No one did more to shake up tradition than Albert Einstein. Darwin with creation, Freud with the human mind, and Einstein with physics showed the 19t/early 30th century world that all you thought you knew about yourself and your universe was most likely bunkum. Walter Isaacson’s bio is not as readable as his earlier one of Benjamin Franklin, but it’s much more incisive. I don’t know if that’s the result of Isaacson’s writing or of his subject. Physics and math are not so entertaining for me. When you tell me, for example, that a spinning disc will have a variable circumference but a constant radius, or that the universe is finite, but has no borders, my imagination falters. So my imagination did a lot of faltering during the talk about competing theories of math and physics, about why Einstein was averse to quantum theory and about his battles to prove it wrong or at least incomplete.
However, it wasn’t hard to get involved with his struggles to get employed despite his four 1905 papers that revolutionized physics. With his constant battles with anti-semitism. With his battles on the social and political fronts to sell pacifism and disarmament to a world that went through two world wars, the founding of Israel (He was a Zionist, but didn’t want a nation. Nationalism, he thought, plays into the worst aspects of human nature, and he feared that Israel might end up, well, just where it is.), and the fighting of a “police action” in Korea.
He was a fascinating set of contradictions. A loner and a rebel who craved acceptance. A gentle, self-aware, humorist. “My punishment for rebelling against authority is to become and authority,” he said once. A man who went for a long time without recognition. There was the job search I mentioned above. And the fact that his nobel prize didn’t come until seventeen years (1922) after his most momentous achievement was published, and then was awarded for work of lesser impact.
He was a scientist who did not do experiments. He did equations (though he counted himself not so hot at math) and he thought up problems for others to experiment on. He thought about what happens to gravity when a person was in a falling elevator. He thought about what happens to sound, time, weight and light when one person passes a point on a train, compared to what happened with all those elements when another person stands at that point watching the train pass. He asked questions, made suppositions that couldn’t be answered by Newton’s laws.
He was an isolated celebrity. Invited to give a fund-raising speech to help the
Zionist cause, he might show up and play the violin. Warm to humanity, he could be cold and distant to other humans, especially those in his own family. The antithesis of “sexy” he was involved with many women, married or not, well into his sixties.
Einstein, His Life and Universe is a long, rather difficult read. However, the rewards are numerous, often comic, including such great one-liners as (in response to a tediously long speech) “I think I’ve developed a new theory of eternity.” However, the theory Einstein most seriously did pursue unto his death bed was a unified field theory that could explain and predict all the magnetic/gravitational events in the cosmos. In a world of physics–the subatomic kind–which increasingly depends (we’re told here) on probabilities rather than certainties to describe experimental results, this became a rather quaint notion. But the idea of a universe where events happened by chance rather than by laws just didn’t make sense to Albert. “God doesn’t play dice,” he would say. However quaint he became, none of the advances in physics or space travel, or (to his great chagrin) explosives or a dozen other fields of the last hundred years could have happened without him. No one challenges that. As well, no one challenges his place in our world as the very image of an intellectual who also worked to better humanity. He was offered the chance to be the first president of Israel. An absurd idea, which he recognized immediately. When the man who picked up and delivered his letter of refusal walked away with it in hand, he realized himself how absurd the idea had been. The “president” had dressed.