A new Einstein biography sets things straight


"Albert Einstein: A Biography," by Albrecht Folsing. Viking. 878 pages. $37.95.

Albert Einstein once said, "What is essential in the life of a man of my kind lies in what he thinks and how he thinks, and not in what he does or suffers." As an expositor of Einstein's scientific ideas, Albrecht Folsing, who has previously published biographies in German of Galileo and Rontgen, is hopeless, lacking flair for images, modeling, metaphor or logic.

Folsing is equally inept as a portraitist. The major scientists in Einstein's early years, Ernst Mach, Clerk Maxwell, H.A. Lorenz and Max Planck; and later Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger and Enrico Fermi, never achieve human form. Nor can Folsing breathe life into Einstein's family or friends, although Einstein himself emerges, somewhat obscurely, as a traditional if charming egoist subordinating two wives and abandoning a schizophrenic son.

Through painstaking research, Folsing is useful in dismantling some popular myths about Einstein - that he was a wretched student (in fact, he generally scored high on exams); that initially his work received no recognition from other scientists (recognition came comparatively fast and ungrudgingly); that Einstein paid no attention to practical life (indeed, a healthy self-interest seems behind Einstein's carefully calculated career moves); or that Einstein was directly responsible for the atomic bomb (denied a security clearance by the FBI because of his leftist politics, Einstein was uninvolved in the Manhattan Project, although he was the theoretical "father" of the bomb).

Students of scientific history will pick up useful information in Folsing's detailed re-creation of the context, if not the content, of scientific research in which Einstein's contributions were received; of the futile decades Einstein spent trying to develop a unified field theory uniting gravity and electromagnetism; and of his rear-guard and isolating opposition to quantum mechanics and his defense of classical causal, as opposed to statistical, explanations.

The general reader will also learn how an obscure employee of the Swiss Patent Office transformed into the world's greatest scientific celebrity; of his rejection of traditional Judaism, but his championing of the State of Israel and his embrace of "cosmic religiosity." "When I am judging a theory," Einstein said, "I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way."

Folsing's strongest card is politics. Throughout the biography, he traces Einstein's early hostility to war; his flirtations with communism, including his refusal to recognize the horrors of Stalin's 1930s show trials; his endorsement of force against Nazi Germany; his letter to Franklin Roosevelt proposing research on the atomic bomb; his hostility to the post-war arms race, and endorsement of world federalism.

But the reader has to dig much too hard for this material. Folsing is primarily a note-taker rather than a biographer, and he lacks the historical scope and literary abilities of Ronald W. Clark, whose "Einstein: The Life and Times" (1971) shows up Folsing's effort for the largely tedious affair it is.

Craig Eisendrath, former director of the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, is author of "The Unifying Moment" (Harvard, 1971).

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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