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.
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.
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.
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.
There has been quite a bit of attention on Einstein lately. Here are a few links to items I found during the time I was reading the book.