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Saturday, April 21st, 2007
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Einstein: His Life and Universe

by Walter Isaacson

The Life of a Relatively Good Man

A review by Doug Brown

More has been written about Albert Einstein than any other scientist, and his is one of the world's most recognized faces. Here at the Powell's Burnside store we have three full shelves of Einstein biographies, many of which were written by people who knew the man. So the question must be asked -- do we really need another one? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. New letters are brought to light every few years, and archives are made available to scholars that had previously been closed. Isaacson's Einstein takes advantage of some newly accessible letters and documents unavailable to previous biographers. Einstein also benefits from an author who is an excellent writer, researcher, and collaborator.

Many previous biographies have given the science short shrift, in order to concentrate on the man and his pacifist politics. However, Einstein is a person who cannot be extricated from physics. Thus, Isaacson enlisted the aid of several physicists including Murray Gell-Mann, Brian Greene, Lawrence Krauss, and Douglas Stone. As a result, this is much more than an "Einstein slept here" biography; it is an exploration of his influences and contributions to physics, all placed within the context of the times Einstein lived in. The books he is known to have read, the discussions he had with friends (particularly Michele Besso), and the professors he learned from are all covered. From these sources Isaacson shows where much of Einstein's inspiration came from, and also demonstrates which aspects of his theories were pure Einstein. For you folks who read a fair amount of popular physics, don't be afraid about this book being beneath you; Isaacson spends a couple pages discussing tensors and why those were so important to Einstein's work. And don't be worried about it being over your head -- Isaacson writes with the assumption that his readers are intelligent, but maybe don't know much about physics.

By the 1920s, Einstein was the world's most famous smart guy. There is a myth that he contributed nothing to physics after general relativity (1915), but Isaacson puts that to rest with an interesting overview of Einstein's later work. Much of the '20s and '30s were spent trying to shoot holes in quantum mechanics. Einstein was never comfortable with non-deterministic explanations of the universe, as his often quoted sentiments about not believing in a god who plays dice attest. While he didn't accomplish the downfall of quantum mechanics, his probings caused physicists to refine the theory to account for Einstein's well-made points (entanglement was developed to refute one such point). His last few decades were spent trying to develop a unified field theory that included gravity, electromagnetism, and quantum mechanics. He never succeeded, but did explore models which incorporated multiple dimensions, an approach which has since been taken up by string theorists.

For the last half of his life, Einstein was as famous for his politics as his science. He was so well known as a pacifist with socialist leanings that J. Edgar Hoover spent 20 years trying to get Einstein deported. It didn't happen, but Hoover did make sure that Einstein didn't get a wartime security clearance. That didn't stop Einstein from speaking his mind, though; he seemed to feel it was his duty to uphold his ideals. However, as a scientist, Einstein would hold an opinion only so long as he felt the data supported it. When the situation changed, he would often likewise change his perspectives. He was a committed pacifist until the Nazis came to power, at which time he dialed back a notch and allowed for military overthrow of bad governments. He was opposed to a Jewish nation until Israel was formed, at which time he became a supporter. He saw himself as a scientist rather than a Jew until the Nazis came to power, after which he embraced his heritage (though he never practiced Judaism as a religion). Isaacson covers what is known from Einstein's letters and writings about his thought processes that led to making and changing political positions.

Einstein isn't all science and politics. Isaacson also shows Albert as a man, warts and all. Like Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, Einstein wanted love on his own terms. When their relationship was breaking down, he sent a semi-contractual agreement to his first wife detailing when and how she could interact with him. An excerpt:

C. You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
1. you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
2. you will stop talking to me if I request it

This was after he detailed how she would do and deliver all his cooking and cleaning. Not the warmest of husbands. Nonetheless, one cynically wonders how many people would like to put that second point into a marriage contract.

Einstein was many things: physicist, mathematician (it's a myth that he did poorly in math at school), revolutionary, socialist, pacifist, humanist. That's a whole lot of –ists to keep straight, but Isaacson does an excellent job of presenting a complete picture of Einstein as all of the above and more. If you have already read an Einstein biography or two, or have even read a few popular books on relativity, don't make the mistake of thinking there's nothing here for you. Isaacson's engaging Einstein is recommended for anyone interested in Herr Professor's physics and philosophy.

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