Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Stephen Goldberg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…