Isaacson's impressively readable
biography of Einstein, the first to be published in
English since all Einstein's papers have been
available, lays some long held myths to rest.
Alas, contrary to popular believe (and rather sadly for
those of us who hang on to the believe that our
child who struggles with math in school might grow
up to be the next Einstein), young Albert, although
not popular with his teachers who he compared to
drill sergeants, was top of his class in primary
school and sufficiently competent at math to have
mastered calculus at the age of 15.
Also, the myth that the lowly patent clerk created his world shattering theories in a vacuum is found to be somewhat wanting. From an early age Einstein received inspiration and support from family and friends; his uncle, Jakob Einstein, was the first to introduce him to the "merry science" of algebra which Einstein happily embraced; and his book shelves contained popular books of the day such as the 21 volume Popular Books on Natural Science by Aaron Bernstein (given to Albert by a family friend at the age of 10). In the first volume, the enthusiastic Bernstein (the Carl Sagan of his day) describes a thought experiment in which a bullet is fired at a passing train. For the gunner, the bullet appears to fly straight, but for the passenger on the train, the bullet appears to cut at an angle - thus showing that motion is relative. From this and other thought experiments Bernstein concludes that, "Since each kind of light proves to be of exactly the same speed, the law of the speed of light can well be called the most general of all of nature's laws." In another volume, Bernstein takes his readers on an imaginary ride through space on an electromagnetic wave; and goes on to speculate that a scientific unity and simplicity lies beneath all the concepts applied by our perceptions. Thus, seeds were planted in the mind of young Albert that came to fruit some years later.
Knowing that Einstein's early reading matter shaped his later thinking should not in anyway demean his extraordinary achievements, rather they illustrate Louis Pasteur's well known quote, "Chance favors the prepared mind". Many others had access to the same basic information as Einstein but it was he who made the mental leaps recorded in his four world-changing papers in 1905.
Einstein comes across as fully man, not myth, replete with complexities and contradictions. A man to be admired as a scientist but not necessarily as a human being. He was emotionally cold, regarding his two wives as caretakers responsible for his every need, and treated his children badly. He was a loner but also loved the celebrity status he was given in the USA. As a young man he despised nationalism to such an extent that, at the age of 17, he renounced his German citizenship and, for a time, became stateless; but he later became an enthusiastic Zionist and patriotic American. In his youth he was a revolutionary thinker but his thinking became increasingly conservative as he passed forty. He gradually lost touch with the cutting edge of physics as he tried to rationalize the painful paradox that he had uncovered - that, while he personally believed in an ordered universe of "harmony and beauty", his own research showed only uncertainty, randomness and chance. So, while he pioneered quantum mechanics, he refused to believe it was a complete theory.
Reviewers agree that whether you are reading a biography of Einstein for the first time or already very familiar with his life, Isaacson's work has something to offer. With the help of Brian Greene (author of The Elegant Universe etc) and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann, Isaacson makes neat work explaining Einstein's theories without ever resorting to an equation, thus making it a good starting point for anybody wishing to explore Einstein's life and work for the first time; and, by dint of being one of the first to access recently released materials, Isaacson also offers nuggets of information that will be news even to Einstein scholars.
This review was originally published in May 2007, and has been updated for the May 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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