Review of Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Einstein - His Life and UniverseEvery now and then I get the urge to read a biography, and every time I do I think I should read more of them. I find biographies especially rewarding because they give me a close-up view of history and always remind me that history was once the here and now and very personal experience of the people who lived it. I suppose I chose this Einstein biography primarily because of that face, the face that has been present all my life attached to some fascinating quotes and forever associated with the quintessential brilliant and eccentric scientist.

I once read a book that attempted to explain the theory of relativity to children and learned that the theory has something to do with the continuity and unity of time and space and that it shows that time is not some static thing that we move through but actually varies depending on the observer’s speed and orientation. Also I once read a children’s book about young Albert’s childhood to my son. This is just to give you an idea of how little I really knew about Albert Einstein before reading Walter Isaacson’s fantastic Einstein: His Life and Universe.

As I read Isaacson’s skillful narrative that weaves the personal, political, philosophical, and scientific strands of Einstein’s amazing life into a deeply moving portrait of his character and the world in which he lived, that iconic image with the crazy hair and the kind wrinkly face transformed into a real multi-dimensional person. Of course the central and anchor strand of Einstein’s life is the scientific and I was impressed by how the author manages to make theoretical physics somewhat interesting even to a non-scientific reader. Like me.

The theory of relativity – either special or general – is not easy to explain even in a book of its own, so I’m sure it was quite a challenge to work Einstein’s most significant achievement into the story of his life. The facts surrounding the publication of his landmark 1905 paper however are fascinating even without knowing what the paper said: how even with a Doctorate in Theoretical Physics he could not get an academic job and actually worked out the theory of special relativity while working in the Swiss Patent Office. The “Swiss Patent Office” story is legendary, but Isaakson brings it to life by showing who the young Einstein was, how he got the job, and what the job was like. (For example, it was no drudge job, it payed pretty well, and Einstein actually enjoyed examining patent applications.) In fact, much of popular lore about Einstein’s early failures, such as flunking math, are either false or exaggerated. He was, in fact, brilliant and intensely curious about the forces behind reality from early childhood.

It literally took the help of the heavens for Einstein and his theory to capture the public imagination. He needed a total eclipse to verify the theory but the first eclipse opportunity was lost by complications caused by the outbreak of World War I. This proved fortunate because a calculation was wrong and Einstein was able to correct it by the time the next eclipse opportunity came around. When his astronomer friend declared that the eclipse proved the theory about the bending of light the news media took it up and Einstein’s international fame took off at the speed of light, helped along by his eccentric appearance, charming personality, and quote-ability. The truth is he took to fame and attention like a fish to water, an unusual quality for the scientists of his time who tended to try to stay above the public fray. Against the backdrop of his times, you begin to see clearly just how singular a person Einstein was.

Between his scientific adventures and complicated love life there is plenty of drama, but what about the theory itself? What is it so important? What was its real impact on physics, philosophy, and even world history? Isaakson explains all of these complexities in various ways, so that even if the reader does not fully understand ho the theory works (and who does?) you begin to understand its tectonic effect on he popular perception of the nature of our universe and popular imagination as well as how it affected world history in the 20th century. For example, it indirectly lead to the development of the atom bomb, to pacifist Einstein’s great regret.

The book, written in 2007, is 551 pages long plus 125 pages of end notes and indexing. So there is too much dense info to summarize in a short review. However none of it drags when you are reading. Here are a few points that really affected me:

  • I loved the story about how Einstein got semi-expelled from an authoritarian high school. One of his most consistent qualities throughout his life was his anti-authoritarianism, all the more amazing for a kid growing up in a hyper-militaristic late 19th-century Germany.  One of his professors said that young Einstein undermined his authority in the classroom by his very presence. “When Einstein insisted that he has committed no offense, the teach replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but you sit there in the back row and smile, and your mere presence here spoils the respect on the class for me.'” And so Einstein was apparently asked to leave the school.
  • He was not a particularly monogamous man and did not seem to suffer from undue guilt about that. He was never unkind to anyone expect perhaps his first wife Mileva Marić. She was the only female student at Zurich Polytechnic and in the beginning their relationship was beautiful, intellectual, and idealistic. It lasted for many years. They married in opposition to their family’s wishes and had two sons. But his growing fame and her professional disappointments worked against the ultimate success of the marriage, and finally they divorced, another unusual thing at the time. Isaacson presents this highly complex relationship, including Einstein’s extra-marital relationships, with special sensitivity and fairness.
  • I was impressed with Einstein’s resistance to the many extreme political positions of his time. He was a socialist but did not support the Soviet Union, a pacifist but supported the second world war, recognizing early the dangers presented by the rise of the Nazi party. (Living in Berlin as a Jew made this recognition fairly easy.) In his early life Einstein saw no conflict between being both a German and Jew, but as event developed he came to identify fully as a Jew, becoming a leader of world Judaism to such an extent  that he was eventually offered the position of Prime Minister of the new Israel.
  • Most fascinating to me was Einstein’s attitude toward God. He was never a practitioner of any particular religion but believed deeply inn a higher power, which he tended to see as a non-personal principle being the existence and nature of the universe. Even this conception of a God raised eyebrows among his scientific peers. But in this, as in all things, he was a non-conformist.
  • I think what I liked most about Einstein was that his guiding principle was that individual freedom of thought and expression was the most important thing and above all things that freedom must be protected. He thought socialism could protect freedom again authoritarianism but as soon as socialism itself turned into tyranny, as in the USSR, he withdrew his support.

In the end I loved this book. The story of Albert Einstein’s amazing life and its impact on the 20th century and beyond is told with grace, depth, and excellence. I also love the subject. Besides Einstein and I have the same birthday.

* * * * * * *

Next post: Einstein had a pithy way with words and was very quotable. Next post I will share a few of my favorite Einstein quotes, found in Walter Isaacson’s biography.

About JaneK

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Posted on January 17, 2016, in Book reviews, Books of the 21st century, Reading Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wow, a great review, Carol! I’m always impressed by people who can review non-fiction in an interesting way, because I really struggle with reviewing it ~ something to work on, I guess. I especially appreciate the introduction to a biographer who treats his subject with fairness and sensitivity ~~ many love to focus on speculation and shock value, which I think ends up detracting from everything: the writing, the person, the reading experience …… It’s nice to be able to come up with a list of biographers one can trust. I’m looking forward to the quotes …..

    • Thanks so much Cleo. I actually struggled with this review for a week. The material is just voluminous and a lot of the subject matter is complex. I’m just so impressed with Walter Isaacson as a writer and researcher. He also wrote popular biographies of Benjamin Franklin and… Steve Jobs. I may read the Benjamin Franklin one at some point. Quotes will be up in the next couple of days.

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