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Walter Isaacson Einstein smWalter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 704pp.

Book review by Brad Keister.

Albert Einstein is regarded by many as the greatest scientist of the twentieth century, yet his image at large is often one of pop icon status, with photos that suggest an unkempt, absent-minded professor, and pithy quotes to haul out on the right occasion. Walter Isaacson’s biography attempts to describe the full person — clearly with one-of-a-kind talent, yet vulnerable and flawed as we all are, trying to make his way in what was often a very hostile world.

Two major drivers in Einstein’s life were a fertile imagination, and a deep distrust of authority. He mastered the basics of science with ease, but preferred to look for challenges. He found them in the landscape of experimental data whose new interpretations (his among them) established relativity and quantum mechanics as the new paradigm of physics. Isaacson carefully lays out the challenges to the conventional interpretations that were in place at the turn of the twentieth century, and then describes the leaps of imagination that Einstein made that in very real terms meant looking at the world differently. Einstein drew deeply from philosophical perspectives, as well as from recent advances in mathematics. As with Isaac Newton centuries before him, Einstein’s contributions meant new ideas, and not just a rearrangement of existing concepts.

Einstein the man had many facets that did not always mesh with one another. He was capable of compassion, but sometimes expressed it in odd ways. His son considered him to be unsympathetic, and was estranged from his father for many years. He was steadily driven to identify with his fellow Jews, in no small part by the anti-Semitism that pervaded the first half of the twentieth century, but was ambivalent about God. The ultimate validity of a scientific theory through experimental tests was clearly a priority for Einstein, yet he often fretted about his standing in the professional community: he felt certain that he would win a Nobel Prize for his work, but he had to wait many years for that recognition (during that long wait, his estranged wife agreed to divorce him on condition that he give her the prize money, should he receive the prize).

Einstein strongly advocated the rapid development of the atomic bomb to President Roosevelt because of his fear of what the Germans would do if they obtained it first. Following World War II, he regarded the development of the hydrogen bomb and the nuclear arms race in general as leading to certain annihilation. 

His deep philosophical approach to physics led him to question the foundations of quantum mechanics (what we can measure and what we know) almost as soon as he published some of the first work on that topic. While most of the physics community moved on with a view that quantum mechanics is a fait accompli, Einstein proposed test after test that might indicate a flaw in its foundation. Many of these tests have now been performed (thanks to advanced laser technology, which was not available in Einstein’s day), and quantum mechanics has survived intact. While his later years indeed carried disappointments rather than new ideas, these do not detract from the profound contributions that have propelled both science and technology into a very different world for over one hundred years.

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