Near the onset of the twenty-first century, the editors of Time magazine, which then included Walter Isaacson, spent considerable time, energy, and money in selecting the twentieth century’s most important person. Passing over a list of highly influential political, military, and religious leaders, they chose Albert Einstein, who had founded relativity theory and modern cosmology but had not led a great nation through crises and a world war, the way that Franklin D. Roosevelt had. Nevertheless, this choice was surprisingly well received. Indeed, Einstein’s status as a superstar scientist has continued, and, in 2005fifty years after his death and a hundred years after his “miracle year,” when he published a series of revolutionary papersan outpouring of books, articles, conferences, television programs, and other observances occurred, reminiscent of the 1959 celebrations of the centennial of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). Like Darwin, whose life and work have generated a prodigious number of scholarly and popular studies, Einstein is the source of an “Einstein industry,” whose workers have created multitudes of products ranging from biographies for children through motion pictures to multivolume studies on specialized topics related to his life, ideas, and humanitarian contributions.
With this immense number of Einstein books, including many biographies, the question naturally arises: Does the public need another Einstein biography? Isaacson justifies his book by his study of an abundance of new papers that became available in 2006 and by his skills as a biographer, exemplified in his 2003 work on Benjamin Franklin, who was a scientist, inventor, and statesman and who, like Einstein, was a highly creative individual. Since Isaacson is a journalist and not a scientist, he has wisely relied on the expertise of many physicists, historians of science, and other scholars and archivists to guide him through the complexities of Einstein’s scientific achievements. Those who vetted Isaacson’s technical sections have done an excellent job, for errors have been kept to a minimum.
Because of the control that Helen Dukas and Otto Nathan, Einstein’s literary executors, exercised over his private papers, they were able, for several decades after his death, to help create an idealized portrait of a “saintly scientist,” complete with halo of white hair. Biographies published during this time tended to be hagiographical, and it was not until well after these executors’ deaths that discomfiting personal papers began to appear. All of Einstein’s public and private papers will eventually be published in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein (1987-2006), of which ten volumes (of a projected twenty-five) have been issued. Scholars have also been able to study unpublished original materials in Israel or their copies in the United States. This has led to several de-idealized biographies, some of which have tended to the pathographical, in which Einstein’s flaws have been overemphasized. While not condoning his subject’s failings, Isaacson strives to understand them in the context of Einstein’s disregard for convention in both his scientific and personal life. Like previous biographers, he sees Einstein as a creator and a rebel, a loner and a humanitarian, a warmhearted individual with compassion for those suffering injustice who could be extremely coldhearted toward his wife and children.
Apparent contradictions surface even in his scientific life. This rebel against traditional physics refused to embrace the foundational ideas of the quantum mechanical revolution against causality and determinism, believing until his dying day that “God does not play dice” with the universe. Beneath these seeming contradictions, Isaacson discovers in Einstein a deep need to believe in a harmonious world of scientific laws, whose most incomprehensible attribute is their comprehensibility, particularly in the form of beautiful mathematical equations.
This quest for harmony underlying the apparent disharmonies of the physical world can be seen in the five radically innovative papers he wrote in his annus mirabilis (“wonderful year”) of 1905. Even though there is nothing new in Isaacson’s rendering of this oft-told tale, and even though some reviewers found fault with his dispensing with diagrams in...
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