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Einstein in Berlin Hardcover – April 1, 2003

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A Walk in the Woods
Read the book that inspired the 2015 film, "A Walk in the Woods".

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Levenson covers 18 crucial years, 1914 through 1932, that sealed Albert Einstein's reputation and hurled Berlin, where he then lived, from the kaiser's lap into the Nazis' claws. Levenson, a Peabody- and Emmy-winning filmmaker whose credits include a Nova documentary on Einstein, vividly portrays the scientist at work and provides a lively narrative of the era. Promised the directorship of a new physics institute with few obligations to divert him from research, Einstein returned to his homeland, he himself acknowledged, as a "prize hen" for the Germans hoping to build a cultural capital surpassing London and Paris. While the Great War occupied his fellow Berliners, Einstein largely isolated himself to expand upon special relativity. Levenson points to 1919 as a turning point in the physicist's career: observations of a solar eclipse validated his new theory of general relativity, and he became the most celebrated scientist of the century. In his new public role, Einstein spoke for the Zionist cause, fostered internationalism and promoted peace. That year also marked the beginning of the Weimar Republic, a heady era for the arts and Berlin's night life amid a depression that fueled anti-Semitism. Once eager to declare Einstein the Nobel laureate, German ultranationalists now threatened to pluck the prize hen. Einstein abandoned Berlin in December 1932, just weeks before Hitler became chancellor. One flaw in this otherwise excellent book requires mention. Levenson does not entirely succeed in unifying biography and history; thus he leaves readers to guess what significance Einstein's presence in Berlin had for his science, his personal life and the city.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Einstein as witness to history, from his 1914 arrival in Berlin to his flight from the Nazis in 1932. Levenson crafted Nova's two-hour Einstein biography.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam; First Edition edition (April 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 055310344X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553103441
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #639,225 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

My day job has me professing science writing at MIT, where I also run the Institute's Graduate Program in Science Writing.

I'm not yet wholly ivy-covered yet (and anyway -- the place up the street holds the franchise for that pernicious weed). In fact, I am a recent immigrant to the professoriat, and I continue to do what I did before: write books (and the occasional article), and make documentary films about science, its history, and its interaction with the broader culture in which scientific lives and discoveries unfold.

I'm just finished my fourth book, "Newton and the Counterfeiter" -- which is a great story from a little-known corner of Isaac Newton's life. My previous books include "Einstein in Berlin;" "Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science;" and "Ice Time: Climate Science and Life on Earth" (now, sadly, out of print). My documentaries have mostly appeared on PBS, and most of those on the NOVA series. Recent work includes the Origins series, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and broadcast on NOVA -- (my favorite is program four, the cosmology show, "Back to the Beginning"); the "Domes" program in David Macaulay's delightful PBS series Building Big, and NOVA's two hour Einstein Revealed, now a little long in the tooth, but featuring a nice turn by Andrew Sacks as Albert Einstein. (You may have seen Sacks in one of the great television comedy roles: Manuel the Spanish Waiter in Fawlty Towers.)

Besides writing, film making and generally being dour about the daily news, I lead an almost entirely conventional life in one of Boston's inner suburbs with a family that gives me great joy. The cat has to stop waking me up at five a.m., however.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By charles falk VINE VOICE on June 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I'm glad I read Thomas Levenson's EINSTEIN IN BERLIN in spite of its atrocious publisher's blurb: "In a book that is both biography and the most exciting form of history, here are eighteen years in the life of a man, Albert Einstein, and a city, Berlin, that were in many way the defining years of the twentieth century." What "the most exiting form of history" may be is never explained. Fortunately, the book is better written than its jacket. Levenson, a documentary filmmaker who produced a two-hour biography of Einstein for Nova, can paint memorable pictures with words too. In general, he does better by Einstein than he does by Berlin.
Levenson strikes a good balance between the details of Einstein's private life, his scientific work, and his political activities. The book's greatest strength is its rendering of Einstein's contributions to theoretical physics into a form digestible even by a scientific illiterate. Levenson shows the process as well as the final result; the failures as well as the triumphs. He explains the ongoing debate between Einstein and Niels Bohr over arcane aspects of quantum mechanics. I was intrigued by the "mind experiments" Einstein used to test his theories and those of other phyicists. The chapters summarizing Einstein's life before and after Berlin give the reader sufficient context for understanding his "defining" years. Some aspects of his personal life get short shrift: his activity as an amateur musician, for example. We learn that his friendship with Queen Elizabeth of Belgium began when they played chamber music together, but we never are given a glimpse of him playing, nor any sense of the time he devoted to this pastime.
Levenson is more impressionistic in his portrayal of Berlin.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Charles Ashbacher HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
There is a view of human history that believes that the trends are so strong, that no one person can significantly alter what is destined to occur. An opposing view is that there are so many potential paths that the differences that drive movement from one path to another are very small. Not only can one person provide the impetus from one path to another, but also the differences between the paths can be enormous. This book is primarily about Albert Einstein, one who had a dramatic effect on history. His development of new physics in the first decade of the twentieth century completely altered our view of the universe and was revolutionary.

The best measure of how revolutionary is the oft-repeated statement of astronomer Arthur Eddington. When told that he was one of only three people in the world who understood relativity, Eddington seemed puzzled. He was asked if he disagreed with the statement and he responded, "No, I was just trying to think of who the third person would be." Such revolutionary ideas that describe nature will eventually be discovered, but it is clear that Einstein was decades ahead of everyone else in his understanding of the universe.

Another one of the unforgettable people who changed the course of history is a secondary topic of the book. That person is of course Adolph Hitler, whose pathological Nazi movement eventually forced the Jewish Einstein from Germany. In 1913, as a consequence of Einstein's incredible work while a patent clerk in Switzerland, Walther Nernst and Max Planck went to visit Einstein. Their purpose was to offer him the best scientific job in the world, a professorship with no teaching responsibilities at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. The offer was an incredible one, but it was fitting, given Einstein's stature.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Arthur P. Smith on September 14, 2005
Format: Paperback
Albert Einstein. Adolf Hitler. Germany. The two iconic figures of the 20th century, shaped and nurtured, alternately embraced and rejected by the one nation. Posthumous competitors for the honor of TIME's "person of the century", Levenson's book details the progress and transformation of both men and their nation through the critical period from 1914 to 1932, while Einstein lived in Berlin.

The portrayal of Einstein here is of a great but flawed man, not quite the usual hagiography, despite the imagery reminiscent of the Christmas story at the start. Why did Einstein come to Berlin, the heart of Prussia, after renouncing Germany for Switzerland as a teenager? Why did Germany's extreme climate of militarism not repel him, at this time immediately before the great war? Levenson details the scientific inducements: German physics at the time was unparalleled, and Einstein in Berlin could enjoy the company of the established Max Planck and younger colleagues like Max Born and Lise Meitner, later Heisenberg and many others. But the offer of money and prestige was perhaps as important - Einstein would direct his own "Kaiser Wilhelm" institute of physics. Official Germany wanted to claim Einstein as its own, and Einstein, with just a touch of patriotism, accepted.

Levenson portrays those war years, and the Weimar Republic that followed, with great poignancy. The German people were itching to prove their greatness. Planck and other scientists declared their strong support for the war, and even Einstein tried to help with research on aircraft and more significantly on the gyrocompass. Einstein's close friend Fritz Haber was the Edward Teller of chemical weaponry, developing lethal gases in the same building where Einstein worked out general relativity.
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