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

April 15, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Reporter


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.

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