“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2007)


Walter Isaacson, author of Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, takes biography writing to a whole new level with Einstein: His Life and Universe.  This isn’t just the story of Albert Einstein from birth until death; Isaacson escorts the reader on a unique journey through the mind of Einstein, as well as through the eyes of his friends and family; along the way one becomes so close and understanding of the man of the twentieth century it is as if he were still alive and conversing with you.  This book shows you the man and human being behind the genius of physics and astronomy, the creator of the theory of relativity.

Do not be fooled by the sheer girth of this 700-page book, Isaacson has a writing style that immediately makes the reader feel calm and at home, sitting in a comfortable chair doing what they love to do.  Coupled with this is the knowledge – since the book is so large – that you will experience every important moment in Einstein’s life and you will be able to put to rest the urban legends that have developed over the decades.  And no, Einstein did not flunk math.

Isaacson has done an incredible job in researching the math and physics so that the theories and ideas are presented in their entirety and laid out plainly so that if the reader wishes to truly understand Einstein’s ideas behind relativity, magnetic fields, quantum mechanics, and his never ending search for the unified field theory, they can.  But unlike most Einstein biographies, this is only part of the book; another part is the human being behind the incredible brain.  While being a very kind man throughout his life, Einstein also had a thing for the ladies, divorcing his first wife, Maric, of many years due to his infidelity with his second wife and cousin, Elsa, who he would outlive.  Nevertheless, throughout his life Einstein always loved and cared for his children, even his first daughter with Maric who was given up for adoption and remains an obscure detail to history.  There was a time when he held little respect for Hans Albert, his son, who pursued a career in engineering; Einstein’s love belonged to the world of theory and contemplation and despised the more manual sciences.  Later in life, Hans and Albert became close once again and his son was by his side when Einstein died.

While not in the table of contents, the book can be divided into two parts, two worlds essentially for Einstein’s life.  The first is his growing up in Germany and then moving to Switzerland, Prague and Berlin.  His genius was there from the beginning, as he mastered calculus at the age of 15, and while working at a patent office began his work on relativity.  It took some years before Einstein was granted a professorship in Berlin among his colleagues.  It is during this time that Einstein was at his height and achieved a celebrity status that was very uncommon for a scientist, and where Hitler began his steady rise to power.  While Einstein adamantly declared himself without religion, he never considered himself an atheist but a scientist; however he always considered himself a member of the Jewish culture and with the changes taking place in Germany, he became a prominent spokesmen for the Zionist movement.  Sadly it came to the point where it simply wasn’t safe for Einstein to live in Germany anymore, as well as being forced out of his professorship, he made the decision to immigrate to the United States.  He had visited the country a number of times during his tours around the world as a proponent of relativity and to meet other scientists at conferences, and was a big supporter of the rights and freedoms inherent in the country.

This is where the second part of the book begins, pursuing Einstein’s life in the United States.  It was during this time that he sought out citizenship and left for Bermuda so that he could properly immigrate and go through the citizenship procedure.  An adamant pacifist throughout his life, as the horrific events taking place in Germany began to surface, Einstein became more political and outspoken towards the country of his birth.  And it was at this time the theory of the chain reaction was discussed between him and a scientist friend and the concept for the atomic bomb was developed.  While it has been thought by many that Einstein was linked with the atom bomb from its conception to its detonation, he was only involved at the theoretical stage, kept out from the further proceedings due to his Jewish and German history.  Once the full potential of the bomb was realized, Einstein went out of his way to voice his opinions on the effects of the bomb to the President, Defense Secretary, and anyone else who would listen.

After the end of the war and devastation caused by the bombs, Einstein became introverted, focusing more on his theoretical work and pulling away from the limelight.  For the rest of his life, to his last days, he calculated, contemplated, and searched for  the linking solution between relativity and quantum mechanics: the unified field theory that would explain the universe once and for all.

Einstein: His Life and Universe does not simply tell you Einstein’s life story and the incredible achievements he made, but instills a fascination and excitement with science in the reader.  It brings back potent ideas of the past during the age of discovery, as well as laying a foundation in science for the ideas and inventions of the future when, perhaps, the unified field theory may finally be discovered and fully realized.

AUDIOBOOK VERSION: The reader for the audiobook version for Einstein: His Life and Universe is Edward Hermann who starred in The Aviator, received an Emmy Award for his work on The Practice and appeared regularly on Gilmore Girls.  Hermann’s voice is like that of an enjoyable professor at a lecture, or a grandfather telling you an old story: soft and calming, but also clear and understandable.  It is perhaps in the audiobook version that the book is a lot less daunting and the listener is able to enjoy the story wherever they are.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 8th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

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