His fingerprints are all over today's technologies. Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel, and even semiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.
Einstein's launch into fame, which occurred when measurements made during a 1919 eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bends light, coincided with, and contributed to, the birth of a new celebrity age. He became a scientific supernova and humanist icon, one of the most famous faces on the planet. The public earnestly puzzled over his theories, elevated him into a cult of genius, and canonized him as a secular saint.
If he did not have that electrified halo of hair and those piercing eyes, would he still have become science's preeminent poster boy? Suppose, as a thought experiment, that he had looked like a Max Planck or a Niels Bohr. Would he have remained in their reputational orbit, that of a mere scientific genius? Or would he still have made the leap into the pantheon inhabited by Aristotle, Galileo, and Newton?
The latter, I believe, is the case. His work had a very personal character, a stamp that made it recognizably his, the way a Picasso is recognizably a Picasso. He made imaginative leaps and discerned great principles through thought experiments rather than by methodical inductions based on experimental data. The theories that resulted were at times astonishing, mysterious, and counterintuitive, yet they contained notions that could capture the popular imagination: the relativity of space and time, E=mc2, the bending of light beams, and the warping of space.
Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security was tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He could be detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind in general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.
Yet for all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility, Einstein also came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was something that ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of priest-like experts," in the words of Harvard professor Dudley Herschbach. It was not always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great geniuses, but their mechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world was something that most thoughtful folks could grasp. In the eighteenth century of Benjamin Franklin and the nineteenth century of Thomas Edison, an educated person could feel some familiarity with science and even dabble in it as an amateur.
A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.
In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyful trait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with that childlike capacity for wonder, about such ordinary things as falling apples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other great theoretical physicists.
That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiring and noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its heroes remind us. Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department what schools should emphasize. "In teaching history," he replied, "there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment." Einstein fits into that category.
Copyright © 2007 by Walter Isaacson
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