Book Reviews Einstein his Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Albert Einstein, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” truly has something for everybody. For those interested in the personal aspects of the great man, it covers each period of his life: his childhood in Germany and relationship with his parents and devoted sister; his time in college; the immediate aftermath, when it took him years to earn a doctorate, much less a professorship; his relationships with the great loves of his life, Mileva Mari and his cousin Elsa, as well as the profound connections he made with other scientists and professors; his relationship with his children; and, finally, his graceful aging as one of the era’s great sages. For those more curious about his scientific life, Isaacson describes the enormous leaps of creative thought that led to Einstein’s most revolutionary contributions to the field of theoretical physics-including the appropriate technical descriptions-in such a way as to make them accessible to even a novice to the field.
Perhaps most impressive of Isaacson’s considerable achievements is his ability to paint Einstein’s flaws as well as his enormous strengths. Bringing Einstein down from the pedestal on which he’s been perched for so many years makes his achievements all the more remarkable.
For example, Einstein is roundly acknowledged as possessing one of, if not the, greatest and most original minds in history, exhibiting a rare combination of the philosophical and the scientific; yet he generated theories that were steeped in real-world situations and descriptions. Many of his theories, though radical in their implications and exceedingly abstract in their intuitive leaps, require barely more advanced math than high school geometry to prove. Indeed, for most of his life Einstein had neither the training nor the inclination for advanced math, and often had to rely on friends and colleagues to complete the complicated, non-Euclidean geometry upon which much of his later work is built.
Also of interest is Isaacson’s discussion of Einstein’s relationships, both with mankind in general and with his closest friends and family. The good-natured, paternal affection he exhibited to the world’s citizens was not faked; he felt genuine love for humanity. The flip side, however, is an indifference, often bordering on detachment, that colored much of his interactions with those closest to him. This detachment contributed greatly to his first wife’s growing jealousy and depression, as well as the descent into schizophrenia and eventual institutionalization of his youngest son Eduard. When these personal issues are described, one can not help but empathize with Einstein’s sorrow and regret, all the more so because Isaacson has replaced the mythic Einstein with a truly living, breathing, suffering human being.
Finally, as a young student and patent clerk, it was, as much as anything, his ability to escape the constrictions of his social and scientific paradigm that led to his astonishing discoveries. As he grew older, however, he became the equivalent of those old horses of physics who had balked at his initial discoveries. Until the day he died, he rejected the quantum theory of physics, with all its uncertainty and apparent chaos, that his own research made possible.
Throughout the book, Isaacson describes this initial, stubborn refusal to accept on faith the established scientific dogma of his time as among Einstein’s foremost strengths. This deeply-held conviction to question established doctrine, combined with his nearly superhuman powers of concentration and ability to picture the real world manifestations of the most abstract of concepts, allowed Einstein to change the very way we look at ourselves and how we interact with the world.
Isaacson is a natural storyteller. He has exhaustive research; a clear love for his subjects, without letting that love cloud his judgment; and a natural, engaging voice that can guide the reader just as confidently through the pain of a bitter divorce as the intricacies of Einstein’s generalization of his special theory of relativity. Though clocking in at a robust 500 pages, the book is a quick and engaging read. Recommended for anyone interested in gaining a deeper insight into one of the most influential thinkers in history.