Sunday, May 20, 2007

Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

This warm and intimate biography of one of the great and iconic figures of the 20th century is a must read for anyone interested in science, creativity, or simply the lives of interesting people.
I read the great biography of Einstein by Ronald Clark in the early '70s, and I enjoyed that a lot, so I was, at first, a bit hesitant to take on this work. However, every time I saw Isaacson interviewed on TV, my interest went up a notch. Finally, I gave in and bought a copy -- I am glad I did!
The personal and (almost) secret information uncovered by a treasure trove of new documents recently released by Hebrew University in Israel about his mind, life, and experiences is awe-inspiring. Some of the inspirational things I learned about him include: an understanding of the quote "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Einstein's knowledge of math was limited and he frequently needed help, but his "thought experiments" formed the basis for most of his ground-breaking theories that almost single-handedly allowed him to invent the science of theoretical physics.
Another Einsteinian trait was his incredible power of concentration. He was able to juggle dense and complicated scientific concepts and simple tasks, such as occupying his infant child or walking alongside a friend and engaging in meaningless banter.
I first thought of this book as a candidate for my book club, but I am not so sure for a couple of reasons: it is long and might not appeal to those who do not enjoy reading about esoteric concepts of science. Although Isaacson's style make the latter accessible to anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of science, I can imagine it would be off-putting for many people.
I found several quotes particularly compelling. Repression of free thought was one of the social issues that engaged Einstein throughout his life. He wrote, "Any government is evil if it carries within it the tendency to deteriorate into tyranny. The danger of such deterioration is more acute in a country in which the government has authority not only over the armed forces but also every channel of education and information as well as over the existence of every single citizen" (Isaacson 497).
Another: "...unrestrained capitalism produced great disparities of wealth, cycles of boom and depression, and festering levels of unemployment. The system encouraged selfishness instead of cooperation, and acquiring wealth rather than serving others. People were educated for careers rather than for a love of work and creativity. And political parties became corrupted by political contributions from owners of great capital" (Isaacson 504).
Finally, in a speech quoted by Isaacson, Einstein said, "If we want to resist the powers that threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom, we must be clear what is at stake. Without such freedom, there would be no Shakespeare, no Goethe, no Newton, no Faraday, no Pasteur, no Lister" (423). As Isaacson says here, for Einstein, "Freedom was a foundation for creativity" (423)
5 stars!
--Chiron, 5/28/07

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