Books

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Kathleen Krog
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Einstein offers a luminous account of the scientific rock star.


Einstein: His Life and Universe

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 0743264738
Author: Walter Isaacson
Price: $32.00
Length: 704
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-04
Amazon

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image