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I like big books.

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe - Walter Isaacson Fascinating and lovingly crafted. Isaacson approaches his subject with the utmost regard and a clear desire to explain what we might call ambiguous or controversial aspects of Einstein's life. The book certainly doesn't lack in detail. There are 550 pages of narrative biography and a massive list of sources and notes from correspondence between Einstein and colleagues as well as family and friends as well as his notes and personal papers and archival material that must have been painstakingly researched indeed.

Isaacson takes a three-fold approach to Einstein's life that is clear from the way the chapters are separated, though he does attempt a somewhat chronological approach. Einstein's life is divided into three major themes: his scientific work, his personal life, and his political or public life. I have to admit I was much more comfortable with the first and third than the second. Reading his love letters or learning the personal details about how he kept his house seemed a bit too voyeuristic to me. One can debate philosophically whether or not that is the just consequence of so public a life, but it still feels wrong. Nevertheless, the other two elements are more than enough to joyfully push the narrative along at a fascinating clip.

Isaacson portrays Einstein as an iconoclast, a rebel that did most of his best scientific, political and even religious thinking standing in direct contradistinction to the prevailing currents. This is certainly true in his younger years within the realm of science and to a certain degree even with his political involvement between the World Wars. Relativity, both the special and general theories, certainly met with a lot of opposition among the scientific establishment at the time and faced a long uphill battle before gaining acceptance. In his older years, Einstein became more attached to the classical physical world that he grew up with and was very reluctant to accept advances in Quantum Mechanics that were producing eminently consistent results experimentally. He sums up the transition in his life with typical self-reflective good humor, "To punish me for my contempt of authority, fate made me an authority myself." Einstein is a solid work with a strong scientific background that explains fundamental concepts quite well. Having read a lot of popular physics stuff lately, I thought I'd find a lot of the descriptions of the laws and discoveries to be tedious. This was not the case. What Isaacson adds is the subjective elements of discovery, the historical context for such ideas that makes them fascinating in an altogether different light. The ideas aren't stated as maxims, they're proposed as radical departures from prevailing wisdom and debated, often in the voices of Einstein's contemporaries - Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, Planck, Poincaré and too many others to do them sufficient justice. Underlying the ideas that transformed science is a running philosophical theme that Isaacson also does a fantastic job at highlighting: the nature of reality and humanity's ability, or inability, to know it, capture it, and explain it. You get more than a biography of the legend, but a biography of the turn of the century with all its prejudices, excitement, fervor and imagination. Even the quaint seems historically momentous and precious to preserve.

Counterintuitively, I found the second half of the book recounting Einstein's "unproductive" years to be more interesting than the first. I liked the older Einstein and it was a joy to read about all the anecdotes that contributed to his quite real absent-minded professor image. In these years Einstein took to politics, philosophy and religion, proving that he was not only probably the greatest scientist that ever lived, but the greatest thinker and humanist as well. Isaacson notes several instances of intense debate over political issues that Einstein held passionately. It was nice to see, in spite of these passions, that he was magnanimous when proven wrong and was quick to abandon positions that became untenable or that he learned were incorrect like his modified views on pacifism, religion and his own Jewish cultural identity.

On a personal level, Isaacson is deeply and uncomfortably probing and probably more than a little too forgiving of Einstein for several rather large personal lapses in judgment, shrugging them off as personal quirks. Skirting the issues of his personal relations, I found sections of analysis on his celebrity and his reaction to celebrity rather interesting. It's hard to imagine, even in todays age where science has been popularized by other great minds like Sagan, that a scientist, especially one dealing in abstruse theoretical and in the case of general relativity and unified field theory almost purely mathematical concepts, could garner the fame that he did, almost without effort. Thousands would come to see him and it seemed from newspaper accounts that the public almost reveled in the fact that they had no idea what he was talking about. As Chaplin once said to him at a movie premier: "They cheer me because they all understand me, they cheer you because no one understands you." I think there's some truth to this and I think part of the reason we love Einstein so much is because he represents the idea that human beings can transcend the limits of life and push the boundaries of what we think real or practical. The fact the he's still the icon for such thinking in a world where science has moved on to the truly complex and mind-boggling is a testament to just how much he really revolutionized our understanding of the way the universe works.

It was also interesting to see how the lay public reacted to such mind and universe altering ideas. Particularly exasperating for Einstein was the conflation of relativity with a philosophy of moral relativism, which he lamented frequently. The press, then as now, with nothing better to do speculate and speculate and speculate until all they're left with is absurdities. "Does relativity mean there's no such thing as right and wrong?" Which is more of a question of semantics than the result of the research and findings of Einstein himself. These questions would haunt him the rest of his life in the public forum as Nazis and anti-Semites used it to cast a lurid glow over what "Jewish science" was doing to the moral fabric of Germany or American conservatives thought were clear indications of Soviet sympathies. Absurd, to be sure, but an interesting historical theme: the uneducated, yet vitriolic grasping on to key words and bending their meaning to their political advantage (like Socialism in the press today). Einstein himself was a proponent of socialism. I wonder how that would fly in the red states today? Would they act like conservatives in Germany and Europe and use it as a basis to reject not just the man's political ideology, but his science as well? I'd like to think not, but humanity still tends to have the rather unfortunate habit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It's a disease in politics today as it was in Einstein's time.

Review-wise, Isaacson does a remarkable job with a lot of source material, and while some of it can be redundant, he tightly focuses his narrative around readily identifiable themes that give purpose and meaning to Einstein's place in history. His prose is unpretentious, dignified, and direct, features that Gleick's biography of Newton probably could have benefited from. With all the biographies of Einstein on the market, it's still hard to imagine any that could top this one. Very highly recommended.