CB Book #5 Einstein: His Life and Universe

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

“Life is like a bicycle. In order to keep your balance, you have to keep moving.” Albert Einstein wrote this in a letter to his younger son, Eduard. Einstein was known for these sorts of witty comments. He also had a talent for finding simplicity in a complex universe. When his son asked why he was famous, he answered, “When a beetle walks along a branch, he doesn’t notice when it curves. I was lucky enough to notice what the beetle did not.” Einstein’s faith that the answer to the universe’s complex problems were simple ones is what drove Einstein throughout his life. He referred to this faith in physics as religious in nature. Physics was his passion and his sanctuary from the painfully personal. However, Albert Einstein was a whole human. He had love and pain, flaws, and also strengths. Humans are complex and there usually isn’t a simple explanation. Walter Isaacson seems to understand this. Einstein: His Life and Universe isn’t about Einstein the genius or Einstein the celebrity; it’s about Einstein the person.

I should mention that on the surface, this book shouldn’t have interested me. I have never taken a physics class—not even in high school. Although, as a weather forecaster, I deal with it a little bit. That’s not to say that physics is uninteresting to me—I just don’t understand it. Before the Air Force put me in a crash course on meteorology, I didn’t think science and I would ever have a working relationship. Also, as much as I want to, I rarely finish a non-fiction book. I like the idea of non-fiction as I love learning new things, but I have a serious commitment issue with them. Halfway through, my eyes will wander over to the nearest fiction novel and that will be the end of it. Neither of these facts stopped me from devouring Isaacson’s 550 page book.

Albert Einstein was born and raised in Germany. Never a fan of Germany’s nationalistic and authoritarian culture of the time, he renounced his citizenship as soon as he could. His post high school education was spent at Zurich Polytechnic Institute in Switzerland. There’s a famous rumor that Einstein failed math. This rumor was established during Einstein’s life and even though he refuted it, this rumor persists even today. While Einstein was actually very good at math, he didn’t always appreciate it or feel it was important compared to his studies of physics. Therefore, he didn’t always think it was necessary to attend class. This fact didn’t help him to make friends with his professors. It also didn’t help that Einstein was strongly antiauthoritarian, especially in his younger years. So when none of his professors would recommend him during his job search, Einstein became the only person who graduated in his class who could not find a job teaching. He couldn’t even get a full time job teaching at a high school. This is how history churned out another of her great ironies. The man who managed to rock the world of physics and change the way we look at the universe did so while working at a patent office. The year Einstein wrote The Special Relativity Theory is known as his miracle year. This is the year that gave us one of the world’s most easily recognizable equations, E=MC2 (the implications of which gave rise to the idea of the atom bomb).

Einstein’s interesting life didn’t end the year he wrote his relativity theory. He continued to influence the physics world with his General Relativity Theory and then by constantly testing the new-fangled idea of quantum mechanics. He influenced the world in some political ways too. After WWI, he fought for passivism. After WWII made him a refugee for being Jewish, he fought for a supranational entity to govern so that nationalism could be suppressed when necessary. He was even offered the presidency of Israel.

Isaacson goes through all of this. He also delves into Einstein personal life quite a bit. The biography is loosely written in chronological order, making it story-like, but the chapters are dedicated to an aspect of his life instead of strictly covering an amount of years. Einstein’s physics is heavily peppered throughout the book. I was actually kind of glad that I read this book without knowing any physics. I felt like I was making the discoveries right along with Einstein. Isaacson knew his science and he had a lot of help from the professionals, so it was written well enough that I was able to understand all of it. Since, it’s also been a long time since I’ve had a class on post 19th century world history, this biography served as a lesson in physics and history for me.

Altogether, Walter Isaacson is a genuinely good writer. This biography was never boring. While it was long, it never felt long. It was obvious that Isaacson likes Einstein a lot, but he tried to be objective and didn’t gloss over his faults in character. Reading the biography was a bit like taking a long walk with someone as they told their life story. For the entire time I was reading it, I couldn’t get through a conversation with anyone without bringing up Einstein. (Just ask my annoyed friends.) Getting to the end of the book was like saying goodbye. It was a nice walk and I was a little sad to see it end. I’ll never look at the universe the same.

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