Albert Einstein's life
By Stephen Petranek
June 1, 2007
EINSTEIN: His Life and Universe, By Walter Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, $32
Making Albert Einstein new again defines the word difficult. More than a hundred books have been published in English probing the mind and life of this unique genius, and even the author of this latest one, Walter Isaacson, admits that 30 or so of those other books are well worth reading. Nonetheless, Einstein: His Life and Universe feels fresh. Isaacson manages to bring light—and with Einstein it is all about light—to the corners of a mind so original and imaginative that most of us can only shake our heads in wonder.
Somehow, Isaacson is able to explore his subject in a readable way without oversimplifying the science. The book’s science creeps up on you and slips into your neurons. Yes, it’s challenging—some sections require more than one reading. But you’ll do it willingly, because Isaacson’s narrative drive helps even the most mathematically reluctant reader push forward. He does this in part by being attentive to the ragged soap opera that made up so much of Einstein’s life. How, for example, could this sweet, smart, and even funny man live his entire life and show no noticeable effect from never having seen an illegitimate daughter who mys- teriously disappeared at about the age of two?
Books about Einstein normally fall into one of two categories—his life, or his science. The books focused on the latter tend to be much more of a slog. With Isaacson’s Einstein you get both, in an ingenious weave of narrative, science, narrative, science, and then a twist of operatic drama. Isaacson’s explanation for how he found the courage to offer so much science in a book he clearly wrote for a large audience is daunting.
“Understanding relativity is not easy,” the author told me in an interview, “but understanding Macbeth isn’t easy either. And yet you don’t get intimidated by a Shakespeare play. I think we should have the same joy and excite- ment about wrestling with science as we do wrestling with Shakespeare. It’s magical to be awed by the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe, and we can all appreciate it even if we don’t know the math.”
It helps, of course, that Einstein thought visually, that he himself really didn’t like the math, and that most of his theories were “tested” in his own mind, not in a lab. When Einstein thought about light, about traveling at the speed of light, and about how everything might change as one approached the speed of light, he actually imagined what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of photons, the individual particles that light is made of. And it was his insight in 1905 that light can act as if it is both a wave and particles. In his book, Isaacson describes one of Einstein’s many breakthrough moments: “‘Is it possible to combine energy quanta and the wave principles of radiation?’ he merrily wrote to a physicist friend. ‘Appearances are against it, but the Almighty—it seems—managed the trick.’”
Not only does Isaacson succeed at helping us understand what relativity is and why it’s so important, he also shows how extraordinarily complex Einstein was as a person, able to wall off his difficult social life from his science.
Isaacson offers a telling example: “When he’s racing to come up with the field equations for his general theory of relativity in 1915,” he says, “his marriage is falling apart, his two sons who have moved back to Zurich from Berlin are writing him agonizing letters. Yet he’s able to juggle and compartmentalize these extraor- dinarily emotional personal issues from his intense focus on finding the equations. That doesn’t mean he was aloof. He could get very hot about his relationship with his children or his love-hate relationship with his first wife. This was not a man who felt no emotion.”
He was so good at compartmentalizing, in fact, that he could stare death in the face and tell it to wait a minute: “I find it astounding,” Isaacson says, “that on his deathbed, that last night in a hospital in Princeton—his aorta has ruptured, and he knows he is dying—he reaches over to his night table to pick up 12 pages of equations, still desperately trying to get one step closer to that final single theory of how the universe works.”
If there is a lingering tragedy to Einstein’s life, it is that he did not find that theory, one that combines the spooky subatomic world of quantum mechanics, where a particle can be in two places at once, with the more normal world of physics we encounter at work every day. As Isaacson points out, Einstein literally died trying. The good news is that many of us are likely to live long enough to see other physi- cists complete what perhaps the greatest genius who ever lived started back in 1905.
Stephen Petranek is the editorial director of the Weider History Group, a collection of history magazines, and is working on a book titled The Flood, which warns of the impending danger posed to American cities by climate change and its attendant rising sea levels.
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