Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Einstein: His Life and Universe – Walter Isaacson *****

While it seems a statement of the obvious, this book is about Albert Einstein. It is not really about his famous equation E=mc2 although that is part of it. Neither is the book about Special or General Relativity, which is also part of it. This book is about the man, his youth, his family, his friendships and his relationships and not the least about his scientific genius and his discoveries. From his earliest childhood, to his miracle year of 1905 to his Nobel Prize to his political activism, Walter Isaacson discusses these diverse topics is an erudite yet thoroughly readable and entertaining book.
There are a few parts of the book that really stand out. Isaacson strives to explain those things that are most perplexing about Einstein. These include his statements about God and his stubbornness in refusing to accept quantum mechanics. He had been a steadfast believer that equations without physical meaning were not worthwhile yet in his later years; his struggle to develop a unified theory brought him away from physical meaning and more towards pure mathematics. Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of the book were those that discussed his relationships with his contemporaries such as Max Born and Niels Bohr.
Isaacson does a masterful job of being objective. Where Einstein’s brilliance in science shone through Isaacson described it yet where Einstein was incredibly naïve about politics, Isaacson described this too. And lest we think that the author idolized Einstein, his section on his failed relationships with women shows that the author saw Einstein as a mere mortal. Isaacson also has done the best job of any book I have read so far that explains the notion of curved space-time. He even takes a detour into non-Euclidean geometry, explaining how a triangle can have more than 180 degrees. No matter how much you suffered through high school or college physics, this book will open your eyes onto the brilliance that was Einstein. And for those of you who could deal with the physics here is another side of the man that you did not learn about in school
Some people might say that too much of his personal life is in the book but for these people I would say that there are a lot of books about Einstein’s science that might better serve them. One of these might be Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. I didn’t get a lot out of that book as the physics was too complicated so I recommend that one read Einstein’s biography first.
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Review by Stephen Goldberg

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