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.
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. He was conflicted over his role in the development of the atomic bomb feeling both responsibility and guilty over his role and how it led to the deaths of those in Japan and the arms race. This guilt shaped his role in leading the charge for a world government that would prevent individual nations from using the atomic bomb. He later stated that if he had known Germany wasn't going to be able to develop the atomic bomb, he "never would have lifted a finger" to prompt the United States to develop this weapon of mass destruction. He never forgave the German people for their role in trying to exterminate Jews and others prohibiting sale of his books in post-war Germany and stated that he felt the country should continue to be punished for what occurred. Isaacson addresses some of the contradictions of the man of peace who contributed and supported war showing that while Einstein had his absolute convicitions they could sometimes shift depending on the circumstances. Einstein never pretended to be perfect and Isaacson does a good job of portraying the flawed but brilliant human being at the core of all that brain power. The biggest surprise for me was discovering that he unwittingly had an affair with a Soviet spy and the fact that he refused to believe in Black Holes even though there was clear evidence (some of it in his theories)because it didn't fit his elegant view of the universe.
Most importantly the author manages to give understandable explanations of Einstein's theories and how he came up with many of them. One can't understand Einstein's world without understanding his world view or the way that his papers/theories altered the world we live in today. I'd recommend this book for the compelling human portrait that Isaacson creates of one of the leading figures of science in the 20th Century. Also recommended--
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
on April 28, 2007
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.
on January 12, 2008
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. Isaacson relates a story of the child Einstein crying when seeing a Germany army marching by in perfect synchronization. Nothing could be more horrifying to this fiercely independent mind than such mindless collective action. Isaacson argues that Einstein's determination to go his own separate way was one of the vital elements of his unique genius.
-- Einstein's non-conformity enabled him to avoid running with the pack, even in the political arena. A pacifist for some of his adult life, he had the good sense to eschew pacifism in the age of Hitler.
-- Einstein didn't do as badly in school, nor as badly at mathematics, as is often stated, though he was hardly a leading mathematician.
-- Einstein had an ambivalent attitude toward his own fame. On the one hand, he was amused by the buffoonery of celebrity culture, and went out of his way to deflate its pretentions. But he cultivated an image of indifference to fame that outstripped the reality that he quite enjoyed it.
-- Einstein was often cruel or indifferent to those closest to him, but he deeply felt, especially late in life, moral obligations to humanity at large.
-- Einstein was a willing scientific revolutionary early on, but later become something of a scientific conservative. He was never able, for example, to fully accept the achievements of quantum mechanics.
-- Einstein preferred simple, elegant theories to fiddly, complex, clunky ones.
There, that didn't take so long, did it? The book devotes hundreds of pages to interpreting most of Einstein's life events according to one or the other of these themes. The repetition is vexing, but the bigger problem is that one gets the sense that Isaacson is so determined that these be the defining characteristics of Einstein's life and work, that he allows little room for the possibility of narrative events that collide with the themes.
Most of us have read biographies where every childhood event is treated as though it's a precursor or partial explanation for some later adult event or tendency. And we've read bios that seem to reduce a life to a manifestation of a small number of repeated themes. But human beings are more complex than this, and life narratives are rarely so neat and tidy. It seems unlikely that a man of Einstein's intelligence and complexity would have a life that so unremittingly conformed to the favorite leitmotifs of his biographer. No doubt, Isaacson's interpretations have a sound and convincing basis, but the relentless plumbing of these lines left me rather numb by the end of the book.
Beyond this, the book simply wasn't as engrossing to read as many biographies are.
Certainly a serviceable biography, but not a flawless one.
I always wanted to read a good biography of Albert Einstein. This is it. I read Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin biography and I loved it, so when this new Isaacson book was published, I knew I could not go wrong. I am not a scientist guy, so it is difficult for me to follow the explanations about the Physics in the book (specially the Quantum mechanics), but despite of that, the life of Einstein is so full of so many other interesting things, that this biography is a completely triumph. It is very difficult to write a book like that and please everyone. I could even say there are parts of the book that lack depth. For example, I don't recall Isaacson telling us about Einstein reaction to the Holocaust. Also, we have a lot of information about Einstein as a musician, playing the violin, and his love for Mozart. But we don't have a lot of information about Einstein's daily routine, like what he used to eat, if he liked to take walks, or ride a bike, how he used a handkerchief to protect his head from the sun, etc. Again, nothing is perfect and still Isaacson book is brilliant. By reading this book I've become very much interested to go beyond and learn some Physics. I've been asking to some colleagues of mine who teach Science in High School, but it seems they don't even undestand these theories themselves (which is pretty sad and also explains why our students' standards nowadays are so low). I might try the Einstein General and Specific Theory of Relativity book and see if I can understand it myself. I also went to Youtube and searched for videos about his theories and his life and I found some very interesting things. On the other hand, I also want to learn more about the Jews, which is something I've been trying to learn for so long because I am not Jewish but I have a huge respect and interest for their culture and history. Also funny, when I ask some of my Jewish friends about the creation of the State of Israel, and the conflict between Israel and Palestine, they politely avoid an answer by saying 'Oh! You need to ask someone else, because I don't know exactly how that happened ...' So again, I am going to have to learn it by myself. To finish with this review, the bottomline is this is a wonderful biography of Einstein that I strongly recommend to everyone.
P.S. If you like my review vote YES. You can read all my other reviews if you wish to. I modestly write them to help people form an opinion about movies, music and books, but if nobody reads them (if you don't vote I do not know if you did) there is no point in writing them
Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson is an awesome book about a man who was larger than life. Did I understand all of it? Nope. But that didn't keep me from enjoying it immensely.
Walter Isaacson is known for his well-researched and well-written biographies of great men, and he was aided by the discovery of many of Einstein's previously unknown private letters in 1986. After going through the basics, the author alternates between Einstein's personal life, his scientific work and his political beliefs.
As a physicist, Einstein possessed a brilliant mind. In 1905, he published four new theories that would change science forever. An uninspired student in college, he was unable to get a teaching job upon graduation. Instead, he ended up working for the Swiss Patent Office. This actually proved beneficial as it allowed him extra time to work on his theories. A humble man, Einstein believed that "knowledge is limited" and that curiosity and imagination were responsible for his discoveries. Isaacson tries to explain these in an easy-to-understand manner, but I still found my eyes glazing over in spots. By the end of his career, Einstein was no longer the innovative rebel but instead, the more conservative sage of Princeton.
As for Einstein's personal life, the newly discovered letters allow Isaacson to write in more detail about the famous scientist than any other biographer. This new treasure trove sheds new light on his first marriage to Meliva Maric. Einstein had complicated relationships with both wives and his two sons, and he didn't always treat them admirably. Yet, he was a very social man and had dozens of life-long relationships with other scientists and mathematicians. Einstein was described as "kind, good-natured, gentle and unpretentious." This quiet and unassuming man became our first celebrity scientist and hoards of fans flocked to see him. In these respects, Einstein was much like Ben Franklin--another one of Isaacson's subjects.
Einstein had strong political beliefs. He was both a socialist and a strong pacifist. But Hitler and Nazi anti-Semitism caused him to not only abandon his native Germany but also, to throw his weight behind the war effort. Einstein also decried racism. When Marian Anderson came to Princeton in 1937 to perform, the Nassau Inn refused her a room. Einstein opened his Princeton home to her.
Although Isaacson's biography is exhaustive, he leaves just a few questions unanswered. First, whatever happened to his house in Caputh, Germany after the war? I discovered on the internet that it has a fascinating history that I'm sure Isaacson's readers would enjoy. Also, I wonder how the advent of the computer might have changed Einstein's accomplishments. But these are only small issues in an almost perfect book.
I was never very interested in Albert Einstein, but Isaacson has piqued my interest. He succeeds in bringing to life this "locksmith" who "knows that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders."
As a young man Einstein rebelled against established authority, defying his parents, teachers, and militaristic German society, going so far as to renounce his citizenship. When he enrolled in Zurich Polytechnic his disdain for his teachers was readily apparent. Because he skipped so many classes in favor of studying on his own, he barely passed his exams. This came back to haunt him when these same professors spurned his applications for an assistantship, and that's how he wound up working at the patent office.
Isaacson stresses the idea that it was Einstein's rebelliousness and contempt for authority that led to his great discoveries. Few scientists had the chutzpah to question Newton's concept of space and time. Because Einstein did he was able to formulate his theories of special relativity and general relativity.
It was only when Einstein became an authority figure himself that he ran into problems. He insisted that God "would not play dice by allowing things to happen by chance." Thus, he spent the rest of his life trying to find a theory that would combine his general relativity and electromagnetism. When weak and strong nuclear forces were discovered, he ignored them, just as he did quantum mechanics, a theory that he helped formulate.
According to some of the reviews I've read, Isaacson aims at the layman in his analysis of Einstein's theories. Despite this admirable goal, his stand-alone discussions of special and general relativity as well as The Uncertainty Principle and such terms as "synchronicity" and the "equivalence principle" were a bit tedious; however, I did finally get the idea behind E equals MC squared. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared is illustrated by using the mass of a raisin. Mass times 186,000 miles a second doubled could power the city of New York for an entire day. I was also not aware that Hubble discovered the first galaxy, outside of the Milky Way, as recently as 1924. Isaacson also addresses the idea that Mileva Maric, Einstein's first wife, deserves some credit for his discoveries. Isaacson tries to show that she was no more than a sounding board. Einstein was so obsessed by science that he discussed it in his love letters.
The story begins to pick up when Einstein moves to Princeton. That's where we begin to see the absent-minded professor begin to emerge. He was also the first "rock-star" scientist as journalists and ordinary citizens clamored to get near him. Isaacson shows that it was Einstein's personality that led to his renown. He had a certain flair for publicity and he had a sly sense of humor. One illustration would be a time when he was lecturing in London, and it was rumored that the Nazis had put out a contract on him. He was given two female body guards sporting hunting shotguns. Einstein said, "The beauty of my bodyguards would disarm a conspirator sooner than their shotguns."
Einstein spent over twenty years at the Institute for Advance Studies in Princeton, where he became a legend not only for his science but also for his eccentricities. Once, on one of his ramblings, he forgot where he lived and had to call the Institute for directions. He lived there on Mercer Street with several women, his second wife Elsa, his aide Helen Dukas, and later his stepdaughter Margot and his sister Maja. As the years went by both Elsa and Maja adapted Einstein's fly-away hairdo. An interesting anecdote pertains to Maja. She was a vegetarian but she loved hotdogs. When she began to decline in the late forties, Einstein convinced her they were vegetables.
The story of Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt concerning the development of the Atom Bomb is well known, but he was a pacifist well before the war and worked passionately for world peace and a world government. He also put his money where his mouth was when it came to discrimination. When Marian Anderson, the famous contralto, came to Princeton for a concert she was denied a room at the Nassau Inn. Einstein invited her to stay at his house on Mercer Street.
Einstein was also one of the early critic of McCarthyism, and the FBI had a heavy file on him as he unwittingly lent his name to several Communist front organizations. He worried that America was losing its democratic spirit. Some even accused him of being an atheist. Einstein responded, "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and doings of mankind." Einstein was an individual right up until the day he died of a burst aneurysm, an incomplete equation at his bedside.
I was frightened when I picked this book up that Walter Isaacson's political views might find their way into the pages and distort Einstein's life. I am pleased to say that Isaacson's political beliefs are not center stage here, but rather Einstein's life and views occupy the spotlight.
This is not the best biography of Einstein's science, but it is certainly one of the very best to describe Einstein the man.
As a man, a human being, Einstein had what many might see as great flaws, particularly in this age of political correctness and proud victimhood. He was far from the ideal husband and father. He treated his wives at times in a manner that would have him castigated by today's talk show hosts and talking heads. His relationship with his children was, to put it mildly, largely strained.
Einstein's science of course changed the world. Isaacson does a credible job of trying to explain how and largely succeeds in a small way. But don't expect to hold your own with a physicist after reading this book.
The most interesting part of the book and Einstein's life to me are the years after he emigrated to America, fleeing the German threat to his life because he was born into a Jewish family.
His ardent pacifism, once confronted with the German threat to humanity, moderated and he recognized the reality that sometimes free man had to take up arms to protect themselves. This change in attitude did not make Einstein popular among his former partners in pacifism.
Einstein possessed a basic humanity that thoroughly appreciated the incredible freedom accorded individuals by the Constitution of the United States. He was proud of being a naturalized American citizen in a way that many would jeer today.
Isaacson attempts to explain Einstein's unique perception of the Universe and his belief in a god. God does not play dice with the Universe is Einstein's oft quoted rejoinder to proponents of quantum mechanics as well as an expression of his personal faith. Einstein, Isaacson explains, was not a religious believer in the traditional sense, but he was a believer. Also, observing the horrors inflicted by the Germans upon the Jews and others in WWII, Einstein became a selective supporter of Zionism and the Israeli state. He was, however, critical of some of the tactics used to bring that state into being.
Isaacson overall draws an exquisite portrait of a genius, a man who literally changed the course of the world and yet remained almost childlike in some ways. Einstein's follies in supporting many liberal seeming groups willy-nilly are reported as are the fumbling efforts of racist groups to keep him out of the US. The FBI is duly lambasted for its dossier keeping on Einstein and McCarthy is brought in for the mandatory scorging. To Isaacson's credit, while not sparing McCarthy in any way, Isaacson does acknowledge that the US did indeed perceive itself as being faced with a genuine threat in the post-war years.
This is a marvelous biography and I could go on for a long time extolling its virtues and offering glimpses into its richness. Isaacson, of course, had a one of a kind subject to work with: Albert Einstein - and he does well by him.
A truly excellent portrait of an exceptional and history shaping life.
on April 15, 2007
If you, like me, think that the last thing you need is yet another treatise on a dead genius scientist with disheveled gray hair, while his Wikipedia entry just keeps swooning, well think again! This is a delightful romp through the many facets of his life, in the accessible vein of Richard Feynman. Isaacson doesn't blindly trump his subject's greatness, which would have been a convenient way to handle the daunting task of sketching someone of Einstein's color and magnitude.
For the first time since Einstein's private archives were opened, we can fully assess the link between his private life and his scientific endeavors. Not surprisingly, they are connected and reflect similar convictions. Einstein was well and truly a maverick, and displayed the same disregard for everyday conventions that his theories bear upon conventional notions of time, space, and the order of the universe. His political letters reveal his almost unapologetic belief that no one should have to give up personal freedoms to support the state.
One big question that neophytes such as myself would doubtless ask themselves before picking up anything on Einstein: "Will I learn anything about the theory of relativity?" The answer to that question is a very cheerful and resounding yes. I found the author's treatment of this aspect clear and comfortable, and while more scientifically inclined readers may lament the brevity of this discourse, I found it in favor of accessibility.
Einstein lived through both the world wars, and as an important thinker of his time, he was inevitably embroiled in the political race to apply his equations to the creation of the atom bomb. I suppose the more sensitive readers will find these bits of the book contentious, as the impassioned commentary on this site will already demonstrate, but such are the vagaries of fame and influence.
I found this a very balanced, affectionate portrait with an immensely charming man at its core. His letters even reveal a sense of humor! They bring to life the much-unknown man behind the much-lauded scientist, a man who was above all else an imaginative free thinker with an incredibly broad range of interests. For a lay reader who is not interested in splitting hairs over Einstein's sinister predilections or anything quite that theatrical, I wholeheartedly recommend this fantastic read. It's a bestseller for a very good reason.
We have this false image of Albert Einstein as a loving, kindly, harmless, and brilliant academic who is a fountain of one wise remark after another. The fact is that Albert Einstein had warts and character flaws just like the rest of us. I must say here that I believe Einstein's brilliance and insight is made even more important because he wasn't perfect. Einstein is proof that even our flaws of character don't have to keep us from reaching our full potential.
In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson does a masterful job at displaying the real Einstein, warts and all, for us to examine. Whether it is the fact that he gave up his first daughter, sight-unseen, to adoption, or discarded Mileva after she gave him two sons and the best years of her life, Isaacson gives us the truth. Many aren't aware that when he left Europe to come to the United States he left his youngest son behind with severe mental problems. Isaacson also lets us see Einstein's struggle to overcome problems with his research and how perseverance can win out in the end. It is somehow very reassuring to learn that even Albert Einstein had to have help with his math.
Brilliant in its scope and research, Einstein: His Life and Universe gives us a behind the scene look at one of the best minds of all time. The pages will melt away as you work your way through this book.
If you want to read additional material on Albert Einstein I highly recommend Albert Einstein: A Biography by Albrecht Folsing and Ewald Oser.