Albert Einstein is the best known scientist of the 20th century. As Samuel Graydon explains in his insightful Einstein in Time and Space: A Life in 99 Particles, “Einstein’s fame can get in the way of an objective assessment of his life . . . so it’s easy to fail to see what an astounding life Einstein did actually live.” The author describes his book as “a mosaic biography.” Through it, we see Einstein’s complex personal life and intense public life within the context of his times.
Graydon writes that “Einstein’s finest work was all produced before he was famous, and for much of his early life he was a reasonably obscure figure. It took him nine years to secure an assistant professorship, and even then he wasn’t first choice for the job.” In 1905, while working six days a week at the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, and with family responsibilities, he “wrote twenty-one reviews for an academic journal” and “managed to produce five scientific papers in six months, three of which would eventually transform physics.” For reasons both of differences of opinion about scientific approaches and anti-Semitic prejudice against him, Einstein did not receive the Nobel Prize until 1922, and not for his work on the general theory of relativity, on which his fame was based, but for his discovery of the modern understanding of light as a particle.
Einstein was a nonconformist, not a joiner of groups, indifferent to the opinions of others about him and awards he received. A lifelong pacifist, he was passionate about opposing social injustice and taking moral responsibility for events in the world. But he was also realistic. As Hitler gained power in Germany, Einstein understood the necessity of opposing him with military force. Einstein’s social activism led to accusations that he was a communist, frequently taking on the tone of “gossipy slander.” The FBI kept tabs on him for 20 years, and his file runs to 1,400 pages. The agency accused him of being a “personal courier from Communist Party Headquarters.” Despite these rumors, Einstein lent his name to various causes that worked for a fairer and more peaceful world.
Einstein once wrote that he understood Judaism as a “community of tradition,” rather than as a religion. He became a strong supporter of the Zionist cause and against anti-Semitism and was most helpful in helping many Jewish people emigrate from Europe. When asked if he believed in God, Einstein replied: “I believe in [17th-century philosopher Baruch] Spinoza’s God, who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Graydon is the science editor of England’s Times Literary Supplement, and his discussion of Einstein’s work is approachable for those of us who have limited scientific literacy. This engaging account of a legendary figure should be of interest to many.