Saturday, April 7, 2007

Albert Einstein at first glance appears to be one of those Great Figures of History that one would like to meet once, but not get to know all that well. Walter Isaacson changes that with “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” an entertaining description of a complex man who could keep as life-long loyalists even the people he betrayed.

Readers may be daunted by the notion that to plumb Einstein’s personality one has to master his epochal theoretical breakthroughs in physics. This book shows us the reverse is true, that Einstein’s visionary discoveries could only have been achieved by a rebellious dreamer who saw the pictures of his theories long before he came up with the mathematical explanations. First that man, then the challenges.

Mr. Isaacson allows himself the dangerous (for a serious biographer) luxury of liking Einstein while not being blinded by his many flaws. He kept many friends from early childhood all his life. Even scientific critics kept a grudging pocket of affection for this quarrelsome, rude man whose battle cry was “Long live impudence! It is my guardian angel in this world.”

Fortunately, Mr. Isaacson’s story is light on mathematics; there are only two equations in the book — the instantly recognized but rarely understood E = mc2 theory of relativity, and the field equation of gravitation, hard to reproduce because of the Greek symbols it contains. Yet the reader easily sees how these theories changed the relatively new science of physics and yanked it, in a few short years, out of the dusty towers of the academy and into the far corners of outer space.

As Mr. Isaacson describes Einstein’s tale, “[it] encompasses the vast sweep of modern science from the infinitesimal to the infinite, from the emission of photons to the expansion of the cosmos. A century after his great triumphs, we are still living in Einstein’s universe, one defined on the macro scale by his theory of relativity and on the micro scale by a quantum mechanics that has proven durable even as it remains disconcerting.

“His fingerprints are all over today’s technologies. Photoelectric cells and lasers, nuclear power and fiber optics, space travel and even semiconductors all trace back to his theories. He signed the letter to Franklin Roosevelt warning that it may be possible to build an atom bomb, and the letters of his famed equation relating energy to mass hover in our minds when we picture the resulting mushroom cloud.”

This book is narrative nonfiction at its best, and that is all the more remarkable since it is only the fourth book by Mr. Isaacson in the 20 years since he and Evan Thomas co-authored “The Wise Men: Six Men and the World They Made.” He followed on his own with “Kissinger: A Biography” in 1992 and “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” in 2003, now the standard cradle-to-the-grave history of that fascinating polymath.

Einstein is all the more remarkable since narrative nonfiction is only part of the author’s life, a writing career that has seen him become the 14th editor of Time magazine in 1996 and CEO of the CNN network in 2001. Since then he has eased off a bit, serving as CEO of the Aspen Institute here in Washington and vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority to aid his hometown of New Orleans.

What the book also does is move the author up from the ranks of skilled narrator of history — one who seeks the story behind historical facts — and into the top tier of the craft to join the likes of David McCulloch and Doris Kerns Goodwin.

Einstein helped Mr. Isaacson considerably by generating and holding on to an archive of personal correspondence — much of which is disclosed here for the first time. This trove of personal comment and conversation with lovers, scientific friends and family adds the context that makes the man’s more public writings accessible.

One of the remarkable facets of this tale is how problematic it was that Einstein didn’t become a Swiss patent regulatory official; there were just so many turning points where his life could have gone another way.

Einstein was born into a family of non-observant Jews who achieved marginal successes manufacturing electric lighting systems, which were transforming cities throughout Germany, Austria and Italy. It is not true that he was considered a dunce as a schoolboy. Rather, young Albert chafed at the rigid discipline of the German school curriculum and did well in only those subjects that caught his highly visual mind.

He also fought with his schoolmasters and, later in Switzerland, with the professors at the modest technical institute where he sought the academic credentials that would have assured him a lifetime of security and research. Not surprisingly, he achieved neither an advanced degree nor post-graduate employment. An irony is that one of the professors who most sharply rejected him would nominate him for the Nobel Prize 10 years later.

Yet it was one of those fortuitous turning points that gave Albert Einstein the opportunity to become Einstein. A friend wangled him a job as a low-ranking inspector of patent applications for the Swiss patent regulator, a dull job with tedious requirements he could easily fulfill in a few hours, thereby leaving the rest of the day for the kind of scientific exploration he so loved. He also was fortunate that his superiors turned a charitable blind eye to his off-the-books work.

This was in 1902, just two years after physicist Lord Kelvin told the British Association for the Advancement of Science, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Kelvin looked to be right. Since Isaac Newton had developed his laws of a mechanical universe in the 17th century, only Michael Faraday’s discoveries of electrical and magnetic fields in the early 1800s and James Clerk Maxwell’s later refinements of field theory could truly be said to be revolutionary.

But in 1905, Albert Einstein launched a frenzy of publication between March and September from which physics still has not recovered. Without the standing of a doctorate and with a somewhat questionable personal reputation, he managed to publish no fewer than four papers, each a bombshell.

First, there was his truly revolutionary argument that light comes not in a steady wave but in tiny packets called quanta and later photons, which could be measured. The next two papers explored the actions and measurement of the invisible molecules and atoms that make up our world. Any of these discoveries would make a reputation for any other physicist.

And finally, in September 1905 came the assertion that became his identity — that the mass of a body is a measure of its energy content; or, the energy (E) of any object equals its mass (m) times the square of the speed of light (186,000 miles per second, or c) — E = mc2. Other physicists took note (most importantly Germany’s Max Planck) and by the early 1920s no other scientist, including Sigmund Freud, was such a world symbol of intellectual superiority.

For the next 50 years Einstein had all he and the rest of the physics community could do to map and exploit the new lands he had discovered in those five short months and four relatively brief papers. This biography follows it all, the failed marriage and problematic relationships, the quarrels, the politics of atomic strategy and the global arms race, a tale leavened by the man’s reserve of impish humor and staggering vision. It is a tale well told and well worth reading.

James Srodes’ latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

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