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Einstein: His Life and Universe Paperback – May 13, 2008
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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
Five Questions for Walter Isaacson
Amazon.com: 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.
Amazon.com: 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.
Amazon.com: 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.
Amazon.com: 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.
Amazon.com: 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.
--This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
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 the Audio CD edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
"Einstein," is a book by Walter Isaacson who discusses Einstein's life in detail. It is very well written for the lay person and reveals many interesting sides of Einstein's life and works.
As a scientist, Albert Einstein was one of the most epic stars among all 20th-century scientific thinkers. The book brings Einstein's life and times into clear focus, delivering new information never seen by the public. This biography focuses closely on Einstein's personal life and the non-scientific circumstances of his very long and highly productive career.
The book is not a fast read, nor is it simple read, but shows Albert Einstein (1879-1955) to be a master genius. The book is a fascinating and well-written account by Mr. Isaacson, whose style is to write about people who are so stunning that we need to know what makes them that way.
Isaacson's book studies Einstein as a man, with his many imperfections, some bizarre, others just plain incredible. What I especially admired was the angle of description that Isaacson chose for this detailed portrait of Albert Einstein.
I give the book 5 Gold Stars, which was 24 Karat Gold cover-to-cover. A brilliant masterpiece.
Isaacson has won my vote: he's one of the best biographers of our time. Book after book, he captures the essence of these figures with respect and critical review. Einstein is a fascinating, flawed, and brilliant man. Isaacson adeptly weaves stories of scientific discovery with the trials and tribulations of marriages run amok. Einstein's temperament was extreme: kindness juxtaposed with coldness. Isaacson compares the two and leaves his focus on display for the reader.
I was exceptionally impressed by Einstein's political leanings and powerful statements. Here are a few that captured my attention:
"Blind respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth."
'A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way. But intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience."
"People who live in a society, enjoy looking into each other's eyes, who share their troubles, who focus their efforts on what is important to them and find this joyful -- these people lead a full life."
"Use for yourself little, but give to others much."
Possibly one of the most popular scientists of our time. Most notable of his traits were his humility, compassion, independent thinking, introversion, pacifism, disdain for bourgeois consumption or ostentatious wealth, and a desire for social equality.
While his theories of special and general relativity will continue to elude me, one can still marvel at his thought making process.
I found it pivotal that Einstein met Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Jost Winteller, at a young age, who believed in encouraging students to visualize images. He also thought it important to nurture the “inner dignity” and individuality of each child. Jost Winteller gave Einstein the wings to take flight on a prosperous career.
Another fortunate encounter is with Marcel Grossman who lent Einstein, his maths notes while they were at Zurich Polytechnic and also offered him his first job. He later on provided the necessary Maths that Einstein needed to turn the special theory of relativity into a general theory.
Einstein's reading group, the Olympia academy, largely helped in shaping his thoughts towards the theories on relativity. They mostly read books that explored the intersection of science and philosophy.
Granted, Einstein's individual brilliance is something you see may be only once or twice in a century, but his story encompasses many more characters than popular account. Particularly, his life with Mileva Maric who mothered two of his children. Due to her first pregnancy, she found herself resigned to giving up her dream of being a scientific scholar. History continues to pay little regard to women who make it possible for men to pursue worthy careers.
While Einstein met Hendrik Lorentz quite later in his life, Lorentz influence on him was still very profound. He was the one father figure in Einstein's life. During Lorentz funeral Einstein mentioned with great sadness: "Whatever came from this supreme mind was as lucid and beautiful as a good work of art. He meant more to me personally than anybody else I have met in my lifetime."
It is also worth mentioning, the encounter between Niels Bohr and Einstein. To quote the social philosopher C. P. Snow: "No more profound intellectual debate has ever been conducted.”
Another important woman in Einstein's life, Helen Dukas, was one who was completely discreet, protective, loyal, and not threatening to Elsa. Helen Dukas came to work as Einstein’s secretary in 1928, when he was confined to bed with an inflamed heart. To quote George Dyson: "Her instincts were as infallible and straightforward as a magnetic compass. Although she could display a pleasant smile and lively directness with those she liked, she was generally austere, hard-boiled, and at times quite prickly."
During a later part of his life, Einstein became a closer friend, and a walking partner of the intensely introverted Kurt Gödel, a German-speaking mathematical logician from Brno and Vienna. Gödel wonderfully deliberated on the possibility of time travel basing on Einstein's theory of relativity.
Other significant events
It is also worth noting Einstein's role in the events that led up to the Manhattan Project and ultimately the construction of the atomic bomb. Einstein had contended that the only way to prevent an arms race of atomic weaponry was to bring about an internationalization of military power.
As a Jew who had grown up in Germany, Einstein was acutely sensitive racial discrimination. “The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me,” he wrote in an essay called “The Negro Question” for Pageant magazine. “I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”
It was interesting to note that Einstein was once offered a position as President of Israel. He was “deeply moved” by the offer, Einstein said in his prepared response, and “at once saddened and ashamed” that he would not accept it. “All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and to exercise official function,” he explained.
To imagine that Einstein accomplished what he did, in a world before the internet, leaves me in overwhelming awe. I have developed great admiration for the life he lived, and I dare say that it was a FULL life.
“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle.”
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
“The Jew who abandons his faith,” he once said, “is in a similar position to a snail that abandons his shell. He is still a snail.”
“I do not believe that the structure of the human brain is to be blamed for the fact that man cannot grasp infinity”