Book Review: Einstein: His Life and Universe

[Originally posted on March 19, 2008 at]

Walter Isaacson’s celebrated biography Einstein: His Life and Universe proves one thing: while Albert Einstein was not the greatest scientist who ever lived, he’s one of the greatest thinkers who ever lived. He wasn’t a scientist in the sense we might think, overseeing experiments and poring meticulously over data; rather, Einstein was a master of creative thought, his preternatural intuition opening doorways into realms that the experimenters could exploit.

Isaacson explodes the pervasive myth that “Einstein failed math” (he excelled at it in high school, actually). It is true, however, that Einstein was uninspired by the university environment and did not do well academically. His failure to work within the system – a characteristic he would carry throughout his life – was both his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. His pitiful academic record meant that he couldn’t get a university job and ended up working in a Swiss patent office – it was only after the “Annus Mirabilis” of 1905, during which Einstein published four amazing papers that revolutionized physics – that the academic world began to take notice. Had Einstein applied himself in school, might his creativity been fettered, leaving his great discoveries to be made by someone else?

Einstein takes advantage of newly available letters, enabling Isaacson to provide an incredibly detailed account of Einstein’s life and thought processes. Born in Ulm, Germany in 1874, Albert Einstein was raised by parents who were thoroughly secular Jews. He attended college in Switzerland, renouncing his German citizenship in protest over what he saw as the poisonous nationalism of his homeland. (Another myth that Isaacson thoroughly explodes is that anti-Semitism was a Nazi creation. Christian Germany, and indeed most of Europe, was openly and hopelessly anti-Jewish long before Hitler came to power.) As mentioned above, Einstein spent his early adulthood at a patent office in Switzerland, moving into academia in 1909. 

Once Einstein rose to world prominence, the returned to Germany, where his outspoken pacifism and Zionism made him many enemies. With the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Einstein emigrated to the United States, where he eventually wrote the famous letter urging FDR to support research into the atomic bomb. It is also interesting to note that Einstein abandoned his pacifism for a more pragmatic stance, seeing no alternative but violence to counter the threat of the National Socialist movement. Oddly, while Einstein was able to shake off his deep-seated aversion to military action, he stubbornly clung to his opposition to quantum mechanics despite finding after finding that arose to bolster it. Einstein continued in his support for Israel and for world peace until his death in 1955.

Isaacson also explores the enigmas of Einstein’s private life. He was a ladies’ man, never a particularly good husband or father, and often treated friends and family with curious detachment. On the other hand, he was a passionate humanist, his love for mankind as an abstract never diminishing despite his disappointments at the personal level.

Perhaps most controversial is Isaacson’s exploration of Einstein’s religious beliefs. The great scientist has been co-opted by both the skeptical and spiritual communities (e.g., atheist Richard Dawkins devotes a full chapter to Einstein’s non-belief in his book The God Delusion).  What Isaacson reveals is an Einstein with a profound awe for the mysteries of the cosmos but a rejection of any kind of personal god who takes an interest in the lives of human beings.

(The audiobook is read by actor Edward Herrmann, who has lent his wonderful voice to numerous classics, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.)

Einstein: His Life and Universe is an entertaining and comprehensive look at the life of one of the most important figures of the 20th century, and already vies for the distinction of being the definitive biography of the famous man.

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