Thursday, June 28, 2012

Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe
By Walter Isaacson

I've been hearing a lot about this guy Walter Isaacson over the past year. From what I heard he is the world's pre-eminent (or at least the world's most famous) biographer. Isaacson is noted for his in-depth biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissenger. He achieved runaway success with his most recent biography of Steve Jobs (which just happened to coincide with his death.... hmmmmm....). Which such a wide array of subjects (from such a wide breath of history) I figured I needed to get my hands on one of his biographies just to see what all the hullaballoo was all about.

I finally tracked down a copy of an earlier biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe and it's easy to see why Isaacson has garnered such a stellar reputation. Writing a comprehensive account of the life of one of the 20th century's brightest and most enigmatic scientific minds is no simple task and the sheer volume of primary sources (including all of Einsteins papers and correspondence as well as his wife, Else's) must have made the research for this tome Herculean in nature.

Furthermore, since Isaacson is dealing with a genius whose name is synonymous with being a genius, he is unable to hide behind his writing skills in an attempt to distract the reader from noticing that he, like virtually everyone else on the planet, doesn't particularly understand the intricacies of general relativity and unified field theory. No sir! Isaacson went out and figured this stuff out and wrote about it. Trouble is, Einstein's science as filtered through Isaacson remains as unintelligible to the average reader as it was when he scribbled his equations on the backs of old envelopes at the Patent Office in 1905.

I have read books that have presented Special and General Relativity in a far more engaging and entertaining fashion (after reading David Bodanis's book E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation I walked around for about five days explaining it to anyone who would listen.... then promptly forgot it). However, one can forgive Isaacson for his scientific opacity as it pertains to Einstein. After all it is Albert Einstein and after all again, you probably didn't pick up his biography to learn about relativity, photons, unified field theory or quantum physics. If you did, you're doing it wrong.

I imagine that you, like me, are more interested in reading about Albert Einstein the boy, the husband, the father and the unabashed pacifist as opposed to Albert Einstein the scientist. Don't get me wrong, I appreciated all the science (when I understood it) but I was more interested in reading about his relationships with his contemporaries, most notably his complicated relationship with Max Planck, his close kinship with Niels Bohr and his lifelong rivalry with the anti-Semitic (and later Nazi party member) Philipp Lenard. These are names that are familiar to most of us from high school (or university) science class but rarely get discussed as human beings.

Isaacson is an objective observer of Einstein's aloof and often chilly demeanor in reference to his own family. I was completely unaware of his (and his first wife, Mileva Maric's ) first child, Lieserl, who was taken to Maric's home country of Serbia and raised by family members. Her memory is so completely erased from Einstein's personal records that her fate is still unknown. Einstein also maintained tumultuous relationships with his two sons Hans Albert and Eduard of which Isaacson presents Albert as an ofttimes cold and uncaring father (though one may argue that it was just his way). And yet Einstein maintained a tender side that, which not often visible to his friends and family, existed for those close to him, most notably his second wife (and cousin) Else.

Isaacson also delves deep into Einstein's notion of pacifism and his flirtation with Chaim Weizmann's brand of Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s. Einstein's obsession with personal freedom and his abhorrence for political parties and the machinations of the establishment made him the perfect spokesperson for the burgeoning notion of militant pacifism that gained a certain credence during the 1920s. Though he retreated from this stance when Adolf Hitler attained power in Germany and even played a small part in the development of the atomic bomb (another fascinating portion of this book), Einstein remained astutely anti-war throughout his life and was an early proponent of a United Nations (though his vision was of a much more powerful UN with a standing army to settle international disputes. This militant pacifism, unsurprisingly, would later get him in a degree of trouble with J. Edgar Hoover during the Red Scare that followed World War II, though absolutely nothing came of that nonsense.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this book (for me) was Einstein's relationship with God and religion. I was surprised to note that a young Einstein (not Yahoo Serious... the real young Einstein) dabbled in devout Judaism before abandoning the notion of organized religion and ascribing to a more Spinoza-esque notion of the divine. I was always under the impression that Einstein was either atheist or, at the very least, non-practising. But it turns out that he was quite the spiritual fellow and loved to wax intellectual on the nature of the divine with anyone who would listen.

There is so much more to this book. Isaacson presents a complex man and his world from literally millions of pages of reference. Isaacson discusses his relationship with Germany, Charlie Chaplin, his two wives, his parents, Robert Oppenheimer, his involvement with women, communists, socialists, Caltech, Princeton, Switzerland and Marie Curie. There is dimly no end of the layers in which Isaacson peels away.

I could go on for hours about how Walter Isaacson reclaimed, re-constructed and humanized a figure that long ago was co-opted by though who scarcely understand him or his work. It is a testament to Isaacson's well-deserved reputation as a biographer that he obliterates the lies and half-truths that we have come to accept about Albert Einstein (He never failed math in school, he did finish high school and although he spoke later than most children, he never exhibited serious developmental problems). From the rubble of such obliteration, a comprehensive (and I would add definitive) biography of science's greatest mind has been created. If you think you can stand the science, it's worth the read!


Jenny said...

I would read this one more for the man than the science. In fact, I'd probably skim the overly scientific parts. Science is interesting but only if you understand it.

I do enjoy a good biography.

Sam (Tiny Library) said...

This sounds interesting, I like that Isaacson doesn't just focus on the science. I didn't know that Einstein flirted with Zionism. I'll look out for this and his other biographies.

Lisa said...

This does sound great and I love that you worked Yahoo Serious into your review!

Ryan said...

@Jenny the science is easy... for about two pages.

@Sam Yeah. He's really good.

@Lisa I'm a sucker for obscure pop culture references.

Brian Joseph said...

This sounds like a great read. Einstein had such a profound impact on our wold. Un addition as you allude to, his views on politics and society are also worth exploring.

Earlier this year I read Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin:An American Life." It was very well done and well written However I found it little lacking in analysis and complexity.

Post a Comment