Thursday, February 2, 2012

Just Finished: Einstein--His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson was my pick for the Biography category of the Mixing It Up challenge. 

From the jacket:  "...this is the first full biography of Albert Einstein since all of his papers have become available.  How did his mind work?  What made him a genius?  Isaacson's biography shows how his scientific imagination sprang from the rebellious nature of his personality.  His fascinating story is a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom."

I rarely read biographies, but chose this one mainly because I had heard good things about Walter Isaacson, the author.  I was not disappointed.  Isaacson tells the story of Einstein's life in an engaging, affectionate way, examining both his fine qualities and his flaws, showing how each played its part in the course of his life.

One of the first things we learn about Einstein is that he had a pronounced dislike of authority, nationalism, and any kind of pressure to conform.  As a young man, he renounced his German citizenship to become a Swiss because he hated the Prussian militaristic culture.  His approach to his science reflected this trait, too--he spent his life bucking whatever the current trend of scientific thinking was.  This resulted early on in his stunning relativity theory, but seems to have been a handicap later in life, as he spent the rest of his life struggling to find what other scientists did not think possible or even necessary:  a unified theory that would reconcile relativity with the new field of quantum theory.  He bucked social trends as an American citizen too, refusing to cooperate with the McCarthy witchhunts, disgusted with attempts to curtail freedom of thought.

The allergy to authority went hand in hand with a strong sense of social justice. He consistently spoke against class distinctions, disparities of wealth, and racism.  He admired the abolition of social classes in the Soviet Union even while deploring its repressive government.  He publicly supported racial tolerance in America, offering the contralto Marian Anderson a place to stay in his own home when the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to admit her.  He even wrote on behalf of the Arabs who were being displaced by increasing immigration to Palestine and later Israel.

Greatly concerned with humanity on a mass scale, Einstein was fairly detached in his personal relationships.  He became close to his elder son only late in life, after they both had emigrated to America.  Married twice and something of a womanizer, he seems to have resisted emotional commitments as he resisted other types of ties.  He had a lifelong pattern of dealing with family tensions by escaping into his scientific work.

Isaacson's book does what, for me, a biography should:  it reveals his character, shows how his work was informed by his character, and how both his work and his character were shaped by the times and places in which he lived.

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