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Book takes a richly nuanced look at man who symbolized 'genius'

The Baltimore Sun


His Life and Universe

By Walter Isaacson

Simon & Schuster / 675 pages / $32

Scientific discoveries come and go. Nobel prizes are awarded every year. So why is Einstein such an iconic figure, the absent-minded professor whose name is synonymous with the word genius? What puts him among the giants like Newton and Galileo?

It could well be that Einstein's mind worked differently. While many of us show only a passing interest in the unseen forces that shape the universe, Einstein from an early age was fascinated by them.

How does light travel? he wondered. Is there a relationship between space and time?

The result was an unprecedented set of contributions to theoretical physics that changed our understanding of the world and universe.

The story has become legend: While working in a government patent office - because he couldn't find a teaching job - Einstein had a "miracle year," publishing a series of four scientific papers in 1905 that set theoretical physics on its head. He established the existence of the atom, showed how measurements of space and time will vary according to an observer's motion and that the mass of an object is directly proportional to the energy it contains. The latter translates into the most famous equation in history (E=MC2).

Then, in 1915, he developed his theory of general relativity, showing how gravity produces a curvature in what he called space-time.

Einstein used thought experiments to raise questions. Would a clock tick at the same rate to someone standing still compared to someone viewing the clock from a passing train? Would a passenger in a moving train notice the motion without looking out a window?

All of this is covered, in painstaking detail, in Walter Isaacson's biography, suitably entitled Einstein: His Life and Universe. The book, thoroughly researched and well written, does an excellent job of summarizing the concepts behind Einstein's theories.

Beyond the groundbreaking physics, Isaacson does a good job of putting what Einstein himself described as "an eventful life" into an historical context. The father of relativity played pivotal roles in science and then in politics through two world wars, the Holocaust and the dawn of the Atomic Age.

But why the remarkable fame?

For one thing, the extraordinary implications of his relativity theory were observed directly. General relativity means that as light travels through space, it is bent or warped by the gravity of the stars that it passes, he argued. It follows that if light can be warped that way, so can space and time.

In 1919, four years after Einstein described it, a British astronomer took photographs of a solar eclipse showing conclusively that light from a distant star was in fact bent by the sun's gravity.

The news was heralded as the most significant advance in physics since Newton's theories on celestial mechanics, and it made Einstein, at the age of 40, an international celebrity, a status that followed him for the rest of his life.

The book dispels some myths. Einstein never failed math in school, despite widespread reports that he had. By the age of 10, he was reading books that dealt with the speed of light. He wrote his first essay on theoretical physics at the age of 16 and easily passed the math and science sections of a college entrance exam two years before he was old enough to attend. One of his earliest influences was Max Talmey, a Polish medical student and family friend who was stunned by Einstein's intellectual appetite at the age of 10.

Isaacson also does an excellent job illuminating Einstein's personality. He viewed himself as an outsider but developed a close circle of friends early in life. And he could be a bit of a prankster. As a young professional, he met once a week with two friends to socialize and talk science. When one friend failed to show up for a session, Einstein and his friend got back at the absentee. Knowing he hated cigar smoke, they filled his apartment with it.

Einstein also was his own best press agent. He enjoyed doling out quips at press conferences and never shied away from that crazy-haired, lost-in-thought scientist image. At least some of the image was based in reality: Living in Princeton in his later years, he really did have to call his office while out on a walk and ask for directions to his home.

Isaacson has impressive credentials. He is a former chairman of CNN, former managing editor of Time magazine and the author of biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry A. Kissinger.

I would have liked to read more about the FBI's investigation into Einstein's background and there is very little about Einstein's infamous extramarital affairs.

Throughout the book, Isaacson does demonstrate a talent for digging up subtle details, providing the identities of the editor of a noted Time magazine cover article on Einstein (Whittaker Chambers), the young protege to an established physicist who worked with Einstein after he emigrated to the United States (Richard Feynman) and the 6-year-old boy who met Einstein when he came to Lincoln University for a rare public speech (Julian Bond).

There also is a fascinating account of the journey taken by Einstein's brain after his death.

Isaacson has clearly done a service with his extensive research, documented in 76 pages of endnotes and an index that shows respect for Dennis Overbye, a New York Times science writer whose biography of Einstein, published in 2000, is quoted five times in his text.

If there is a flaw to the book, it is that there may be too much of it for some. At times it feels as if Isaacson is trying to tell us everything Einstein ever did, said and thought. The result is a 675-page door-stopper that could have used some stronger editing. I would have cut about 50 to 100 pages, perhaps avoiding some of the conclusions, drawn at the beginning of the book, and shaving the chapter about Einstein's problems with quantum entanglement.

The book shows clearly that Einstein had his share of travails, some of them self-inflicted. He was smart and he knew it - offering his first wife the money from his Nobel Prize as a reward for divorcing him years before he had won it.

Arrogance in his youth cost him. Fresh out of college, he couldn't find a job because he had alienated college professors who could have provided references and a teaching or research position that he had coveted. It was only through the intercession of a friend that he eventually landed his patent office job.

At that time he was unemployed and had a pregnant girlfriend - a woman his mother hated. He eventually married Mileva Maric, another passionate outsider with whom he shared a love of physics, but not before they had a child out of wedlock. The existence of the infant, named Lieserl, become known to the public only in the 1980s. The author speculates that Einstein probably never saw the baby - he was separated from his bride-to-be during her pregnancy. Her fate remains a mystery. It's commonly thought she died of scarlet fever the year after her birth.

He and Mileva had two sons before they divorced. One son was a success. The other had to be institutionalized for mental problems. Through his life, Einstein frequently appeared casually neglectful of his responsibilities as a husband and father.

The looming frustration in Einstein's later life was his failure to reconcile his vision of an ordered universe with the uncertainty and randomness of quantum mechanics, a modern vision of physics rooted in his own early research.

If science became a challenge, Einstein was remarkably successful in promoting his humanist agenda.

A committed pacifist before Nazism swept across Europe, he later amended his position when he saw what Germany's military power could do if left unchecked. He wrote a letter that prompted President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to begin work to develop an atomic bomb before the Germans. He later regretted the arrival of the bomb.

After the war, he made a triumphant tour of the United States to raise money for a new Jewish homeland and passionately advocated global peace and justice.

In the end he would leave the world as the model of a humanist genius, a vision that remains powerfully in our collective consciousness 50 years after his death. Isaacson's richly nuanced book helps us understand more clearly the roots of that genius.

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