March 24, 2008

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His life and universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007. 674pp.

Walter Issacson's 2007 biography of Albert Einstein was one of the best reviewed books of that year, appearing on nearly all the year end lists of favourite science books. Humane, magisterial, accessible, comprehensive, engrossing, all words used to describe this book. And each of them is very well deserved. So, as you can imagine, I was delighted when I found the book under the christmas tree this past December. I started reading it almost immediately, amid the genial chaos of my sister's Ottawa home during the holiday, reading it slowly but surely over the next couple of months. This is a perfect book to read and savour over a leisurely read. As with most biographies, you know how it ends. As well, Isaacson goes into quite a bit of detail, so parts of it can be a bit slow.

Oddly, this happens to be the first real Einstein biography I've ever read. I've had the Clark biography knocking around the house for years but have never actually started it. Reading Isaacson's book also felt somewhat like a gap in my knowledge and reading history had been closed. It's a nice feeling.

Like I said, this book is a lot of things.

Engrossing. Now I mentioned a bit slow. That's true, a detailed biography can sometimes drag a bit and this was no different. However, for the most part I found the story quite fast paced, especially the section when Einstein's fame started to grow right through the start of WWII. As well, I found the last section, Einstein's final years in Princeton, hard to put down.

Comprehensive. Isaacson covers Einstein's youth, his important years as a Swiss patent examiner, a lot of detail about his miracle year of 1905, his struggles to land a secure academic job, his marital woes, his political views, his life in Berlin up until the Nazis took over, the war years as well as his post war life in Princeton.

Accessible. Isaacson hits the right balance when it comes to actually explaining Einstein's scientific ideas and the overall context of the scientific times. Since Einstein himself relied on very visual thought experiments to frame his theories, Isaacson takes advantage of those thought experiments to explain the theories to us.

Humane. This is a warts and all portrait of Einstein. His infidelity, absent mindedness, emotionally distant relationships with his familty, stubbornness, scientific mistakes, his resistance to quantum theory, all are covered. Granted, in many ways these failings are presented as quirky rather than damning, but we do get a pretty fair presentation of the human side of Einstein.

Magisterial. Human side, yes. But this is clearly in the "Great Man" tradition of scientific biography. We really finish the book feeling we know Einstein the genius. While still covering the all-too-human nature of Einstein, Isaacson still treats Einstein with kid gloves, glossing over some pretty significant controversies. Overall, it's a very gentle, respectful and even sentimental account of Einstein's life.

Borrow this book, buy it for yourself, get someone to buy it for you, buy it for your library's collection, recommend it for your local library's collection, but read it. It's a great book, a great introduction to the life of one the most interesting and important people of the last 100 or so years. It's rare to read a great big biography of a person and want to read more. This isn't the last Einstein book I'll read. It's only the first. I would heartily recommend it to any library that collects any scientific or general biography. It might be a bit weighty for high school libraries, but any level beyond that would be fine.


Michael Nielsen said...

John, if you haven't already read it, I very highly recommend Isaacson's bio of Franklin. This is probably my favourite biography, alongside James Gleick's biography of Feynman.

John Dupuis said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Michael. I might just pick it up at Indigo on the way home from work!