April 2007

Einstein, the joyous nonconformist

By Walter Isaacson
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It is redundant to say that Albert Einstein is the world's most famous scientist. Merely stating his name is sufficient to make the point. T-shirts, posters, action figures and innumerable books all bear witness to the hold he exerts on society 52 years after his death. He is still quoted at length often out of context and his ideas are still hotly debated both inside and outside the world of science. But as with any celebrity, fiction and fact are so intertwined that our view of the man is clouded by myth. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson parts the clouds.

Best-selling author Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time and CEO of CNN, established his credentials as a biographer with Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003). The first writer to have full access to all of Einstein's papers, including newly released personal letters, Isaacson clearly put his access to good use. Einstein is superbly assembled and remarkably readable. Both the genius and the man shine through on nearly every page. And some of the most remarkable aspects of the man were his apparent contradictions: A young revolutionary who spent his mature years defending old ideas. A non-practicing Jew and fervent Zionist. A pacifist who encouraged the development of the atom bomb. An irreligious man and despiser of atheism. Einstein's relationship with the world was defined by his rebellious nature, a near hatred of authority that alienated his university professors, causing them to refuse to provide references; he had to accept a position in the Swiss patent office rather than academe. This fierce independence also made him a difficult man to live with. His romances were troubled and his marriages were subservient to his quest for scientific discovery. As Isaacson notes, "Personal relationships involve nature's most mysterious forces. It is clear from Einstein's life that the secret to love remained as elusive to him as a unified field theory."

First and foremost, Einstein was a scientist, a career well-suited to a nonconformist. Isaacson details each momentous contribution of the archetypal absent-minded professor. In the miracle year of 1905, Einstein published four papers so revolutionary that physics has not yet recovered. The most famous was his theory of special relativity, the result of a flash of insight followed by exhaustive work. But Einstein did not work in a vacuum. He read voraciously in physics and philosophy and communicated with anyone who had something worthwhile to say, whether he agreed with them or not. As Einstein himself said, "intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience." When his discoveries gave birth to the probabilistic weirdness of quantum mechanics, Einstein rebelled again, this time defending the old ideas of determinism and objective reality. The old man's humanity seemed to depend on the belief that God would not let a roll of the dice dictate the course of His creation. Niels Bohr, champion of quantum mechanics and Einstein's friend, loved to chide his more famous colleague for his certainty, once remarking, "Einstein, stop telling God what to do!" Einstein is, as its subtitle declares, a summation of the great man's life and his universe, his foibles and his discoveries. It is well worth an allocation of the reader's time and space.

Chris Scott writes from Nashville.

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Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe

By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9780743264730

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