Like its subject, Walter Isaacson’s ambitious biography of Albert Einstein radiates intelligence, wit and eloquence. You won’t need to recall high school physics and geometry to grasp Einstein’s soaring concepts, which changed the study of the science and provided the seedling for the atom bomb. Isaacson, the former Time managing editor and current columnist who has biographies on Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger to his credit, writes with clarity in explaining the physics of Einstein’s era and beyond, making the book an accessible, fascinating account of one of the 20th century’s greatest figures.
Einstein was born in 1879 in Munich, and died in 1955 in Princeton, N.J. “Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius,” writes Isaacson, bringing to life the human side of the scientist.
Einstein lived a full, lustrous life. He loved Mozart almost as much as he loved physics and played the violin well. He had a nonconformist streak and a soaring imagination that allowed him, in today’s jargon, to think outside the box. His mind simply went places no others had gone, particularly when figuring out what makes our universe tick. Einstein once described how, at age 16, “he imagined what it would be like to ride alongside a light beam.”
Ten years later, in 1905, the fruits of that imagination would produce four scientific papers that would transform Isaac Newton-based physics. The most controversial posited the theory of specific relativity, which dealt with the speed of light and energy’s effect on a particle of matter. Ten years later he introduced the theory of general relativity, on the effects of gravity on light. Einstein wasn’t a lab man, so he invited others to prove his theories. They did.
Isaacson uses simple examples to convey esoteric principles and manages not to alienate readers who may have avoided science classes. Einstein’s “fingerprints are all over today’s technologies,” Isaacson writes. But he was also an internationalist to promote peace and a pacifist until the Nazis’ rise. He convinced FDR to begin a project to build an atom bomb, but only to defend against Germany building one first.
Einstein was allergic “to all forms of dogma and authority,” and as a teen he rejected German citizenship because of that country’s nationalism, which he presciently considered dangerous. He studied in Switzerland where his “allergies” prompted him to challenge some professors. After university, Einstein couldn’t find a teaching position—call it professors’ revenge. This is why he was working in the Swiss patent office when he published the 1905 papers. Later he landed at Berlin University.
When the Nazis rose to power, he emigrated to the United States, where publicity had made him the scientific rock star of his era. Famous, he retained humility and gentle humor. He once lamented that, “Anything truly novel is invented only during one’s youth. Later one becomes more experienced, more famous—and more blockheaded.” Isaacson explores the mutually affectionate relationship between Einstein and his new homeland without diminishing the genius in the man who epitomized the loveable, absent-minded professor.
Einstein didn’t much identify with his Jewishness, though anti-Semitism was a staple of European life that occasionally came into play when others reacted negatively to his work. But as anti-Semitism rose, he began to relate more with Jews’ causes, particularly Zionism. It was important to stick with members of his “tribe.”
To Einstein, “marriage makes the wife and prostitute distinguishable only insofar as the former is able to secure a lifelong contract.” He nevertheless fell in love with a fellow physics student, Serbian Mileva Marij, whom he defied his parents to marry. Marij assisted him in writing the 1905 papers. Debate continues over how much she contributed to Einstein’s work. Isaacson concludes her help was supportive, not creative. In any case, their marriage crumbled. Eventually, in order to get a divorce, Einstein promised Marij the monetary reward when—not if—he won the Nobel Prize (he was awarded a 1921 Nobel). He then married his second cousin, Elsa. Fidelity was not the charming, witty scientist’s strong suit, but Elsa stayed put.
Einstein’s last great (unrequited) quest was to find the links between his theories that would help define the universe. For a lesser mind, boggling. But this is Albert Einstein we’re talking about, after all, getting a thorough, respectful but not reverential, treatment from Isaacson.