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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Books | [ssba]

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

This book is six hundred and seventy five pages long. After an hour of reading resulted in barely enough turned pages to keep the front cover from flopping shut, I was ready to throw in the towel. The glimmering prospect of Salient inclusion wasn’t as enticing as lots more free time to read cooler stuff like New Idea and Cosmopolitan. But hey, if Einstein had given up after failing high school math where would we be today? And so, I pushed past my fear and discovered the joys of Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Einstein is divided into science and nonscience chapters. The science chapters cover Einstein’s special and general relativity theories, his attempts to find a unified field theory, and his struggle to accept the blossoming field of quantum physics during his later years. The non-science chapters cover such equally fascinating topics as Einstein’s pacifist activism, religious beliefs, position as a “wandering Zionist”, his role in the development of the atomic bomb, and the cult of celebrity that surrounded him. To my surprise, I far preferred the science chapters. By page two hundred I had progressed from no physics knowledge whatsoever to a basic understanding of spacetime, the thought experiments that birthed it, and why Einstein’s theories were revolutionary. This arts student has realised what those in Cotton already know: physics and maths are super sexy. That struggle for comprehension followed by sweet and powerful epiphany… oh my.

Isaacson’s general writing style is best described as unobtrusive. I found this refreshing. After all, one does not generally read a biography in order to marvel at the snappy prose of its author. My one critique is that Isaacson occasionally overindulges his respect for the great man. I’m not saying that this is unjustified, it’s just the cynic in me catching a whiff of something nasty in the adulation of one white, highly educated and highly successful intellectual for another. This feeling intensified as I flicked through the “old boys’ club” photos of Einstein grouped with Schrodinger, Planck, Bohr and company at the Solvay Conferences of 1911 and 1927. I would have been particularly interested in reading a little about the physics research and development that, surely, was being undertaken by Einstein’s non-Western contemporaries. Sadly, no dice. However, I guess we can excuse Isaacson’s occasional lapses into sweet, literary love-making. I think I’m now half in love with the guy myself.

In fact, Einstein certainly delivers if all you want is some juicy trivia about your favourite celebrity scientist. Isaacson has turned up with some absolute gems. My personal favourite is the following love poem sent by Einstein to his future wife Mileva Maric: “Oh my! That Johnnie boy / So crazy with desire / While thinking of his Dollie / His pillow catches fire.” (p. 52) Or this, as an autograph for 17-year old Anna Meyer-Schmid: “What should I inscribe for you here? / I could think of many things / Including a kiss / On your tiny little mouth / If you’re angry about it / Do not start to cry / The best punishment / Is to give me one too.” (p. 153)

Despite my newfound lust for science, it was ultimately the non-science chapters that left me with the most food for thought. As implied in the title, Isaacson maps not just a man but an entire era. I found particularly interesting the final paragraph of the introductory chapter:

“Einstein [was] a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to transform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalisation, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the twentieth century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.” (p. 7)

There are certainly uncanny parallels between the threats of nuclear war/communist witchhunting faced in the twentieth century and the threats of global warming/terrorist witchhunting that we face now. I agree with Isaacson’s implied call for a paradigm shift based on creativity and the willingness to embrace change. What I disagree with is the implication that we must wait for some sort of revolutionary genius/hero to lead the way, or for “American democracy to right itself, as it always has.” (p. 534)

A commonly held misconception “designed to reassure underachieving students.” (p.16) Thanks a bunch, Walter. We didn’t need that small slice of hope anyhow.

With the exception of the babe-a-licious Madame Curie.


About the Author ()

Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

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