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Editorial Reviews Review

As a scientist, Albert Einstein is undoubtedly the most epic among 20th-century thinkers. Albert Einstein as a man, however, has been a much harder portrait to paint, and what we know of him as a husband, father, and friend is fragmentary at best. With Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson (author of the bestselling biographies Benjamin Franklin and Kissinger) brings Einstein's experience of life, love, and intellectual discovery into brilliant focus. The book is the first biography to tackle Einstein's enormous volume of personal correspondence that heretofore had been sealed from the public, and it's hard to imagine another book that could do such a richly textured and complicated life as Einstein's the same thoughtful justice. Isaacson is a master of the form and this latest opus is at once arresting and wonderfully revelatory. --Anne Bartholomew

Read "The Light-Beam Rider," the first chapter of Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe.
Five Questions for Walter Isaacson What kind of scientific education did you have to give yourself to be able to understand and explain Einstein's ideas?

Isaacson: I've always loved science, and I had a group of great physicists--such as Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss, and Murray Gell-Mann--who tutored me, helped me learn the physics, and checked various versions of my book. I also learned the tensor calculus underlying general relativity, but tried to avoid spending too much time on it in the book. I wanted to capture the imaginative beauty of Einstein's scientific leaps, but I hope folks who want to delve more deeply into the science will read Einstein books by such scientists as Abraham Pais, Jeremy Bernstein, Brian Greene, and others. That Einstein was a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office when he revolutionized our understanding of the physical world has often been treated as ironic or even absurd. But you argue that in many ways his time there fostered his discoveries. Could you explain?

Isaacson: I think he was lucky to be at the patent office rather than serving as an acolyte in the academy trying to please senior professors and teach the conventional wisdom. As a patent examiner, he got to visualize the physical realities underlying scientific concepts. He had a boss who told him to question every premise and assumption. And as Peter Galison shows in Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Maps, many of the patent applications involved synchronizing clocks using signals that traveled at the speed of light. So with his office-mate Michele Besso as a sounding board, he was primed to make the leap to special relativity. That time in the patent office makes him sound far more like a practical scientist and tinkerer than the usual image of the wild-haired professor, and more like your previous biographical subject, the multitalented but eminently earthly Benjamin Franklin. Did you see connections between them?

Isaacson: I like writing about creativity, and that's what Franklin and Einstein shared. They also had great curiosity and imagination. But Franklin was a more practical man who was not very theoretical, and Einstein was the opposite in that regard. Of the many legends that have accumulated around Einstein, what did you find to be least true? Most true?

Isaacson: The least true legend is that he failed math as a schoolboy. He was actually great in math, because he could visualize equations. He knew they were nature's brushstrokes for painting her wonders. For example, he could look at Maxwell's equations and marvel at what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave, and he could look at Max Planck's equations about radiation and realize that Planck's constant meant that light was a particle as well as a wave. The most true legend is how rebellious and defiant of authority he was. You see it in his politics, his personal life, and his science. At Time and CNN and the Aspen Institute, you've worked with many of the leading thinkers and leaders of the day. Now that you've had the chance to get to know Einstein so well, did he remind you of anyone from our day who shares at least some of his remarkable qualities?

Isaacson: There are many creative scientists, most notably Stephen Hawking, who wrote the essay on Einstein as "Person of the Century" when I was editor of Time. In the world of technology, Steve Jobs has the same creative imagination and ability to think differently that distinguished Einstein, and Bill Gates has the same intellectual intensity. I wish I knew politicians who had the creativity and human instincts of Einstein, or for that matter the wise feel for our common values of Benjamin Franklin.

More to Explore

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

Kissinger: A Biography

The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Acclaimed biographer Isaacson examines the remarkable life of "science's preeminent poster boy" in this lucid account (after 2003's Benjamin Franklin and 1992's Kissinger). Contrary to popular myth, the German-Jewish schoolboy Albert Einstein not only excelled in math, he mastered calculus before he was 15. Young Albert's dislike for rote learning, however, led him to compare his teachers to "drill sergeants." That antipathy was symptomatic of Einstein's love of individual and intellectual freedom, beliefs the author revisits as he relates his subject's life and work in the context of world and political events that shaped both, from WWI and II and their aftermath through the Cold War. Isaacson presents Einstein's research—his efforts to understand space and time, resulting in four extraordinary papers in 1905 that introduced the world to special relativity, and his later work on unified field theory—without equations and for the general reader. Isaacson focuses more on Einstein the man: charismatic and passionate, often careless about personal affairs; outspoken and unapologetic about his belief that no one should have to give up personal freedoms to support a state. Fifty years after his death, Isaacson reminds us why Einstein (1879–1955) remains one of the most celebrated figures of the 20th century. 500,000 firsr printing, 20-city author tour, first serial to Time; confirmed appearance on Good Morning America. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 704 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition (May 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743264746
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743264747
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (738 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,693 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute, has been chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and of Kissinger: A Biography, and the coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

282 of 292 people found the following review helpful By D. Buxman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In my experience, biographies of great scientists often leave the reader in a fog of technical complexity. While this book is not "Physics in One Simple Lesson," Walter Isaacson did a wonderful job of telling the story of the man and making the scientific aspects sufficiently understandable to be useful in grasping the magnitude of Einstein's intellect. This book is meticulously researched and sourced, yet written in a witty and entertaining way that makes reading it a pleasure. The central lesson that I was left with was the importance of independent thinking in any context. Einstein made it clear that conventional wisdom is often neither practical, nor wise. I was struck by his resiliance in his early years and his good humor in really tough times. I also appreciated the fact that the author was willing to examine all aspects of Eintein's personality, both favorable and unfavorable.
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350 of 370 people found the following review helpful By Wayne Klein HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Walter Isaacson's biography of Einstein creates a fuller better rounded image of one of the finest minds of the 20th Century than many biographies of Einstein. Although it's not without its flaws, Issacson's book covers much of Einstein's life pointing out both his successes and flaws as both a person and physicist.

We learn that as a child Einstein suffered from what could be echolalia (which is where you mutter a phrase to yourself multiple times before saying it to others). Issacson notes both Einstein's debt to Hume, Planck and philosphers such as Kant in helping develop both his world view and his breakthroughs in science. To his credit Isaacson also points out that the man that came to embody the modern view of physics and became a hero who had feet of clay; Einstein gave up his daughter for adoption without ever seeing her and spent much of his time away from Mileva (who would eventually become his first wife) while she was pregnant for a variety of reasons some understandable some not. The young Einstein was brash,egotistic and obnoxious (or you could call him overly confident) often pointing out flaws in papers by the very professors he was seeking jobs from. He also charts Einstein's difficult path to his professorship including his stint working in the Swiss patent office.

Isaacson does cover Einstein's support for the development of the atomic bomb (although this is a relatively small section of the biography) and mentions that Einstein later regreted his support and the bombing that occurred in Japan during World War II. When Einstein came up with his famous equation, he never imagined it would help pave the way for for mass destruction.
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102 of 106 people found the following review helpful By Jon Hunt on April 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Walter Isaacson's sweeping new book about one of the great minds in life is a tribute to Albert Einstein through his life and his work. For those of us who know the renowned physicist through equations and reputation, Isaacson fills in the rest. Einstein's creativity and his abiltity to think far past others added so much dimension to the arena of science while his personal life was just as rich with detail. In "Einstein", the author reveals a dashing history.

As Isaacson says, Einstein wondered early on what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam. This kind of thinking outside the box led to a lifetime of successes and a few failures, as well. The good and the bad are covered here. What is so striking about this book is that the reader seems to grow with the subject. One cheers Einstein on in his youth as he throws convention out the window, bucks hierarchy and generally goes his own way. Later in life, as Einstein becomes more reasoned (but nonetheless no less radical) we understand the transformation. This is the key to the enjoyment of reading "Einstein"...the humanness of his person shines.

There are a couple of chapters which took me by surprise and are terrific additions to the book. One is titled "Einstein's God", a look at how science and religion may or may not be reconciled in Einstein's eyes, and a chapter on the "Red Scare". That Einstein should have lived through the McCarthy era and had the wits to comment on it is fortuitous, indeed.

"Einstein" may just be the best read of the year. Isaacson's narrative style flows and while there are a lot of technical points about physics necessary to the the story, it never for a minute lets down. I highly recommend "Einstein" and give tribute to Walter Isaacson, whose research and strength as an author gives us such a compelling look at Albert Einstein.
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185 of 199 people found the following review helpful By Odysseus on January 12, 2008
Format: Hardcover
It's often unfair to rate a book relative to its reputation, but sometimes it is necessary to do so to offset the impression given by other advance billings. I found Isaacon's Einstein to be a serviceable biography, nothing more; certainly not the tour de force I half-expected it to be based on its having climbed to #1 on the best-seller list. Among biographies I read in 2007, Neal Gabler's life of Disney, and Leigh Montville's Babe Ruth bio ("The Big Bam") were certainly superior. So too was Whittaker Chambers's haunting "Witness" (though this was a 50th-year anniversary re-release). Even Bill Bryson's light and unpretentious "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid" far outshined this book in the biography/memoir category.

Isaacson's book provides the salient details of Einstein's life, and does a fair if unspectacular job of bringing the gist of Einstein's theories into focus for the layman. Biographies of scientists, artists and philosophers can sometimes be frustrating reads when the life narrative isn't as interesting as the subject's body of work. This places a burden on the biographer to convey the aesthetic flavor and force of the subject's work (or, in other words, "what all the fuss was about.") Isaacson does a fair job of this. It's virtually impossible to fully do it with Einstein while omitting nearly all the math, but at least Isaacson manages to get it done without losing the essence of what made Einstein's work fascinating.

The larger problem with the book is the author's reduction of Einstein's personality to a few summary points, repeating those over and over, even to the point of jamming virtually every life event into tight pigeonholes. Specifically:

-- Einstein, we are told, was repulsed by conformity.
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