Monday, February 9, 2009

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson - Review

Albert Einstein changed the world forever in 1905. Few people in history have had the impact on how the cosmos is perceived and how science approaches reality than Einstein did in a flurry of papers published in support of what became known as Einstein’s theory of relativity. In his seemingly simple equation e=mc2 Einstein undid centuries of adherence to the principles enunciated by Newton. He made possible later thinking that provided the theoretical basis for the development of atomic bomb. And he became a world famed scientist. While he continued to be a productive and thought-provoking theoretical physicist, his work in these few months while working as a clerk in the patent office in Zurich, Switzerland was sufficient to cement his reputation and genius for all time.

I think I remember from my youth an iconic remark that only five physicists in the world understood what Einstein was saying in his great theories of relativity. Today, much of what he said has been proven experimentally and has completely changed the study of physics and the way physical science is conceived. If understand means to be able to internalize an idea so thoroughly that one can satisfactorily explain that idea to another, I can’t say I understand Einstein. If, on the other hand, it means to gain a glimmer of understanding such that a person has a sense of what the thinking is about, I believe I’ve achieved that. Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography Einstein: His Life and Universe achieves the goal in a lucid presentation of Einstein as a person and as a thinker.

Isaacson presents Einstein with all his warts, and there are plenty of them. Qualities that in later life came to represent the lovable, absent-minded genius, created friction and hostility within his family and served to make his climb up the professional ladder much more difficult than needed. Einstein who, as he grew older, found himself surrounded by friends and family, seemed to have an extremely difficult time forging close personal relationships. His marriage to Mileva Maric, a woman several years his elder, plain, and lame had been a fellow student with Einstein at Zurich Polytechnic. They married despite the opposition of both their families and had two children. Edourd spent much of his life in mental institutions, while Hans Albert eventually immigrated to the U.S. and became a professor of engineering at Berkeley. His second wife, Elsa, was also older than he as well as being his first cousin. According to Isaacson, she apparently provided the mothering care Einstein needed to keep his life sufficiently orderly for him to focus on his science.

Focus, stubborn persistence, and a willingness to question ideas that at the time were considered to be settled emerge as Einstein’s strongest attributes. Einstein studied what he wished, although it’s a pleasant myth that he was far behind in mathematics. He was merely more interested in visualizing the world through what are called “thought experiments.” Later in his life, Einstein became adept at abstract higher mathematics, although he was often aided by math specialists in his explorations. Isaacson describes many of Einstein’s thought experiments. In these, Einstein imagines physical examples and the results to help him state revolutionary physics principals. In a flurry of papers published in 1905, while he was still working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office, Einstein enunciated first the general theory of relativity and then the Special theory of relativity, overturning ideas that had held firm since the time of Newton. Isaacson’s explanations of Einstein’s thought processes are models of popular science writing. Without ever putting an equation on the page (with the exception of e=mc2), he clarifies the ideas by explaining Einstein’s thought experiments and elucidating their meaning. Throughout it all, Einstein’s personality dominates. His nerve in challenging established ideas and taking on more established figures in the world of physics is without parallel. Self confidence, bordering on arrogance permitted the discovery of ideas never before considered.

Einstein went from being an obscure clerk in a minor government office to being one of the most famous people in the world in only a few years. He became interested in causes such as the establishment of Hebrew University in Jerusalem (he was later offered the presidency of Israel), various approaches to world government, and a reasoned pacifist position. As matters deteriorated in Germany with the rise of Hitler he first traveled the world as a stateless person and finally settled in Princeton, NJ as a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he spent his last couple of decades. While not involved in the Manhattan Project, which developed the atom bomb, his theoretical work made it possible. Later in life, he spent much of his energy in failed attempts to counter the emerging ideas of quantum mechanics and seeking to discover a unified field theory that would combine physics ideas into a universal statement of the cosmos. While never succeeding in this quest, his ideas continued to spur others on. How many scientists have remained productive throughout their entire lives and been honored with tickertape parades down Broadway?

Einstein’s politics were generally left of center but never truly radical. He reserved in his social ideas the same freedom he insisted upon in his science, the right to change his mind. Thus, when Hitler emerged in Germany, he forsook the pacifism that had dominated his thinking through World War I and the immediate post-war period. FBI files assembled at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover were a model of sloppy research, unsupported allegations, and paranoid delusion, but Einstein was never granted the requisite security clearance to become a part of atomic research. Nevertheless, he pretty well surmised what was up. Einstein died, full or honor and the affectionate regard of his adopted country in 1955.

Isaacson’s lucid writing and clear explanations make this book a Must Read for people interested in science but not having the scientific background to focus the problems. It also provides a fine view into the forces at work in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. The social forces swirling throughout the world affected Einstein’s life as well as his thinking. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson is published by Simon and Shuster and available at bookstores everywhere. Support your local independent book store.