Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Complete portrait of Einstein emerges in Isaacson biography

Books now read in ’07: 54
Title: Einstein
Author: Walter Isaacson
Genre: Biography
Date Completed: 6-11
Pages: 551

I’m not allergic to fulsome biographies of worthy figures, but it's no secret that I greatly prefer the condensed version as exemplified by the Penguin Lives series or the Eminent Lives series from HarperCollins.

That said, if there had to be a new, massive biography of anyone Albert Einstein certainly qualifies. And, since someone had to write such a biography, we’d certainly root for Walter Isaacson, who did a notable job on his biography of Benjamin Franklin.

The difficulty with any biography of Einstein – at least for me – is the science: Quantum mechanics, the unified field theory, the general and special theories of relativity, metric tensors and spooky action at a distance. It’s all, well, a bit heady and, try as I might, indecipherable.

Wade through the physics and mathematics and you’re rewarded with a fascinating portrait of Einstein’s life – his emotional distance from his first wife and children, his progression in identifying himself as a Jew, his embrace of public adulation and publicity and his often unwelcome forays into world politics.

Isaacson makes it clear that Einstein, particularly in his youth, was something of a rebel and a non-conformist. He disliked authority and “bristled at all forms of tyranny over free minds.” Einstein, writes Isaacson, believed that freedom was the lifeblood of creativity and that creativity required a willingness to not conform.

Two nice passages from the final pages of Isaacson’s biography:

“The world has seen a lot of impudent geniuses. What made Einstein special was his mind and soul were tempered by his humility. He could be serenely self-confident in his lonely course yet also humbly awed by the beauty of nature’s handiwork.”

“For some people, miracles serve as evident of God’s existence. For Einstein it was the absence of miracles that reflected divine providence. The fact that the cosmos is comprehensible, that it follows laws, is worthy of awe. This is the defining quality of a ‘God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists’.”

It’s easy to see, even now, why Einstein was a source of adulation and awe. Isaacson’s biography is a fitting tribute to this great man.

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