Sunday, August 14, 2011

'Einstein: His Life and Universe

When he was a year old, Albert Einstein's family moved to Munich, where his father began work in his brother's gas and electrical supply company. Munich was one of the earliest European cities to switch to electric lights. The city had a very small minority of German Jews such as the Einsteins.

At four or five, sick in bed, the young Einstein was given a compass, its needle controlled by the invisible field of magnetism. It produced in him a sense of wonder that, according to biographer Walter Isaacson, stayed with him through life. He sought a particularly visual understanding of problems, even when young; relied on the approach later, in his greatest work.

In a relatively quick burst of work in the early 20th Century, the brilliant but lowly Zurich patent clerk Albert Einstein upended the conventional Newtonian physics of his time – this despite a mixed academic record, plenty of setbacks associated with anti-Semitism, and a troubled bohemian marriage. He won the Noble Prize, he became a very famous refugee from Hitler, he came to embody the absent minded scientific genius for many in his adopted country, and he wrestled and failed to achieve a career capping unified theory of physics in his last years at Princeton.

Walter Isaacson's ''Einstein: His Life and Universe'' presents the scientific giant as a person of radical, massive and nuanced intellect. Isaacson's Einstein is not too big on the human issues – but he often is found trying pretty hard to live on earth compassionately with others.

In the end, Einstein in this biography does not give enough considerate attention to his immediate family. But he helps neighborhood children with homework, sails like a punter, and befriends many people from many strata. His unique early penchant for cleverly envisioning new windows into the fundamental principles of space and time, his later cranky ability in a long era of apparent decline to perform the role of gadfly in the quantum ointment – this is shown in the context of the chores of his living – his troubled quest for tenure, his agnostic endorsement of Zionism, his betrothal to a Bohemian bride, and his marriage to a frumpy house frau cousin.

There is not a whole lot for the general history buff here. Just the occasional brush, such as Einstein's poignant encounter with Leo Szilard on Long Island in 1939 – this being the tet-a-tet which led to Einstein's letter to Roosevelt and to the advent of the U.S. nuclear bomb program.

If you are a generalist ready for a steady, determined depiction of Einstein's science you should likely find Walter Isaacon's "Einstein'' a satisfying read. If you already have the physics down you may enjoy the look provided into the human side of Einstein. It is difficult to do the physics and the history while illustrating the vagaries of the early 20th Century inhabitant Einstein's personal life, and the goofy subsequent public genius's odd navigation – but Isaacson comes near the mark and his effort is worth your time.

I have a long-ago almost genetic level, memory of Einstein's death being reported on the Today show. Black and white. On a cathode ray tube. It runs weirdly parallel with some flotsam – a report picturing a house being demolished. Over time the swinging wrecking ball in my thought experiment has in its turn aligned with the swinging bucket of Newton, which Einstein in his great burst of vision once re-pictured in absolute space. It could all have been a dream. These words are written on a summer night as the Red Sox play in what the announcer describes as a 'soup.'

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