Walter Isaacson

Einstein: His Life and Universe

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Einstein: His Life and Universe Summary

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Einstein: His Life and Universe is a 2007 biography about the famous physicist, Albert Einstein, written by journalist Walter Isaacson. It closely examines the life of Einstein, assembling numerous primary and secondary sources to explore the development of his his personality and scientific genius. At the same time, it casts him within the larger contexts of World War II, Jewish persecution, the popularization of quantum mechanics, and the invention of the atomic bomb. Isaacson makes considerable effort to debunk popular misconceptions about Einstein, showing how he was skeptical about the trajectories of the scientific community, and even those which he inspired. The biography also explores some of the unintended consequences of his genius, such as the application of nuclear physics to weapons of mass destruction. Isaacson’s book is therefore as much a literary and political appeal to reclaim Einstein’s identity from its historical misrepresentations as it is a traditional biographical narrative. For its depth and clarity of characterization, the book received a number of awards and was met with widespread readership.

Isaacson first explores Einstein’s early years. Starting at the age of three or four, he began to develop a sense of scientific curiosity that, by all accounts, would endure for the rest of his life. His affinity for science was influenced by several formative events. The first known event occurred when Einstein was four. While laying in bed with a fever, his father gave him a magnetic compass. As he toyed with it in bed, he was overwhelmed with wonder at the fact that it moved according to forces that he couldn’t see with his eyes. His second childhood renaissance came from an exposure to music. His mother had him learn to play the violin, a pastime in which he learned that certain linguistically inexpressible thoughts could be encoded in the grammatically freer language of music. Later in life, while thinking about physics, Einstein would play the violin to help process his own thoughts.

When Einstein was a bit older, he met a medical student named Max Talmey. Talmey became a kind of mentor for Einstein, and introduced him to great works of literature, including those of the philosopher Immanuel Kant and scientist Aaron Bernstein. Meanwhile, Einstein struggled with his Jewish identity as the sociopolitical environment of Germany became tense and anti semitic rhetoric proliferated decades before World War II. He was often an outcast in school, and dealt with it by pulling pranks. Ironically, his feelings of exclusion worked to motivate him to go down his own life path and reject sources of authority.

Einstein’s early and middle academic life played out in Switzerland. In 1903, he married his first wife, Mileva Marić, whom he would later divorce just after the first World War. During his time in Switzerland he developed much of his thought on what he called the photoelectric effect; that is, the tendency of material to emit quantities of individual particles called photons when exposed to light waves. These insights formed the basis for the Nobel Prize Committee’s decision to award Einstein the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. Einstein did not develop the photoelectric effect theory alone, but relied on the discoveries of Phillip Lenard and Max Planck. Einstein’s Nobel is often mistaken to be based on his theory of special relativity, which argues that the speed of light is constant and, as a corollary, that time is relative based on one’s position and velocity. Strangely, Einstein’s photoelectric effect was only well received by the scientific community over a decade after its origination in 1905.

After divorcing Marić, Einstein quickly married his first cousin, Elsa Löwenthal, with whom he had been carrying on an affair for seven years. After fleeing Nazi persecution and being forced to leave Germany, he spent most of the remainder of his life in the United States at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. His research on subatomic particles helped make possible the invention of the atom bomb, for which Einstein was horrified and ashamed. He spent the latter part of his life continuing to do research and produce groundbreaking theories, but also as a staunch pacifist and political activist.

Einstein produced work all the way through the time he was hospitalized in 1955,after suffering an aneurysm in his stomach. To his family’s protest, he declined surgical treatment, declaring that he had spent his allotted time on earth. In his final week alive, he wrote twelve pages of equations and a final personal statement.

Isaacson emphasizes that Einstein loved truth and knowledge, from his earliest tinkerings with simple toys until his last moment on earth surrounded by an enormous legacy of achievement and a loving extended family. Paying attention to his failures as well as his successes, and never settling for historical details that are not proven or obtained rigorously, Isaacson illuminates the complex personality that backgrounded Einstein’s beautiful conception of the world.