I’m sure that for many of us our first exposure to scientists we might embrace as role models (if not out-and-out idols) centered on the mythical figure of Albert Einstein. With his space-time coordinates spanning the interval from “11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 14, 1879, in Ulm” to “[s]hortly after one a.m. on Monday, April 18, 1955,” in Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein also belonged to a chronologically accessible generation, rendering his mythological status even more remarkable. Here was this marvelous theoretical physicist, musing about “[wanting] to know God’s thoughts — the rest is just details,” going his own way in face of all establishments, including some he himself had helped to found, smoking a pipe, wearing old sweatshirts, and sporting a mane of unruly hair that was the envy of many a teenager (myself included). Irresistible.
In my present middle age, I fear I have begun to lose the ability to gauge whether today’s aspiring scientists, in their teens or even their twenties, are as susceptible as I was when it comes to such (wholesome?) idolatry. I fear times have changed — too much. When I talk about the titans of modern physics in a course on the history of mathematics, or even in an honors seminar on the philosophy of science, the players that I mention generally fail to resonate, or even register, with my audience. In cynical moods I figure that this is yet another sign of the eclipse of our culture, with crass technology outpacing true science with a positive second derivative (and, yes, I am aware of the fact that I’m writing this review on a top-of-the-line desk-top computer my university’s technologists take care of for me…).
To get back to my rant, however, whom do our mathematical neophytes seek to emulate? Allowing for the fact that the printed word has largely been replaced by the pixel and the sound-byte, the prevailing culture that has captivated the young now comes equipped with a rather different set of idols to choose from: Matt Damon and Russell Crowe are much more meaningful on today’s movie screen than Einstein was on paper, some thirty-five years ago, and so two hours in a theater now seem to suffice to equip our aspiring scientists and mathematicians with that critical first glimpse of the ethos of the group they seek to join.
This having been said, i.e. times having so dramatically changed, Isaacson’s Einstein, His Life and Universe de facto addresses a very different audience than does, say, Einstein: The Life and Times, by Ronald W. Clark, going back to 1971 (a book I devoured at the speed of light when I was in high school). It is even the case that the author’s language reveals a time dependence: Clark’s giant opus is written in a far more formal style than Isaacson’s, which underscores the fact that even in the immediate wake of redoubtable sixties the status quo was holding on, even though the grip had slipped badly. But today a brave new world has indeed dawned and this leads to my first criticism of the book under review: in places, Isaacson’s presentation is, to my taste, too informal, too chatty, too colloquial. It makes for too facile a presentation, and a somewhat superficial one. And this is especially problematical in light of the fact that elsewhere in the book, Isaacson’s prose hits the mark right on. Consider e.g. the passage, below, concerning Ehrenfest.
Regarding the claim that some of Isaacson’s analysis is too facile, a case in point is his attempt to psychoanalyze Einstein and the men and women in his life. The young Einstein comes across more as a stultified and somewhat petty anti-authoritarian than as an intellectual of unparalleled originality on a quest for God’s own thoughts. Isaacson does take pains to stress the near-religious element in Einstein’s motivation for his work, and its dominance in his life, but the pictures he presents of, say, the ETH student or the patent-office clerk about to turn the world upside-down, are somewhat paradoxical in appearance.
My guess is that Isaacson simply fell victim to a disease that is now running rampant, namely, the popular tendency to characterize the scientist (let alone the mathematician) not just as an “arrested juvenile,” in Hilbert’s famous phrase, but as an idiot savant and something of a zoo-animal. For example, Einstein’s romance with Mileva Maric, his eventual wife and the mother of his illegitimate daughter, Lieserl, comes across as at the same time a flirtation between a pair of spoiled children and a torrid love affair. Perhaps the translation of their correspondence is partly at fault here; it is, for instance, absolutely impossible to imagine Maric using an early 20-th century German equivalent to the phrase, “Oh, it was really neat at the lecture of Professor Lenard yesterday…” I find this kind of phrasing jarring and out of place. It certainly leads to a confused picture of the young Einstein.
My second criticism of the book is perhaps linked to my first criticism in that it seems to me that Isaacson, as a journalist and biographer whose past work appears to have been focused on statesmen (as evidenced by his well-known biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger), does not have a good feeling for the academic climate in which Einstein existed, especially as a student.
We find, for example, the following remarks on pp. 54 - 55: “…the two physics professors at the Polytechnic [i.e. the ETH] were acutely aware of [Einstein’s] impudence but not of his genius. Getting a job with Professor Pernet, who had reprimanded him, was not even a consideration. As for Professor [Heinrich] Weber , he had developed such an allergy to Einstein that, when no other graduate students of the physics and math department were available to become his assistant, he instead hired two students from the engineering division… That left math professor Adolf Hurwitz… Unfortunately, [Einstein] had skipped most of Hurwitz’ classes, a slight that apparently had not been forgotten…”
In my opinion, the impression conveyed, both of the academic climate at the ETH and of its professors, specifically Hurwitz, does not agree with what is conveyed in other sources; indeed, this Hurwitz seems to conflict somewhat with the excessively kind scholar we meet in the pages of Constance Reid’s Hilbert. One should also bear in mind that class attendance per se was by no means as rigorous an affair at a Swiss university over a century ago as it is at a contemporary American university. (Indeed this distinction persists to this day.)
Well, enough of my curmudgeonly negativity: perhaps Isaacson’s chatty style is proper to a popular biography, and a juxtaposition of a contemporary sense of American education onto sporadic facts about Einstein at the ETH is, after all, not that big a problem. Indeed, if these features are overlooked (or even denied by some one less reactionary than myself), Einstein, His Life and Universe is a worthwhile book in view of its attention to detail and the presence of a lot of relatively new anecdotal material. On p. 421, for example, we learn of the dreadful and tragic details surrounding the suicide of Paul Ehrenfest, Einstein’s close friend. Here Isaacson’s prose is exceptionally moving and dramatic: “Having recently separated from his wife and collaborator, [Einstein’s] friend Paul Ehrenfest had gone to visit his 16-year-old son, who was in an Amsterdam institution with Down syndrome. He pulled out a gun, shot the boy in the face, raking out an eye but not killing him. Then he turned the gun on himself and committed suicide.” Heartwrenching.
Here is a lighter tale, displaying Isaacson’s laudable attention to detail: “Thus began a proliferation of popular tales… about Einstein’s love for music. One involved playing in a quartet with violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler. At a certain point they got out of sync. Kreisler turned to Einstein in mock exasperation. ‘What’s the matter professor, can’t you count?’” (Cf. p. 427)
And something truly revealing of Einstein as a Mensch : “When Marian Anderson, the black contralto, came to Princeton for a concert in 1937, the Nassau Inn refused her a room. So Einstein invited her to stay at his house on Mercer Street… Whenever she returned to Princeton, she stayed with Einstein, her last visit coming just two months before he died.” (Cf. p. 445)
Otherwise it’s all there, from the dramatic confirmation of general relativity during the 1919 solar eclipse to Einstein’s never-ending quest for a unified field theory, from Einstein’s denial that God plays dice with the world (in the face of Bohr, Heisenberg, and the quantum mechanics establishment) to his role in the inception of the Manhattan projects, and from his youth in antebellum Germany and Switzerland to his old age in the United States at the height of the Cold War.
There’s also a great deal of new material, so to speak, i.e. facts and accounts not easily found elsewhere (I think). For example, the discussion at the end of the book concerning what happened to Einstein’s brain after his death has to be read to be believed! So Einstein, His Life and Universe comes across as a good popular biography of a difficult (because scientific) subject, and, factoring in my earlier criticisms, I do recommend it to the readers of this column (primarily as light reading).
Finally, a truly marvelous episode (p. 262):
The skeptical Silberstein came up to Eddington and said that people believed that only three scientists in the world understood general relativity. He had been told that Eddington was one of them. The shy Quaker said nothing. ‘Don’t be so modest, Eddington!’ said Silberstein. Replied Eddington, ‘On the contrary. I’m just wondering who the third might be.’
Michael Berg is Professor of Mathematics at Loyola Marymount University in California.