Einstein: His Life and Universe

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By Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 2007, 704 pages

When the English physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) lost £20,000 in the collapse of the South Sea bubble, he remarked, “I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.” A similar blindness toward human foibles seems to have afflicted Albert Einstein (1879–1955), who be­tween 1905 and 1919 would overturn Newton’s stable universe of absolute space and absolute time with his radical new perspectives of relativity, all the while struggling mightily with his familial relationships. In Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former chairman of CNN and managing editor of Time magazine, has done a fine job of bringing Einstein’s world and universe to life. He gives management readers valuable in­sight into the nature of the creative process and the contexts in which Einstein made his seminal contributions to human knowledge. It is the story of an astonishing interaction of nature; nurture; and the physical, social, and intellectual contexts that challenge and develop individual abilities.

The book is organized chronologically across what must be one of the most tumultuous periods of world history. Einstein’s birth in Germany into an independent-minded, nonobservant Jewish fam­ily set him on a winding path that he always felt he traveled as an outsider. His rebellion against authority grew out of his early exposure to German militarism and the regimentation prevalent in the national education system. His habit of using visual imagery did not blossom until he had the opportunity to attend a Swiss school with a philosophy similar to that of a modern Montessori school. Working with objects as well as concepts, he developed an amazing ability to move from experience to idea and back again, a competence exemplified by his famous “thought experiment” of what it would be like to ride a beam of light.

Einstein’s rise to world fame and his status as an icon of genius was cemented in 1919 when a solar eclipse confirmed his 1911 prediction that gravity would bend light. The Great War had shattered the idea of a steady human progression toward higher and higher levels of civilization, but in its aftermath Einstein’s theories of relativity, in particular, seemed to presage a new era of scientific discovery; he became an instant celebrity. At the same time that Einstein was overturning Newton’s universe, however, his personal life was falling apart. He divorced his first wife in 1919 after a period of separation and estrangement from her and their two sons. During this time he had become involved with his cousin, although this pragmatic union — she played the role of mother rather than wife — did not preclude numerous more passionate liaisons.

Einstein’s geniality and penchant for pithy comments turned him into a popular authority on all the great questions of his day. Starting in the 1920s, his influence on contemporary physics dwindled, but his grip on the public imagination only grew stronger. The author recounts a delightful story about a parrot sent to Einstein by an ad­mirer for his 75th birthday: The bird was deposited in a box on his doorstep in Princeton. The poor parrot was so traumatized by this experience that it became depressed, so Einstein cheered it up by telling it bad jokes. It is a tribute to Walter Isaacson’s skill as a writer that when he recounts for the reader the story of Albert Einstein’s death in 1955, the reader feels almost the same sense of loss that Einstein’s contemporaries experienced.

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