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Friday, October 27, 2017

Review: Einstein

Einstein is Isaacson's biography of the famous scientist. It covers all aspects of his life, from his birth, the Annus Mirabilis which shaped modern physics, and his personal life, including his relationship with his first and second wife, his two sons, and the strange situation in which a brilliant scientist could not get a job as an academic but instead ended up in the Swiss Patent office.

Along the way, Isaacson debunks many of the myths about Einstein: including that he was a poor student. He was an excellent student, always finishing at the top or near the top of his classes, even in subjects that were not necessarily of interest to him. What caused him to have to scrounge around for a patent office job was his clashes with his teachers at the school that would eventually become ETH.

Things I didn't know included that he contractually gave up his Nobel prize winning to his first wife in exchange for a divorce. He also apparently had a succession of affairs, though Isaacson doesn't delve into details to all of them. I also got a big kick out of recognizing the many places that Einstein and his wife visited where I'd also been to: Heidelberg, Munich, and of course, the Alps, where Einstein took many hiking vacations.

Isaacson does a good job of portraying Einstein's unique approach to science, pointing out that even though Lorentz, Planck, and several other scientists all had the same clues (or earlier access to the same clues) that he had about the nature of relativity, it took Einstein to put it all together. Furthermore, Einstein worked alone much of the time:
He also spoke of the need for solitude. “The monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind,” he said, and he repeated a suggestion he had made when younger that scientists might be employed as lighthouse keepers so they could “devote themselves undisturbed” to thinking. It was a revealing remark. For Einstein, science was a solitary pursuit, and he seemed not to realize that for others it could be far more fruitful when pursued collaboratively. In Copenhagen and elsewhere, the quantum mechanics team had been building on one another’s ideas with a frenzy. But Einstein’s great breakthroughs had been those that could be done, with perhaps just an occasional sounding board and mathematical assistant, by someone in a Bern patent office, the garret of a Berlin apartment, or a lighthouse. (Pg. 423)
Of course, it would be wrong to omit Einstein's politics in a complete biography, and Isaacson does not shy from it, including Einstein's immigration to the USA:
 When he first arrived in Princeton, Einstein had been impressed that America was, or could be, a land free of the rigid class hierarchies and servility in Europe. But what grew to impress him more—and what made him fundamentally such a good American but also a controversial one—was the country’s tolerance of free thought, free speech, and nonconformist beliefs. That had been a touchstone of his science, and now it was a touchstone of his citizenship. (Pg. 479)
When reading biographies, one often is secretly disappointed that his heroes might turn out to have feet of clay. In the case of Einstein, I don't think that's going to happen. I highly recommend this book.

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