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May 11 2016

Einstein — His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

“Did he have an interesting life?” asked a friend when I mentioned that I had started reading Einstein — His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. Yes, he did, very interesting, and Isaacson is an able chronicler. More interesting than previously known, in fact; Isaacson used sources that were newly available at the time of writing (the book was published in 2007) to show that Einstein fathered a daughter with his first wife, Mileva Maric, prior to their marriage. The two went to considerable lengths to ensure that there was no official record of the girl, and both Mileva’s pregnancy and the birth are mentioned only in a very few letters. From the fragmentary evidence that survives, it is not clear whether the girl was given up for adoption, or if she died of scarlet fever in 1903 while in the care of friends or relatives.

From the historical point of view, the discussion of the unknown daughter, referred to as “Lieserl” in the few bits of remaining correspondence, is the most significant new element of this biography. Some FBI files were also newly accessible after 50 years had passed, and Isaacson uses them to show how the Hoover-era Bureau suspected Einstein of subversive tendencies. They also show how a quasi-fascist organization first called Einstein to the FBI’s attention and the bureaucratic after-effects of such a denunciation. Neither of these aspects reflects well on the FBI’s role in a free society, nor in its judgement about political matters. That, unfortunately, is a tale with many chapters.

As the foregoing makes clear, Isaacson writes as much about the private and political Einstein as about the scientist. In his telling, they are all of a piece. Einstein was reflexively anti-authoritarian from an early age, and it was a matter of personality and disposition as much as education. Indeed, his non-conforming personality drove his education, causing him difficulty in the systems of the German-speaking world in the late nineteenth century, but ultimately leading to his momentous insights in physics.

Now that his archives have been completely opened, it is possible to explore how the private side of Einstein—his nonconformist personality, his instincts as a rebel, his curiosity, his passions and detachments—intertwined with his political side and his scientific side. Knowing about the man helps us understand the wellsprings of his science, and vice versa. Character and imagination and creative genius were all related, as if part of some unified field. (p. 2)

Isaacson adds, “Einstein, however, was not truly a relativist… Beneath all of his theories, including relativity, was a quest for invariants, certainties, and absolutes. There was a harmonious reality underlying the laws of the universe, Einstein felt, and the goal of science was to discover it.” (p. 3) His scientific career involved great creativity, and sometimes hard competition with fellow discoverers. As the twentieth century advanced, he thought that physics was moving away from the underlying reality of the universe, and he was never fully on board with the quantum mechanics revolution that he did so much to help launch. “He would spend the next three decades [after 1925] … stubbornly criticizing what he regarded as the incompleteness of quantum mechanics while attempting to subsume it into a unified field theory.” (p. 4)

That Einstein was an outlier in his later years, working separately from the heady advances in quantum mechanics and particle theory, troubled him no more than his unorthodoxy as a young physicist. Less, actually, for by then he was materially secure and had made contributions to science that have very few parallels in all of history.

Einstein remained consistent in his willingness to be a serenely amused loner who was comfortable not conforming. Independent in his thinking, he was driven by an imagination that broke from the confines of conventional wisdom. He was that odd breed, a reverential rebel, and he was guided by a faith, which he wore lightly and with a twinkle in his eye, in a God who would not play dice by allowing things to happen by chance. (p. 4)

The same insouciance informed his politics. “His impudent instincts, which served him so well as a young scientist, made him allergic to nationalism, militarism, and anything that smacked of a herd mentality. And until Hitler caused him to revise his geopolitical equations, he was an instinctive pacifist who celebrated resistance to war.” (p. 4)

Measurements taken during a 1919 eclipse of the sun confirmed some counterintuitive aspects of his physical theories, and rocketed him to international fame and, eventually, fortune. “Adding to his aura was his simple humanity. His inner security was tempered by the humility that comes from being awed by nature. He could be detached and aloof from those close to him, but toward mankind in general he exuded a true kindness and gentle compassion.” (p. 5) Einstein was the very model of the absent-minded professor, though Isaacson finds that he also enjoyed playing some of the roles the public ascribed to him, and played up to them at times. A reputation for absent-mindedness no doubt made his life easier when other people were willing, as his second wife was, to attend to the mundane details of life. Isaacson makes a compelling case that Einstein could be a warm person, and that he enjoyed close friendships throughout his life; he was also very prickly with Mileva once it became clear to him that their marriage was over, and he was only intermittently close to his two sons. Physics could be a welcome refuge from the storm and stress of other people.

He had a mixed record as a teacher. He was not a star lecturer, except on a few occasions. In his seminars, he welcomed people who were interested in coming along and exploring the subtle structure of the universe. Students who expected to receive wisdom went away puzzled; those who sat down and worked with him found it a much more congenial experience.

Isaacson writes that

His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. (p. 7)

The book itself pursues the arguments sketched above from Isaacson’s introduction. The early chapters alternate between detailing his life and exploring his scientific contributions. The prose is lucid and clear, even when explaining matters a complex as black-box radiation and general relativity. Isaacson draws liberally on both Einstein’s papers and secondary sources, although he has to rely on translations of items that only exist in German.

Throughout the biography, Isaacson has an eye for the telling anecdote, and the colorful exchange. Einstein’s celebrity made him much sought after, not least by universities engaging in their own forms of competition. In the 1920s, he had built up a relationship with Caltech, whose president Robert A. Millikan, a fellow physicist, was “building Caltech into one of the world’s preeminent scientific institutions.” (p. 373)

Despite all they had in common, Millikan and Einstein were different enough in their personal outlooks that they were destined to have an awkward relationship. Millikan was so conservative scientifically that he resisted Einstein’s interpretation of the photoelectric effect and his dismissal of the ether even after they were apparently verified by his own experiments. And he was even more conservative politically. A robust and athletic son of an Iowa preacher, he had a penchant for patriotic militarism that was as Einstein’s aversion to it.
Moreover, Millikan was enhancing Caltech through hefty donations from like-minded conservatives. Einstein’s pacifist and socialist sentiments unnerved many of them, and they urged Millikan to restrain him from making pronouncements [during a 1930 visit] on earthly rather than cosmic issues. As Major General Amos Fried put it, they must avoid “aiding and abetting the teaching of treason to the youth of this country by being hosts to Dr. Albert Einstein.” (p. 373)

Two years later, in December 1932, Einstein was headed to California again, on a tour before taking up a part-time position at the new Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, in addition to his existing duties in Berlin and with the Prussian Academy of Sciences, where he had been recruited by no less a figure than Max Planck. Einstein never saw Germany again. While he was away, Hitler and the Nazis seized power. In early March 1933, his apartment was raided twice. His stepdaughter and her husband spirited Einstein’s papers to the French embassy, and shortly thereafter escaped to Holland. Nazis ransacked the apartment three more times within a week. Despite a variety of offers from around Europe, Einstein settled in America, in Princeton, for the rest of his life. In 1940, he voluntarily took up American citizenship, in addition to his Swiss passport.

When he first arrived in Princeton, Einstein had been impressed that America was, or could be, a land free of the rigid class hierarchies and servility in Europe. But what grew to impress him more—and what made him fundamentally such a good American but also a controversial one—was the country’s tolerance of free thought, free speech, and nonconformist beliefs. That had been a touchstone of his science, and now it was a touchstone of his citizenship. (p. 479)

Isaacson also describes the role that Einstein played in starting the Manhattan Project. Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, both refugees from Hungary, saw how atomic fission with uranium might lead to an explosive nuclear chain reaction. In the summer of 1939, they showed their work to Einstein, having tracked him down during a vacation on Long Island. Einstein quickly grasped the implications, and began looking for ways to bring it to the attention of democratic governments. A friend of a friend of Szilard’s knew President Roosevelt. It took until October 1939, by which time war in Europe had begun, to get an appointment with Roosevelt and convey a letter from Einstein detailing both the potential for a bomb and the danger that Nazi Germany would get there first. By the winter of 1940, the American government was still making haste slowly, and it took another letter from Einstein in March of that year emphasizing what he had heard of work with uranium being done in Berlin for Roosevelt to call a conference designed to spur greater urgency. Once the Manhattan Project was underway, Einstein would have surmised that the disappearance of so many physicists to obscure towns across the US mean that bomb-making was underway. He was never officially asked to join, nor did he request to enlist, though he did once contribute expertise to “a process of gaseous diffusion in which uranium was converted into a gas and forced through filters.” (p. 481) Einstein came to regret his role in the creation of the atomic bomb, but he did not know that the brilliant physicists left behind in Berlin would be unable (or perhaps unwilling) to solve the practical problems of building the bomb.

In the postwar years, Einstein was scathing about McCarthyism, but lived to see American democracy right itself. He remained vaguely socialist in convictions, but too dogmatically undogmatic to toe any party line. Hoover’s FBI failed to see this important distinction. One of the footnotes in Isaacson’s biography contains an echo of these shadow controversies. “Fred Jerome’s book The Einstein File offers an analysis [of the FBI’s evaluation of Einstein]. Jerome says that when making Einstein the Person of the Century, Time [magazine] refrained from noting that he was a socialist: “As if the executives at Time decided to go so far but no farther, their article makes no mention of Einstein’s socialist convictions.” As the person who was the magazine’s managing editor then [writes Isaacson], I can attest that the omission may indeed have been a lapse on our part, but it was not the result of a policy decision.” (p. 633)

Throughout his life, Einstein answered many queries from the public at large. Among the letters he received in England [while he was a refugee in 1933, before settling in Princeton] was one from a man who had a theory that gravity meant that as the earth rotated people were sometimes upside down or horizontal. Perhaps that led people to do foolish things, he speculated, like falling in love. “Falling in love is not the most stupid thing that people do,” Einstein scribbled on the letter, “but gravitation cannot be held responsible for it.” (p. 423)

Yes, an interesting life, admirably chronicled by Walter Isaacson.

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2016/05/11/einstein-his-life-and-universe-by-walter-isaacson/

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