Review: Einstein: His Life and Universe
When asked who my “hero” or “role model” is, my answer is and shall forever be “none” – but Einstein has always ranked a close second. He’s always been an individual that held a particular fascination for me, and someone in whom I’ve always found a lot to admire. So it was with a lot of interest that I picked up the biography Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, and I’m happy to say it does justice to my almost-hero. It really is an engaging account of his life, and shows why Einstein is such an iconic figure of science.
For those who might be wondering, the book does include a great deal of scientific discussion and explanation, as it’s impossible to separate from Einstein’s life and key to understanding him. Suffice to say that I think that Isaacson does an excellent job explaining it in an accessible matter and integrating it into the larger story. His descriptions of Einstein’s insights are among the clearest that I’ve ever read, effectively explaining both the ideas and what made those ideas revolutionary. Most interesting to me was that the author placed the theory of relativity in context – both the historical context of scientific thought at the time, and more importantly perhaps, the context of Einstein’s life. The theory is explained not as an end in of itself, but for what his methods and insights reveal about his thought processes and character.
(If you’re curious about the science, Einstein’s own book on the subject Relativity: The Special and General Theory was written for the layman and is very readable.)
After all, the book is a biography first and foremost, and the main thrust is to study the human being rather than the physics. And it’s the descriptions of Einstein the person that make it such a wonderful read. As I said above, I’ve always been fascinated by Einstein – he’s a remarkable individual, and this biography illustrates why.
Naturally, the most fascinating aspect of Einstein is his genius. This is a man who in 1905 revolutionized our understanding of the universe, while working as a patent clerk. The author makes clear that though this was his crowning achievement that was never quite matched by anything later in his career, his unparalleled genius is still ever present throughout his life and work.
I wish I could say that I identify with this aspect of the man, but alas, I don’t – it’s people like him that make me feel deeply humbled and highly aware the limits of my own mind and intelligence. What I do identify strongly with is his humanity. I share (or at least, hold a respect for) many of his ideas about politics, religion, and his philosophy of science and beliefs about nature. Einstein was a fierce individualist, nonconformist, as well as a kind, humble, and thoughtful human being. He’s at least as notable for his idealism and political beliefs as he is for his science (Einstein’s essay Why Socialism? is another good read). This biography captures all those traits, as well as offers a path to understanding how and why they manifested in him as they did.
What I perhaps liked most about the biography itself was simply the humanizing treatment of its subject. Einstein was a real person, and like all people he had his personality flaws. He was not infallible, and certainly not when it came to his interpersonal relationships. The author did not portray him as a hero, a God of science, or perfect genius, but as a complete human being. I feel that discussing these human weaknesses helped to underscore his strengths. More historical figures should get such a treatment, as it makes them far easier to identify with. It’s much easier to aspire to greatness when we realize that even the greatest among us were far from perfect.
Overall, it’s readable, enjoyable, and interesting, and comes with a high recommendation from me.