501: The Invisible Century by Richard Panek

by Gerard

501: Panek, Richard. The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes. New York: Penguin, 2005. 207 pp. ISBN 0-14-303552-5.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, scientists (both natural and mathematical) were trying to unlock how two worlds work–the outer and the inner. At the forefront of the outer explanation was Einstein; of the inner was Freud. Each had gleaned as much as possible from their predecessors and they were still lingering with essential questions: What was gravity? What was consciousness?

Richard Panek, in The Invisible Century, skillfully synthesizes the history of each field (quantum physics and psychology). His lay-version of Einstein’s hypotheses is probably of the best I’ve encountered. The main point of the book is twofold. First, both Einstein and Freud had to dismiss the positivist scientific mode of the day and create a new way of perceiving the world. Second, their theories share a common theme–that Man and the universe can only be understand if you take into account certain invisible (hidden) qualities that must persist in each’s makeup.

Science historians will find this book particularly useful because Panek successfully navigates the entirety of the history of natural and physical science and helps the reader understands the context of the age. Turn-of-the-century scientists were bombarded with new results, new experiments, and new theories. Each one was more earth-shattering and convoluted than the next. Einstein and Freud allowed listeners to see a simpler, but more nuanced version of their universe.

The book takes a little while to get started becuase Panek has to both trace each man’s life to the point of their discoveries, but also lay out the path of each’s field at that time as well as shape the philosophical landscape of the physics and psychology. It’s a short book, but a lot can be gotten out of it.