Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

Four stars

Taking a brief sojourn from the world of political biographies, I chose to tackle another of Walter Isaacson’s collection, this time focussing on prized scientist Albert Einstein. While the general public is well-versed in some of the better known aspects of Einstein’s life, there is much that helped shape him, even outside his scientific endeavours, that is of great interest to the reader. Isaacson pens another wonderful biography, in which he portrays Einstein in three distinct lights: the quirky individual, the scientific juggernaut, and the social commentator. Using these three themes, the reader can better understand Einstein, while seeing many of his wonderful scientific achievements come to life on the written page. Isaacson puts together a wonderful piece, both entertaining and educational, to depict a well-rounded approach to Einstein’s life.

It would likely surprise few readers to learn that Einstein was a quirky fellow, though not in a ‘mad scientist’ way. From an early age, Einstein had a thirst for knowledge and chose to do things in a unique fashion. Isaacson illustrates some of his nature in Einstein’s post-secondary studies, where he met Mileva Maric, the woman he would eventually marry. Their correspondence was anything but traditionally romantic, choosing instead to fuel their passion by discussing scientific papers. This morphed into an Einstein who, when Maric was pregnant with their first (and illegitimate) child, chose to remain apart from her and waited for her father to announce the news of the baby’s birth before he replied with a number of curious questions about his daughter’s appearance. He did not rush to her or lay eyes on the little one, preferring to continue his scientific discoveries and tutoring jobs. Einstein eventually married Maric, who bore him two sons, though their relationship strained over the years and led to Einstein seeking a divorce, promising to offer up the prize money from any subsequent Nobel Prize. This appeared to work and opened the option for Einstein to pursue his first cousin, Elsa. They would eventually marry, though not for romantic or intellectual reasons. Isaacson does not provide much social commentary on Einstein’s choice for a second marriage, though he does not deny its odd development. Einstein seemed to have a number of female friends with whom lines blurred. He did not react in any way that would lead the reader to believe anything was wrong or that he felt remorse. As the narrative continues, Isaacson depicts Einstein as a man free of social norms, befriending royals and heads of state alike, all without pretence or concern for status. While he could likely understand hierarchy, Einstein placed everyone on an equal playing field, thirsty for knowledge and keen on sharing their insights. This mindset permeated throughout Einstein’s life and did spurn a slight uniqueness in his viewpoint.

To consider Einstein a scientific heavyweight of his time may be underplaying his influence. Throughout the text, Isaacson not only illustrates the lengths to which Einstein sought to push the boundaries of physics, but also explores some of the many quandaries that other physicists left dangling. From an early age, Einstein absorbed all mathematical and scientific concepts, teaching himself with the help of a textbook. Einstein sped through his studies and always wondered about the mechanics of the world, particularly those things he could not see. As the Father of Theoretical Physics, Einstein relied not on concrete experimentation to handle his queries, but a collection of thought experiments. These experiments also permitted him to better explain his ideas to the layperson. Likely influenced by the mode of transportation used to carry him to his job in the Swiss Patent Office, Einstein used trains and elevators as central characters in many thought experiments, especially related to gravity and light. It was through these experiments that Einstein developed the concepts of relativity and began publishing papers on the topic. What may be of great surprise to the reader is that Einstein’s work was not praised uniformly. Einstein could not secure an academic post for many years, nor were many of his ideas enough to score him a supported doctoral thesis topic. It is only later that others piggybacked on his thought processes, which led to an overall acceptance of his work. That Einstein carved a niche in the scientific world is an understatement, though he sought to open new realms that took many by surprise and therefore left them unable to understand. Einstein never stopped wondering or pushing limits, as illustrated by Isaacson. There were many who opened new pathways of thought down which Einstein travelled, promoting an ever-evolving thought process. Isaacson introduces the reader not only to the various scientific fields in which Einstein dabbled, but also the players who kept challenging the ways of thinking. It is for this reason that Einstein can be said to have a strong foundation in the scientific world decades after his passing.

Einstein’s attachment with the world, outside of science, is not lost within Isaacson’s piece. From an early age, Einstein criticised the German state, feeling its overly militaristic nature served no one and promoted an automaton mentality. Einstein shed his citizenship as soon as I could, living for a time as a man without a state. He did, however, do all he could to secure Swiss citizenship and worked in their Patent Office for a time, which fuelled his scientific mind. Choosing the ideal state for a pacifist, Einstein lived a life free of concern for a time, but was lured back to Germany in the mid 1910s, ahead of the military build-up and outbreak of the Great War. Einstein spoke out against societal criticism in a pre-tabloid age. In one such instance, Isaacson discusses the plight of Marie Curie seen in public with another man soon after her marital dissolution. Einstein counselled her not let society dictate how to live her life, while castigating those who felt it appropriate to cast stones and appear faultless. Later, during the inter-war years, Einstein took a strong stand against the League of Nations, which promoted ideas of rules for armament rather than a complete disarmament protocol. Isaacson speculates that part of this sentiment was not only because Einstein saw himself as an eternal pacifist, but also due to the ongoing rumbles behind German borders. Einstein took a strong stand against the Weimar Republic and build-up of the Nazis, concentrated in its fearless leader, Hitler. Einstein’s strong views saw Nazi attacks on his German home, though the scientist had moved to America to work. He chose, once again, to renounce his German citizenship, partially upon learning that he was a persona non grata in his Fatherland. By the time he settled at Princeton, Einstein chose to apply for US Citizenship and proudly became one in the final fifteen years of his life. These strong sentiments saw Einstein push for a no-holds barred approach against the Nazis, irrespective of his Jewish background, in order to curtail the megalomaniacal antics Hitler undertook in Europe and his plans on an international scale. Einstein also helped foster a place for academics and students alike could go where their religious background would not see them shunned. Isaacson argues that the creation of Hebrew University in Jerusalem would not have come to fruition without Einstein’s support, nor would the influx of key scientific minds from Europe’s Jewish community to American universities. Einstein fostered a strong commitment to political and social activism throughout his life, opening new channels for success that rivalled the scientific advancements he made on a regular basis.

As a reader with a strong liberal arts background, I found tackling this biography daunting in places, not because Isaacson seeks to write over my head, but due to all Einstein had in his own mind. Isaacson tries his best to explore the scientific concepts Einstein tackled, using as simplistic an explanation thread a possible. However, these are complex areas of discussion and theoretical concepts at best, leaving me to drift at times, eyes glazed over as I seek to absorb the narrative. Isaacson cannot be faulted for this (nor can Einstein) and the former did all he could to not shy away from presenting the lengths to which the latter went in his scientific discoveries. 

Another brief note from the text worthy of mention before ending the review. Einstein’s family, both those with whom he lived and those he created as an adult, played a central and ongoing role in his life. Isaacson depicts the sometimes complex and controversial way in which this delicate puzzle comes together, highlighting some of the more awkward or depressing aspects, all of which weighed heavily on Einstein. For all his theoretical analysis and experimentation outside the realm of hands-on learning, Einstein had a good grasp of those around him and the familial obligations that followed. This contrasted nicely with the significant academic threads found in the biography’s content. 

Kudos, Mr. Isaacson for this wonderful piece of work. I have a much better idea of the man and the scientific legend who influenced many in ways I cannot begin to comprehend.

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