Book Review: Einstein: His Life and Universe, by Walter Isaacson

Mrs. PyMOTW gave me a copy of Einstein: His Life and Universe by
Walter Isaacson for Christmas last year, and I’ve finally managed to
find time to read it. If you are interested in history, science, and
Einstein in particular, I highly recommend the book.

General Notes

It took a couple of weeks of reading in the evenings, but that was
mostly short-burst sessions; the prose flows very smoothly. Isaacson
is a good story teller and has created an engaging view of Eintstein
as a man and as a scientist.

The book is organized in a semi-chronological way, with some
overlapping sections focusing on different aspects of the same time
period. This allows Isaacson to tell all of the stories clearly, yet
stitch them together by referring back to earlier quotes and
events. The end result is a coherent narrative that exposes the
personal side of Einstein as much as his professional or public
sides. I found this writing style easy to follow and quite effective.

Politics

Einstein was more politically active than I realized; I learned about
his strong ethical nature, and especially his activism against war and
racism. His rejection of tribalism and nationalism, along with the
regimented militarism of Germany’s schools at the time, led him to
become a pacifist, and then eventually support World War II to fight
fascism. While he had some socialist beliefs, he also rejected the
communism practiced in the Soviet Union, since it oppressed the people
there. He said, “Any government is evil if it carries within it the
tendency to deteriorate into tyranny”. After he settled in Princeton,
he repeatedly said that he would not live in a country where people
lacked the freedom of speech and thought.

From an early age, Einstein supported the establishment of a strong
global government as a way to prevent war. After the development of
nuclear weapons, he felt even more strongly that a true transnational
governing body should have control over such destructive power.

Science

Of course no biography of Einstein would be complete without
descriptions of his major scientific contributions. It is clear that
Isaacson enjoyed researching the scientific side of his subject as
much as, or more than, his personal life. He uses many of Einstein’s
own thought experiments to describe the work in terms that are easy
for a non-physicist to understand. Although true understanding
requires complex mathematics, this book does not.