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359 of 379 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A complex man gets his due in fascinating biography, April 11, 2007
This review is from: Einstein: His Life and Universe (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. 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
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Showing 1-10 of 21 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 11, 2007 9:11:37 PM PDT
Interesting that you say that Einstein never forgave the "German people" for trying to exterminate the Jews. Collective guilt like that is racist to its core and leads victims into becoming executioners and perpetuating an endless cyle of violence. Osama bin Laden will never forgive the "American people" for occupying Islamic lands and carpet-bombing Afghanistan. He thinks this collective guilt gives him the right to terrorize all of us in the name of a higher morality. Einstein partisans must deal with the fact that their hero concurred with this barbaric standard -- with regard to Germans -- and it was this attitude that served as the alibi for the indiscriminate, indeed exterminating Allied bombings of all the major German cities. As you note, Einstein did not regret the mass murder of German civlians, rather he only regretted, in retrospect, what his role as cheerleader and part organizer of the atom bomb project would do to his post-war reputation and his pose as a pillar of pacifist ethics. Einstein was a notable human being in many ways, not the least his revulsion at Menachem Begin and the war-Zionists, who he rightly termed fascists; but we must confront the terrible fact that he abandoned his pacifism when the chips were down, when it was most sorely tested. Biographer Walter Isaacson does not in any way even begin to adequately account for this enormous failing.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 13, 2007 5:30:44 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 22, 2008 3:09:28 PM PDT
Wayne Klein says:
I believe that Isaacson did a very good job of pointing out Einstein's flaws as a human being as well as his more notable deeds. As with all people, he was inconsistent at times but tried to make up for his support of the atomic bomb once he realized the U.S. intended to drop it and its devasting effects.

I don't feel that the comparison to a terrorist is appropriate. Einstein was a complex individual who could be incredibly inconsistent at times (like us all)but that doesn't make him any less deserving of our respect for his attempts to better the world.

I don't recall any the author stating that Einstein ever supported the carpet bombing by Allied Forces of Germany or the killing of civilians as part of the effort to stop Hitler. I suspect he would have regreted their loss of life just as he did the loss of life at Hiroshima. That doesn't make him a villan or someone less deserving of of admiration. All heroes have feet of clay and are flawed because we're human beings--prone to make mistakes. Expecting something less is creating unrealistic expectations. I disagree with your interpretation of my review. It sounds as if you have your own agenda in mind.

The problem Michael that I have with your analogy is simple--Einstein never wanted to take any sort of violent action against the German people. All he did was withhold his books from publication there because of his anger. Holding the German people responsible for supporting an individual that exterminated millions of people based on race is one thing. While Osama Bin Laden may hold the U.S. responsible for carpet boming Afghanistan (although bin Laden isn't from Afghanistan but Arabian--so why he would hold the U.S. "accountable" for actions against a country that he has no ties to beyond religion is strange another example of your flawed point) and for other crimes (imagined or otherwise), the U.S. didn't do so to exterminate a people (and one would think that he would hold Russia accountable for the same actions). The fact is that Bin Laden's misguided attack on the U.S. is because the U.S. is more a symbol and attacking that symbol makes him feel powerful/gets him the notice he wants. Einstein never suggested that we should sent terrorists into Germany and ram airplanes into their largest buildings.

I'm quite satisfied with the author's warts and all examination of Einstein.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2007 4:32:37 PM PDT
Comparing Einstein to a terrorist is unfair. If Einstein never forgave the Germans and prohibited the sale of his book in Germany, it is an act that we must respect. After all, he was the owner of the copyrights of his books. How can we judge the level of pain he suffered, as a human being or a jew, at the hands of the Germans. Equating this to a terrorist's madness is grossly inappropriate.

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2007 6:13:16 PM PDT
Jane Huffman says:
I agree.

Posted on Jun 30, 2007 7:55:50 PM PDT
Also lost about Einstein is his ignoring his youngest son who was a schizophrenic. This to me revealed his greatest shortcoming- The inability to acknowledge his own needy flesh and blood for the sake of his career.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 1, 2007 1:08:12 PM PDT
Wayne Klein says:
The book does mention this although it probably could have dived in to the contradictory nature of his character a bit more. As brilliant as he was Einstein had feet of clay that was as apt to crumble as it was to hold him aloft in the annals of history.

Posted on Jul 11, 2007 10:09:16 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2007 10:46:47 AM PDT
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In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2007 9:23:39 PM PDT
Wayne Klein says:
Sadly Einstein was a man of his time when it came to the women. As to his first child, I have no doubt he never wanted to set eyes on her because if he had he would have had to admit her reality and accept responsibility for her. Not seeing her made her very much like one of his theories.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 18, 2008 11:54:02 PM PDT
panopticon7 says:
michael a. hoffman makes a compelling point. an upsetting point, clearly, arousing much dissent, however murky--there is no adequate defense of that dissent to be found on this thread, only hand-wringing and rhetorical declarations. the notion of a people being held accountable for the actions of individuals is incoherent and irrational. as bizarre as condemning all of humanity for the acts of a single human. or all life for the behavior of one living thing. or the existence of the cosmos for one atom's participation in a nuclear explosion. i can easily understand why this isn't comprehensible to the majority present; many people find it comforting to believe despite all evidence to the contrary that their notion of what sides there are vindicate the side they believe themselves allied with. einstein's positions were his own, granted--and while some were laudable and humane, some were execrable. it would be healthy to recognize this human as human.
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Wayne Klein

Location: My Little Blue Window, USA

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