Einstein: His Life and Universe
by Walter Isaacson
In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Energy, Mass, and Enlightenment
A review by Erik Spanberg
A great year could be defined as winning the Masters in your first
attempt as a professional (Tiger Woods, 1997), sweeping the Oscars
after a storied directing career (Martin Scorsese, 2007), or any number
of impressive accomplishments, from winning the presidency to creating
the iPod. If those feats count for greatness, what superlative could
then be summoned to describe what Albert Einstein achieved in 1905?
In that single year, as Walter Isaacson
reminds us in a new biography offering hearty helpings alike of energy,
mass, and light, Einstein did the unthinkable. In a series of papers,
he devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light; established once
and for all the tangible existence of atoms; explained a scientific
riddle of motion that had vexed scientists for the preceding 80 years;
overhauled the concept of space and time; and, oh, by the way, crafted
the world's best-known equation: Energy equals mass times the square of
the speed of light. He was 26.
To Isaacson's credit, Einstein: His Life And Universe
conveys the dizzying concepts of physics in a way most lay readers
(this one certainly qualifies as that) can grasp. For example, when
explaining Einstein's equation of speed and mass, he notes the enormity
of converting matter into energy with powerful simplicity. The energy
in the mass of one raisin, he writes, could supply most of New York
City's energy needs for an entire day.
Untangling Einstein's discoveries and
accomplishments require a bit of genius in itself for the
scientifically challenged among us. After all, as Isaacson points out,
Einstein came to symbolize the perception that modern physics operated
at a level far above the heads of most people, a stark contrast to the
earlier, more accessible cause-and-effect breakthroughs ushered in by
Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin, among others. While
everyone has at least a fuzzy knowledge of Einstein -- the shock
of unkempt hair, the use of his name as a synonym for genius and an
enduring, iconic pop-culture familiarity -- much of his basic
biography is at least unexamined and probably unknown, as well, by the
mainstream audience Isaacson's book targets.
It is a story, and life, every bit as
remarkable as the landmark physics theories proffered by Einstein. Born
to an irreligious German Jewish family, Einstein was considered
anything but a synonym for brilliance as a small boy. His lack of
verbal communication worried Albert's parents so much so that they
consulted a doctor. Albert was past his second birthday before he began
using words and a family maid dubbed him "the dopey one."
Soon enough, he would become a precocious, if rebellious, student. At 12, Albert's uncle introduced him to the Pythagorean
theorem. The boy was captivated.
the same time, Einstein, immersed in the wonders of science, reached
the conclusion that biblical stories could not be true. He eschewed
orthodox religious practices for the rest of his life. At the same
time, Einstein often referred to the harmony and beauty of what he
called the mind of God.
Einstein fought conformity and authority throughout his life, religious and otherwise. "A foolish faith in authority is the
first enemy of truth," he once said.
He also retained a childlike sense of wonder, which, in combination with his otherworldly intellect and singular focus, led
Einstein met scientific complications with dogged determination and
flexible thinking, his response to personal affairs proved more
relative both in theory and in practice. Scientific concerns often
overwhelmed his personal life. His first marriage, to a brooding
college classmate who boasted neither looks nor personality, devolved
into a bitter, estranged relationship. It compromised not only the
marriage, but also Einstein's relationship with his two sons.
He carried on a number of affairs and later married his cousin, Elsa. Though kind-hearted and open with the public, Einstein's
close relationships were often difficult and messy. He constantly sought refuge in his work.
influence of growing up in a rigid Germany, with its suffocating sense
of order, inculcated a lifelong streak of anti-nationalism, pacifism,
and a fierce belief in free speech.
It is fitting, then, that an unorthodox,
imaginative thinker such as Einstein would long be locked out of
academia. Upon graduation, he struggled to find a job before finally
landing employment in the Swiss patent office. Unshackled from the
constraints of academic life, Einstein instead found himself surrounded
each day by all manner of ideas. Even the physical surroundings of the
Bern patent office -- trains and large clock towers -- would
figure into Einstein's thinking as he worked through complex
considerations of the laws of physics.
In 1933, Einstein came to America, where
he spent his final two decades. By that time, his was one of the most
famous faces in the world. Although Einstein suggested exploration of
an atomic bomb in a 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, he played no
role in the Manhattan Project and was horrified by its ramifications.
In the wake of the atomic bombings in Japan, Einstein spent his final decade publicly calling for a unified world government
and an end to violence.
In other words, Einstein's approach to political instability was the same as his exploration of physical incongruities: He
sought unity and aimed for improbable, wildly creative solutions.
Or, as Isaacson puts it, "Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a faith in the harmony of
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.
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