Thursday, December 11, 2008

Einstein, by Walter Isaacson

Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

I knew Einstein was a genius, but this book demonstrated just how inadequate that description really is. He helped prove the existence of atoms, devised a revolutionary quantum theory of light, explained Brownian motion, produced the world’s most famous equation, E=mc2, and turned the concept of space and time on its head—all in 1905 alone. There is a popular myth that he failed math in high school, but in fact, before he was fifteen he had mastered differential and integral calculus. Even as a child Einstein created thought experiments to give him insights into how our universe works, such as wondering what it would be like to ride alongside a beam of light. Isaacson also does an excellent job of juxtaposing this massive intellect with Einstein’s personal relationships, showing how he was passionate and yet often emotionally distant towards his family. This second focus is really what makes the book so interesting and keeps it from too strongly resembling a physics text.

Einstein was born into a Jewish family in the German Empire at the close of the 1800’s, so his politics are interesting as well. He was a pacifist from a young age; as a boy he cried when watching military troops march through the streets accompanied by fifes and drums, later explaining, “When a person can take pleasure in in marching in step to a piece of music it is enough to make me despise him. He has been given his big brain only by mistake.” (As a former marching band member, I found this quote particularly amusing.) Despite his pacifism, Einstein saw no alternative other than war to stop the Nazi power structure. After WWII, he was a strong proponent for the creation of Israel, and in fact was offered the Presidency of that country in 1952. Einstein became friendly with many Soviets when we were allies against Germany, and combined with his view that we needed a single world government, during the McCarthy era he became a target of the FBI. His genius came from challenging conventional wisdom, but posing challenges in politics was not popular in America in the 1950’s.

Despite being a biography at the core, this book contains many detailed technical explanations about the scientific advances Einstein made. The physics discussions are not only accessible and understandable, but entertaining as well. When discussing time dilation, Isaacson says, “In fact, if you spent almost your entire life on an airplane, you would have aged merely 0.00005 seconds or so less than your twin on earth when you returned, an effect that would likely be counteracted by a lifetime spent eating airline food.” Another bon mot is in a discussion on the expansion of the galaxy: “...we are at the center of the universe, something that since the time of Copernicus only our teenage children believe.” Funny stuff for a biography about a physics pioneer! Overall, I found this book to be a very thorough, witty portrait of a charming genius.

First Sentence:
“I promise you four papers,” the young patent examiner wrote his friend.

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