops were in Jinchuan at the end of summer in 1773.

The conquest of ripang mountain

Conquest of the Ripang mountain, A Qing battle painting in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Storming of a tower in the 2nd Jinchuan war

Detail of the storming of a Jinchuan fortified tower, from a Qing copperplate.

December 10, 1773 Agui commanded Hailancha to advance. The conquest of the towers in lesser Jinchuan went quickly now, the Qing taking as many towers in a few days as they previously did in six months. Greater Jinchuan took a bit longer, but in March 1776 they too finally surrendered.1

1. For a thorough account of the Second Jinchuan campaign, see: Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010. 


General Agui, who lead the 2nd Jinchuan campaign.


Mingliang, one of Agui’s trusted commanders.
Mingliang was a frugal, practical Manchu warrior, just like the emperor liked them.
Of noble birth, he nevertheless chose the hard life and distinguished himself in the field.
Notice his choice for an iron mounted saber, even though through his rank he was entitled to gold.

Jianruiying bannerman Suliyang

Officer Suliyang, leading the Jianruiying in the Jinchuan Campaign of 1771-1776

This portrait was made to be hung in the prestigious Hall of Purple Brightness,
a military hall near Beijing where -among others- war heroes were commemorated,
victory banquets were held, and where imperial military examinations were organized.
Suliyang was portraited no less than two times, once for bravery in the 2nd Jinchuan
campaign and again for merit earned the Taiwan campaigns.

Other campaigns

The Jianruiying saw action as an elite army in most important battles after their formation, including:
The Sino-Burmese War (1765–69)
Hui Uprising in Gansu, 1784
Lin Shuangwen rebellion (1786–88)
Lin Shuangwen rebellion (1788–93)
Eight Trigrams Uprising (1813)

Fall of the Jianruiying

During the course of the 19th century, the Jianruiying seemed to have lost their edge. China, in general, was in a bad state of economic decline and was unable to properly train and equip their armoires. In 1860 the Second Opium War broke out. British and French troops attacked Beijing. The Jianruiying and other imperial forces suffered heavy casualties and were ultimately defeated.

Their last combat mission of the Jianruiying that I am aware of was in August 1900 when the allied forces of the Eight Powers invaded Beijing during the Boxer Uprising. The Jianruiying successfully slowed down the progress of coalition forces long enough for Cixi, the Empress Dowager, to get away. 

In 1912 the Qing dynasty fell, and the Eight Banners system was disbanded. Some Jianruiying soldiers got incorporated into Chinese armies based on the modern Western-style training that became the norm for Chinese forces.

Further reading
Carrol B. Malone, History of the Peking summer palaces under the Ch’ing dynasty, Urbana 1934.
Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way. Stanford University Press, 2001.
Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Culture of War in China, I.B. Tauris, 2013.
Ulrich Theobald, The Second Jinchuan Campaign (1771 – 1776), dissertation, 2010. Available online.

My morning writing practice

My daily routine ends with my first serious creative work of the day: at least two hours writing and revising Evergreen notes. This is typically the most challenging work I do all day, so I like to do it when I have the most clarity and focus. It’s not for “note-taking” in a traditional sense—writing down other people’s ideas, or recording things that happened—it’s for developing ideas. (i.e. Most people use notes as a bucket for storage or scratch thoughts vs. Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate)

I usually begin by opening my writing inbox (A writing inbox for transient and incomplete notes) and flipping through those prompts and incomplete notes. If any strike me, I’ll draft Evergreen notes about them. This may happen over multiple days: I may flesh out a note considerably, then run out of steam and leave it in my inbox to finish another day.

If my inbox is relatively low, I’ll get out my memo pad (Pocket memo pad to capture into writing inbox while out) and fill my inbox with those notes. I don’t force it: if none of the prompts seem interesting, I’ll archive the ones which seem most boring and move on.

After working through my writing inbox, I’ll focus my attention on my primary creative projects and ask myself prompts like:

  • what are the most important unknowns for this project?
  • what new ideas am I excited about?
  • what are the most interesting things I know about this project?

For these prompts, I’ll use my Daily working log as a scratch space, splatting a dozen or so one-liners into a haphazard bulleted list. After emptying my head, I’ll write about any that seem interesting. Usually that leads to rabbit holes which consume the rest of the session. I’ll add promising stragglers to my writing inbox for future days.

If those prompts don’t feel fruitful, I’ll use the time to Write about what you read. I’ve usually got a backlog of books and articles I’ve read but for which I haven’t yet written Evergreen notes. If the prompts don’t feel fruitful for several days in a row, that’s a sign that I need to shake things up: my inputs aren’t high-variance enough, or I’m not giving myself the right kind of creative space, or I may need to re-evaluate my projects. My writing inbox should always feel like a cornucopia.

I take 5-minute breaks to get up and move around every 35 minutes, but even with those breaks, I usually can’t continue this practice much longer than two hours. Sometimes I can do another session later in the day.

Source: My morning writing practice