Customer Reviews: Einstein: His Life and Universe
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on December 30, 2007
I have always wanted to read a biography of Einstein's life but I had 2 questions. First, recognizing that it would not be possible to tell his life story without delving into what I will loosely call "the science", would I understand the science? Second, if the answer to that was no, would I stil be able to enjoy the book anyway? In this case, the answers were "no" and "yes" respectively. I could not understand the huge portions of the book that dealt with his scientific breakthroughs at all and I really can't blame Isaacson for that, because it wasn't for lack of trying on his part. Rather, I suspect that I just don't have a scientific bent, and, more significantly, I think that Einstein's theories are abstruse even for smart people. Because of this, about 40% of the book was a total fog for me. However, that being said, I still think that Isaacson did a great job and as I say, I doubt that anyone else could have made me understand the science either.

One of the things that struck me about Einstein's life was the enormous difference between what he accomplished before age 40 (virtually everything he is famous for today) and after age 40 (virtually nothing). In fact, Isaacson himself muses as to whether science would have suffered "if Einstein had retired after the eclipse observations and devoted himself to sailing for the remaining 36 years of his life"? Although his initial answer is yes, it appears that the real answer is no. Isaacson himself acknowledges that his attacks on quantum mechanics were unwarranted and that he "was so much more creative before the age of 40 than after." Also, the mere fact that Isaacson posed the question is telling in and of itself. In fact, I think that Einstein himself said it best: "The intellect gets crippled but glittering renown is still draped around the calcified shell."

Because of this I felt that the second half of the biography was much less interesting than the first (again through no fault of Isaacson). At just about the same time he became famous, his scientific breakthroughs ceased, and as the subject of a biography, his life became less interesting, at least for me. (Or, to take sort of the reverse of Isaacson's question, if the biography has started when Einstein turned 40, would it have made for a very good read? No.)

Finally, I was a little disappointed at the short shrift which Isaacson gave to the issue of Einstein's possible autism (relegating it to a footnote and concluding that he felt Einstein wasn't). While I would agree with Isaacson that Einstein exhibited some traits and tendencies that were not consistent with autism, I think he exhibited a number of others that were, which could mean that he was simply somewhere on the scale rather than being full-blown autistic. Anyway, the book is a great accomplishment and I give it 5 stars.
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on September 24, 2007
Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein provides an in depth profile of a man who, having been placed among the gods for so long, can now be seen for the human being he was. I cringed at the brashness and impudence that, on the one hand, prompted him to his greatest discoveries yet, on the other, alienated him from the very people he would need later on.

For all his scientific genius and sparkling public persona, Einstein was a puzzling man who gave away his first baby with a shrug, was cruel to his first wife, dallied around shamelessly on his second and could not bring himself to deal with his mentally ill son. Did Albert Einstein have "a dark side?" No more or less than any of us who look back on our lives and cringe at our acts and imperfections.

There's a great deal of in-depth science and theory covered in Isaacson's book. Admittedly, I was a bit overwhelmed. That was, however, only for the first reading. Recognizing that even Albert Einstein could give no short answers for his theories, I plan to leave a more more thorough understanding to future readings, as I believe the information is laid out here by Isaacson as well as anywhere I have seen.

Some of the old stories about Einstein are exposed by Isaacson as folklore. Others are left for the reader to decide. Perhaps we like to hold onto such stories because we want so very much to believe in the kindly genius who couldn't find his way home and helped a little girl with her arithmetic in exchange for brownies. Wonderfully, knowing the whole story of Albert Einstein does nothing to dispel one's admiration of the man. In fact, Isaacson's biography merely brings him into human proportions and drops him in the neighborhood, a friendly if eccentric and occasionally outspoken good neighbor--and genius.
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on June 6, 2007
This book is not a quick read nor is it an easy read, which makes complete sense since Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was and is a genius to reckon with. But it is a fascinating and well-presented account by the author whose approach is to write about persons who are so creative we wonder what makes them that way.

The creativity of Einstein, the author suggests, has to do both with his personal characteristics and the time and place in which he lived. Certainly genius prompts one to look at the world in a way others have not yet noticed. Certainly, surroundings that stimulate the musings of the mind can and will produce unconventional results. The young Einstein portrayed here sounds like a person who was impelled toward groundbreaking ideas, both by his fascination with physical reality and by his unconventional route toward explaining it.

Here is hope for those whose bright minds rebel at the tedium of most educational approaches, and those who, having been spurned or overlooked by the so-called experts, produce something better than they could have envisioned--whether in reaction to, or in spite of the odds--remains an open question.

Isaaacson suggests that Einstein very much inhabited his own world, with all of the ordinary stresses and strains of family relationships, need for meaningful work, joys and frustrations both about personal issues and events on the world scene that we all face. It is helpful to see how the man who opened the way to an entire discipline ordered his daily life and interacted with his family and colleagues.

There is underlying the genius a real sense of playfulness--not in a frivolous sense but the more important meaning of play in which one engages one's whole being intent upon an activity that demands concentration and energies. Einstein thrived in the playground of physics in the same way that Mozart thrived in the playground of music.

Isaacson reminds us that an element of this approach to life can lead, as it did for Einstein, to a sincere belief in a "God who reveals Himself in the harmony of all that exists."

Drawing upon letters and papers from Einstein's career and personal life not heretofore available, the author has written a work that makes Einstein's thought accessible to the layperson. The book flows well and maintains the reader's interest throughout.

A native of New Orleans, Walter Isaacson has been the chairman of CNN and the managing editor of Time magazine. He is the acclaimed author of biographies of other creative thinkers: Franklin Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Henry Kissinger Kissinger: A Biography and is co-author of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford (where he was a Rhodes Scholar), he is the President and CEO of the Aspen Institute.
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on June 1, 2007
I enjoyed this CD. The physics and math were hard to understand, but it was part of the whole story. Wonderfully read and fun to listen to. If you have any love of science or want to understand the man and his time, it is very worth the time.
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on July 3, 2008
First I read Isaacson's "Benjamin Franklin." Then I attended a lecture and book signing in New Orleans where the author delivered a wonderful lecture on Einstein after which he autographed my book. After that, how could I not read it?

Walter Isaacson is a brilliant man and a superb biographer! He truly understands Einstein's science and presents it in a way that is understandable to us mortals (well, almost). Any failures to understand the science though were totally mine....not the author's, and I certainly gained a much improved understanding of relativity, general relativity, quantum mechanics, etc. from having read this book. (Actually, I was reminded why I changed my intended college major from physics to other arenas during my freshman year.) I also gained a new knowledge of and appreciation for the other scientific luminaries of the early twentieth century as well as for the politics of scientific academia.

Beyond the science, Isaacson thoroughly explains Einstein the man. It is interesting to see how Einstein's early struggles to enter academia actually allowed him to think unconventionally and to develop the groundbreaking theories that made him famous. The book explores how his deep feelings for mankind could coexist in a personality that struggled with close personal relationships as well as how such an amazing scientific mind could sometimes be simplistic and naive in geo-political matters. Einstein's transition from pacifist to reluctant advocate of armament was also instructive. The perspectives of twentieth century history, Einstein's "rock star" status, his role in advocating the nuclear bomb, his religious views, his sense of being Jewish, his relationships with his family and peers and many other aspects of his life and personality are all covered well and entertainingly.

Who would think a biography of a scientist could be so interesting? While the actual science is sometimes a bit ponderous, it is necessary for the story, and Isaacson presents it well. The rest reads like a novel and, at several points near the end, is actually laugh out loud funny. I cannot recommend this book enough!!!
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on April 18, 2008
I picked this book up in its audio form as something to listen to when I was on the road. Turns out that I unwittingly purchased the "abridged" edition and, in retrospect, I'm glad I did. I wasn't looking for an incredibly in-depth look at the brilliant theoretical physicist, nor certainly at his groundbreaking work. As it turns out, I got just about all that I could handle (and was not too overwhelmed) in the abridged version.

This work can be divided into two clear avenues; one dealing with the history and details of Einstein's personal life, the other attempting to present and explain his work. The two are intertwined in a very efficient and well presented manner.

I am of above average intelligence, though not scientific by nature. While I was able to roughly follow parts of the narrator's descriptions of relativity and quantum mechanics, at other times I was completely lost. Luckily, the deep stuff was "relatively" confined and not so drawn out as to lose continuity.

One of Einstein's greatest strengths was his ability to explain his incredibly complex theories in ways more understandable to laymen, using examples involving trains, lightning bolts, falling elevators, etc. It was through these "thought experiments" and not through complex labratory work that most of his theories were developed.

As with most great men, Einstein was not without his faults, and the author willingly points them out. In doing so, Einstein comes across not as a bad person, but more as a typically flawed human being. He was certainly an amazing person and one of the most scientifically gifted theoreticians in history.

While I cannot attest to the readability of the unabridged text (and suspect that the science could be overwhelming), the abridged audio version, which consists of six CDs encompassing seven hours of narration, can be highly recommended.
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on May 3, 2010
If you don't know much about Albert Einstein and probably aren't going to get a PhD in Physics anytime soon, but want to know more about this historical figure, this is certainly the book for you.

I found Issacson's easygoing writing style to be very helpful during the discussions on Einstein's relativity theory and his philosophical battle against the randomness in emerging Quantum mechanics. In truth, one cannot understand this great man without some knowledge of these areas of physics, though a typical reader won't want to understand their entirety.

In addition to his genius, it was wonderful to learn about Einstein's astounding curiosity, his perseverance towards an academic career, his steadfast rejection of nationalism, his incredibly simple approach to his personal life, and his commitment to the idea that everything in nature has a purpose and an underlying structure- that "God doesn't play dice".

At the same time, Einstein was a man, and he had many shortcomings. It was particularly discouraging to learn about his failings as a husband and as a father. His outspoken naiveté regarding global politics also remind the reader of today's society where celebrities in one field often feel the power/right to voice their opinions in another where they have little in the way of training or expertise.
I found his assessment of America in a letter to his son, particularly timely, paraphrasing: "in America everything is mass produced, even lunacy. But at the same time, everything fades away very quickly."

This is a book that is for mature readers due to it's length, some of it's subject matter and some language.
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on May 29, 2008
Walter Isaacson writes history so that it reads like an excellent, exciting novel. This biography is a page-turner.

Moreover, the author writes with subtle humor and great insight.

Isaacson's research is accurate and extensive, which makes it even more amazing that the book does not have the format of a history textbook.

This biography of Albert Einstein is filled with stories of a love affair, dear friendship, a failed marriage, his first wife's ruined career, his childhood insights, how the job at the patent office provided inspiration, his marriage to a first cousin who was also a second cousin, his family, his homes, his political and religious views, and his need for help with the mathematics related to his theoretical physics. We feel as if we know Albert Einstein personally as we read Isaacson's words.

Science is blended effortlessly with these tales of his personal life. Moreover, we learn so much along the way, painlessly and joyfully.

Every word is carefully selected; nothing needs to be cut.

Isaacson's grammar is perfect, which is extremely refreshing. Many modern authors cause me to believe that I should have a red pen to correct grammatical errors while reading their works.

Walter Isaacson's book on Benjamin Franklin is also absolutely wonderful, with similar qualities. (Hence my review of that book is similar to this review.)

Recently, some psychologists have labeled Einstein posthumously as autistic, suffering from Asperger's syndrome. Others strongly disagree with this diagnosis, and Isaacson recognizes Einstein as a genius who enjoyed the company of other people and reveled in his fame.
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on April 25, 2009
Amazing work by Walter Isaacson. I was amazed at how well he has explained Relativity and Quantum Physics, albeit at an extremely high level for the layman. This helps appreciate the depth of Einstein's world. In one chapter he explains relativity of gravitational and intertial masses and the gist of the Bose-Einstein condensation, and in the next he talks about Einstein's personal God, philosophy and relationships with women. It takes a lot of skill to write such a balanced narrative, and Isaacson pulls it off adroitly. The narrative moves at a pleasant pace - from modest beginnings in Zurich, the magic year in Bern, to fame and authority in Berlin, and later in the US, to a poignant ending in Princeton. The race with David Hilbert to publish the General Relativity papers reads almost like a thriller!

The only very minor gripe I had was that it is well known that he spent many futile years on his Unified Field Theory, but describing his every frustration with it makes the narrative a bit tedious in some chapters. Instead it could have focussed a bit more on his life in Princeton itself - I heard he had a brief interaction with John Nash - but that is not mentioned anywhere.

We will never know details of the personal lives of Newton and Galileo and Euclid - so well written books like this are all the more valuable because this is the first time ever in the history of mankind that we get to follow the personal life Albert Einstein - the genius who we can proudly claim lived in 'our times' !
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on October 3, 2007
This biography reads like a story, creating suspense and other emotions that you experince while reading fiction. Einstein provides great insight into Einstein's mind and life. Highly recommended.
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