Einstein: His Life and Universe. By Walter Isaacson. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Though many have been fascinated by the mention of Albert Einstein and believed his name was synonymous with “genius”, Walter Isaacson’s retelling of his story got rave reviews for his biography of Einstein received when it was published shortly after the centennial celebration of Einstein’s “Miracle Year of 1905”. During that year Einstein wrote five scientific papers that revolutionized science in general and theoretical physics in particular. The whole world is fascinated by the equation E=mc2 and while the meaning of the terms may be known, there are few who understand the earthshaking significance of the formula and how it has changed both science and the knowledge of our contemporary world.
Einstein published more than 300 scientific papers and 50 non-scientific works. On December 5, 2014 more than 30,000 unique documents were made public for scientists university students. Isaacson was able to consult these writings and verify, through renowned scientists, his reading of these materials and the facts of the biography.
One of the salient traits Isaacson discovers is Einstein’s skepticism and tenaciousness in the face of theories that were considered sacrosanct in the scientific world. Newtonian physics held sway for generations, particularly the ideas of absolute time and absolute space. These were the building blocks of theoretical physics before Einstein. The problem for Einstein was that the theories did not match the scientific facts he saw in his own work as a specialist in electro-magnetism for which he earned degrees at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and later obtained his doctoral degree at the University of Zurich (1901). Isaacson describes Einstein as a genius who had phenomenal concentration and the ability to grasp the interrelatedness of many difficult concepts in simple mathematical formulas. Thus Einstein codified the theory of relativity and its relation to the speed of light for moving objects, among other concepts.
In a telling chapter, Isaacson grasped one of the foundations of Einstein’s genius and an insight into his faith. To those who said he was a non-believer, he rebutted that he was a non-practicing believer. Science is not opposed to faith; it is opposed to foolishness. The order of the universe was something he marveled at. He was fond of saying that God does not “play dice”. There is an order in the universe and the possibility of constantly discovering surprises. This awe and reverence for the divine is what drove his search in the scientific world. The universe is not the result of a “crap game”. The universe is very orderly and has its laws. These are visible through the microscope or the telescope and can be grasped by the human mind. Einstein was interested in both the atom and the universe.
Isaacson describes Einstein not as a scientific priest, but as “a rebel with reverence for the harmony of nature. He rated imagination higher than knowledge. And it was his fascination with a compass given to him by his father, that kept his attention endlessly as a boy which showed that the secret of his genius was his concentration and his ability to study for a life-time the possibility of creating a formula that would encapsulate the secrets of creation itself.